Interviews with Boschies in Energy & Environment

2015 Winter Newsletter

We are happy to share reflections on US-German energy and environmental relations from a number of Bosch alumni. Those who participated include:

Amity Balbutin-Burnham                  Jessica Lewis                                Curtis Seymour

XXIV, 2007-2008                                   XXVIII, 2011-2012                    XXVII, 2010-2011

Clare Waldmann                                    Annie Mark-Westfall               Jaimes Valdez

XXXI, 2014-2015                                  XXXI, 2014-2015                       XXIX, 2012-2013


How has your exposure to Germany impacted the way you see and work on energy and environmental issues in the United States?

Amity: My exposure to Germany as a Bosch Fellow helps me bring a transatlantic view to my renewable energy work in the United States. I currently work at EDF Renewable Energy as Project Development Manager for large solar projects in the US.  Électricité de France is the world’s largest producer of electricity.  EDF Renewable Energy, a subsidiary of EDF Group, is one of the largest renewable energy developers in North America with 6 gigawatts (GW) of wind, solar, biomass, biogas, and storage projects developed and an installed capacity of 3.2 GW.  In August, 2015 EDF Renewable Energy announced the acquisition of OwnEnergy, a national developer of mid-sized wind projects. OwnEnergy has built a robust portfolio of development assets through their innovative local partner business model.  Scott Kuhlke, Bosch XXVI, of OwnEnergy, is now part of EDF Renewable Energy based in Brooklyn.  I look forward to working with Scott more in the new year.

Jessica: My exposure to Germany came at a fascinating time for the country, energy-wise. I arrived in the fall of 2011, after the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan earlier in the year had paved the way for a whiplash-inducing retreat from nuclear power in Germany. While working at the third-largest utility company at the time, Energie Baden-Wuerttemberg, and at the BMU, or Ministry for the Environment, I saw how German companies and German policymakers were committed to pivoting away from nuclear energy. The country’s attempt to replace nuclear power with renewable energy sources—even though sometimes they fell short of their goals—was a fascinating experiment in reshaping an entire country’s energy mix. In talking with German colleagues, their conviction to move to a nuclear-free future really made me want to reexamine my own beliefs on nuclear power, having grown up in a town built around a nuclear power plant. When I returned to the United States, I had an opportunity to work at a nuclear power plant and my experience in Germany certainly colored my experience in the U.S. I found the nuclear industry to have definite pros and cons, but my experience in Germany made me more conscious of the cons associated with nuclear power and the advantages of moving to a society based on renewable energy.

Jaimes at Bavaria Solarpark

Jaimes at Bavaria Solarpark

Jaimes: In many ways, the time that I spent working directly on energy issues in Germany served to refine my view of what is possible, from a technological and political perspective. Meaningful infrastructure changes are indeed actionable in a short time period, given political will and the subsequent economic motivation. Really, living in the Pacific Northwest, this should not have been a surprise given the rapid development that built the regional hydroelectric industry during the New Deal era of the 1930s. However, the shift towards a largely decentralized energy economy is at the heart of much of the German energy policy, where customers take a more active role in managing, producing, and efficiently utilizing electricity. While on my year there I met dozens of individuals who were either direct owners of renewable projects, or had become members of Bürgerenergiegenossenschaften, renewable energy cooperatives based on democratic principles of shared risk, reward and ownership. Incumbent energy industries have inherent economic advantage and political inertia, and it was refreshing to see that policies could bring significant numbers of new players and their incremental capital into the market.

These experiences, coupled with the active engagement I saw regarding regional energy planning, validated a perspective that people, not technologies, are at the center of solving energy issues. Making sure that individuals can directly participate and benefit in the new energy economy over the long term is a key to building support. Citizens need to see the opportunity for benefit, not just bear the costs. This has been useful for my work on regional energy issues in the Northwest, where I work on regulatory and legislative issues that will have impacts on the choices available for electric customers in the years to come.


What should vs. what could come out of the UNFCCC COP21 meeting in Paris, particularly regarding the role of the US and Germany?

Amity: At COP21 in Paris, there are significant divisions over how the commitments made to cut carbon (limit of 2C increase) in this deal will be formatted and reviewed. Despite these many differences, there is a widespread feeling that compromises will be found and promises made.

President Obama, at COP21 in Paris, urged for a meaningful deal stating “Climate change could define the contours of this century more than any other (challenge). I came here personally to say the United States not only recognizes the problem but is committed to do something about it.”

The issues of climate change can be addressed by applying steady pressure and new ideas.  Both US and Germany can support with both steady pressure for change and new innovations.

Curtis: COP21 has the potential to be more significant than previous COPs largely because two of the most significant holdouts from previous COPs, the U.S. and China, are going to Paris with meaningful national commitments to stand behind. Nevertheless, expectations of achieving a legally binding agreement should be measured, as the U.S. will not be able to be party to any such agreement, which would require Congressional approval.


What is the future for the Energiewende?

Curtis: Friction. Grinding against the wheels of progress are outdated utility business models and grid infrastructure that will continue to plague Germany’s four major power utilities. Just this week, RWE announced that it is spinning off its renewables business from its regulated asset business, following a similar decision last year by E.on. This is a positive sign that utilities are beginning to see business opportunities in the Energiewende, but there will continue to be hard times ahead for utilities and their shareholders as Germany presses to retire both its coal and nuclear generating fleets.

Clare: The sea! Germany has significant plans for offshore wind generation, and has has better than expected production results at the first two offshore wind parks. However, there are still issues that need to be worked out such as cost (offshore wind still costs more than onshore wind production) and getting the power to shore through cable development.

EnergiewendeJaimes: While making predictions is always dangerous, I have high confidence that the Energiewende will continue, and that Germany will meet goals in many sectors, even if the overall +80% reduction in emissions by 2050 is going to be challenging. Generally, the Energiewende appears to be on track, and though early gains are always the easiest to achieve, many key pieces are in place for continued success. Germany has taken an increasingly rationed approach to the annual growth of renewables with policy revisions made in 2013, and implemented tools to encourage more active management and timing of renewable electricity production. There is plenty of renewable resource capacity still to be built. The constraints appear to be mostly in transmission and storage/balancing issues within the national grid and with neighboring energy markets. The key is going to be flexibility, and if not addressed, there will be additional challenges as the last nuclear plants are phased out in the next 7 years. Coal will sadly continue to play a major role well into the next decade, with small towns scraped off the map as mere overburden in order to get to the coal below. This reliance on dirty domestic fossil fuel energy will dampen and change though, with an increased focus on dynamic operation in response to renewable generation, rather than baseload generation.

With regard to the needed electric transmission infrastructure, there appears to be a rise of NIMBYism that accompanies many large projects, with a push for expensive and time-intensive undergrounding of high-voltage transmission lines. In order for the Energiewende to succeed, there needs to be public acceptance that energy infrastructure should be visible, while taking into account areas of particular cultural or natural importance. As years progress, there will also need to be greater reliance on energy storage, both for short and long term periods. For long term storage, power-to-gas technology offers the greatest opportunity, allowing renewable electricity to be converted into fuel, to be either burned directly for heat or used to generate electricity at a later time, and directly displacing imported natural gas.   If we see steep cost reductions in battery storage technologies in the coming decade similar to that of the solar photovoltaics, then much of the short-term balancing and load management can be done by engaging customers to adopt these technologies and regulate their demand. New buildings may soon have much of this integrated into construction, which normalizes the adoption of new systems and reducces costs compared to retrofits.

However, while much of the focus and news is often on the electricity sector, the hardest targets for Germany to meet are in transportation fuels reductions. I am not as optimistic about the short term gains to be made, as we are not seeing rapid electrification and de-carbonization of the private vehicle fleet. The reduction in primary energy consumption is likely going to need to come from major changes to commercial fleets, continued efficiency improvements in fuel economy, and a shift of even more freight away from trucks and on to electrically-powered trains. All of these changes in electricity, building science and transport sectors provide opportunities for Germany to remain on the cutting edge of deploying technological innovations in society, and furthering the global market for these products. The 80% total emissions reduction goal is ambitious, and I predict that German politicians and citizens will remain committed to its attainment.


In an era where energy and environmental issues are increasingly tied to global security, what role do you envision for US-German cooperation in addressing these problems?

Curtis: Germany and parts of the U.S. like California will be leaders in solving the technical challenges of rebuilding energy systems to run primarily on clean, renewable sources. These pioneering solutions are likely to be replicated by other regions and countries of the world as they prove to be not only environmentally necessary, but economically sound.


Based upon your experience as a Bosch Fellow, how do you think cultural differences between the US and Germany influence action on environmental issues?

Curtis: Germany enjoys a political consensus on the need to transform the energy system away from dependence on fossil fuels. Not so in the U.S., where the Senate just last month, in a largely symbolic act, voted to block Obama’s Clean Power Plan. Even though Obama will veto the Senate’s action, the future of the Clean Power Plan and other pieces of Obama’s climate action agenda remain uncertain, with the 2016 election and Supreme Court challenges looming.

Annie: Germans seem to inherently value the environment. A tree or a tiger is valuable in its own right. As a symbol of the importance of the Environment, it is managed at the ministerial level, and the Environment Ministry (BMUB) that is relatively strong, compared to the U.S. model which has no equivalent. Americans, on the other hand, seem to seek the more relative value of the environment. An elephant is not as important in its own right as it is important to the ecotourism industry, and to its broader role in nature of dispersing seeds and shaping forest growth patterns.

These over-generalizations carry over to the two countries’ international aid programs. Germany is the largest bilateral donor to biodiversity conservation; however, they shy away from any suggestion of leadership. The U.S., on the other hand, seems most often to insist on playing a leadership role quite directly. German Development Cooperation is implemented by two government-owned entities – the KfW Development Bank implements Financial Cooperation, and the government-owned non-profit agency GIZ implements Technical Cooperation. In other words, these two state agencies have a monopoly on implementing Germany’s bilateral aid program. In contrast, the U.S. system adheres to our free market principles, and implementing entities are selected through “full and open competition.”  A seemingly infinite number of private companies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) submit applications to compete for U.S. Government grants and contracts.

Jessica: One of the most interesting cultural differences between the U.S. and Germany on environmental issues arose when we visited the BMW corporate offices in Munich as fellows. In our discussion with BMW executives, they mentioned a key difference in the U.S. is that people are expected to be 100 percent committed in every aspect of their lives to environmental issues, or else others will view them as a hypocrite. For example, if I call myself an environmentalist and I don’t drive a Prius or an all-electric car, but rather a gas-guzzling SUV, then Americans might view me as a hypocrite and not take my views on environmental issues as seriously. Germans, on the other hand, the BMW executives said, see no issue with being committed to environmental issues as a matter of national policy and agenda and still drive their BMWs, without being disavowed of the title of environmentalist. Separating the national policy and agenda from the individual level of commitment may have helped Germany achieve its environmental goals with more political ease than in the U.S.


Did your experience in Germany as a Bosch Fellow change the direction of your professional path, either within the same field or to a related professional field?

Annie: I was a wildlife/government affairs generalist before my Bosch year, but came out with a real focus and specialization on Germany’s Development Cooperation Program. One of the benefits of my Bosch year was recognizing what my marketable skills are, and understanding my professional value independent of organizational knowledge.

After the Bosch year, I returned to my same employer (the Wildlife Conservation Society), but at a higher level, in a new position to the organization. My focus is working with the German government, to identify partnership opportunities to conserve wildlife. It is really rewarding to be able to draw upon my Stage placements very directly in my daily work. I can continue building on the relationships I established at BMZ and KfW, and I communicate auf Deutsch several times a month.

Clare on a Wattwanderung across the Wattenmeer.

Clare on a Wattwanderung across the Wattenmeer.

Clare: Yes! It got me out of the California-bubble I was previously working in, which was a really great place for the early part of my career, but put me on a somewhat limited career trajectory. Many of the professional connections I made during my Bosch Fellowship were due to high interest in California’s environmental leadership. During the fellowship, my professional horizons expanded both geographically to the EU- and global levels, as well as thematically through my stage at GIZ which exposed me to international development, a field I had a long-standing interest in but without the concrete experience. The experience gained during the fellowship landed me in my current role, where I am developing projects with a broader, cross-sectorial focus in the EU coastal and marine realms. This allows me to work not only in the conservation arena, but also in ‘blue growth’ or sustainable development and planning of maritime uses.

Jessica: The Bosch Fellowship definitely changed the direction of my professional path. As I noted earlier, I took a job at a nuclear power plant as a result of my experience in Germany during 2011-2012. Now, I work at the Government Accountability Office on a range of national issues. The last published report (GAO-15-520) I contributed to analyzed renewable energy projects on federal lands in the U.S and the bonds energy companies were required to hold for those projects (i.e., if an energy company goes bankrupt, does the U.S. government hold enough money in the form of bonds to restore the land to its original state). Having only had experience in the oil and gas sector prior to going to Germany as a Bosch Fellow, the Stages gave me more experience in the areas of renewable energy and, tangentially, in nuclear power, both of which I have worked in since the fellowship ended.


Germany is party to several global environmental agreements (UN Convention on Biological Diversity, UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, etc) whereas the US is not. How does this affect your work?

Curtis: The lack of political consensus in the US on most environmental issues will continue to be an impediment to US participation in global treaties that require Senate approval.

Nevertheless, meaningful contributions to global environmental problems can be made in the U.S.  States continue to be leaders in clean energy and climate policy, lighting a path for others states, the federal government, and even other countries. Innovation thrives in many of these same places, driving scale and cost reductions in technology solutions that have global implications.

Annie: Germany makes the largest bilateral investment in biodiversity conservation, at 500 million Euros/year. Because Germany is party to the CBD, the funds must contribute towards the Aichi Biodiversity Targets. That is a measure that simply does not exist for U.S. government funding. Also, in general, Germany positions itself more as a partner – for example, Germany’s bilateral program is called Development Cooperation whereas the U.S. gives foreign assistance.  Because German funding is a part of these agreements and partnerships, it becomes much more important to coordinate very closely with partner countries. While that is arguably also true for US Government investments, our foreign assistance program is under the Department of State and is a foreign policy tool.

These approaches shape the types and locations of partnerships that we can build.


What do you think are the primary climate change measures that can benefit most from increased US-German cooperation?

Curtis: Many of technological innovations that will enable the transformation of energy systems away from fossil fuels will come out of Germany and the U.S. Cooperation in research and development and high level expert exchanges between the U.S. and Germany can accelerate climate solutions.


In your post-fellowship experience, are you engaged in any transatlantic knowledge exchange initiatives to share best practices between the United States and Germany on environment and energy issues?

Curtis: During my fellowship, I worked on a project at the BMU called the TransAtlantic Climate Bridge, helping to organize two exchanges between Californian and German policy makers. Since returning I have been involved in several additional exchanges and continue to work with colleagues in Germany on issues related to power system transformation and integrating high levels of renewable energy.


One thing you wish Americans knew about German policy towards energy and the environment?

Clare: Germany certainly has a well-deserved reputation for being a global leader on energy and environment issues, as demonstrated through the Energiewende and large financial commitments to global biodiversity conservation, among numerous other examples. But I was surprised to learn that Germany has some of the world’s largest open pit lignite (brown coal) mines in the world, and that everything is not as “green” as it initially seems. It would be interesting to compare how the coal industries in the US and Germany are adapting to the rise of renewable energy – a topic for a future Boschie!

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