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Leap of Faith

By Jack Rivkin

Late last month, the German parliament approved the government’s plan to shut down all of the country’s nuclear plants by 2022. At their peak, the plants produced 27.5 percent of Germany’s electricity. Renewable energy currently comprises only around 17.5 percent. Filling that gap is one part of the plan to have 80 percent of all the country’s electrical energy come from non-carbon sources by 2050, in addition to a 50 percent reduction in consumption.  That is a big gap to fill in a short period of time, and the plan has German industry and its electrical utilities screaming.

While one could question eliminating nuclear from the clean energy picture, what Germany is doing will very likely produce an acceleration in innovation, efficiency and the development of intellectual property that will

1) keep Germany’s energy costs from rising;

2) expand Germany’s trade surplus;

3) increase Germany’s share of global intellectual property; and

4) reduce the world’s CO2 emissions more than would have occurred otherwise.

This is an audacious step, requiring a leap of faith that German engineers and scientists will accelerate the pace of economic renewable energy development, and that Germany’s industries and its people will further increase the efficiency of energy usage. I think they will do it, primarily because they have to—and they have the talent to do it. This may be one of the most exciting moves by a government to date in the renewable energy field—and a positive move on emissions.

In the meantime, the United States is looking for more carbon in less mature formations to fulfill its energy needs. We’ve basically found all the pooled oil and gas that took 300 million years or more to produce, and we are now going after “tight” carbon in shale formations as our solution to meeting energy demand and reducing our energy dependence. While shale gas will most likely produce fewer emissions than coal over the 100-year life of a formation, it still produces carbon and requires the fairly aggressive use of other resources, primarily water, and some real brute force in liberating the carbon. This, too, is a bold step with some big environmental risks associated with it—a step that might prove to be in the wrong direction. (I will take a closer look at that question in a future post.) The move by Germany is an exciting one, but it saddens me to see the innovation and aggressive steps to produce the lower carbon levels we need taking place elsewhere.

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Jack Rivkin is the co-author of Risk and Reward—Venture Capital and the Making of America's Great Industries (Random House). After a long career in the investment industry, Rivkin retired in 2008 as executive vice president, chief investment officer and head of private asset management of Neuberger Berman. He holds several board positions with a wide variety of companies worldwide including Idealab, Dale Carnegie, and the Neuberger Berman Mutual Funds. A version of this post was originally published on his blog, ContraCarbon.

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user Veejay Hast]

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