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The Breakthrough Institute – Why The Hot Air?

I’ve recently stumbled upon a number of articles by the Breakthrough Institute (BTI) that aimed at discrediting renewable energy on the one hand and on the other preaching about nuclear energy as the solution for the global energy crisis of the 21st century. With their hearts and minds pre-set on pushing their narrative, that some kind of a nuclear salvation is being held back by leftish environmentalists (sinister!), the so called German “Energiewende” (Energy Transition) has apparently become a regular target of the Breakthrough Institute staff’s publications.


Public displays of ignorance and misrepresentation of facts are neither new nor rare when commentators try to discredit the feasibility of a shift to a renewable energy supply. This most regulary includes unscientific pandering to conventional wisdom. In the case of the Breakthrough Institute’s recent articles on Germany and solar energy, all of the above are certainly the case.

The Straw Men Army

As I mentioned at the top, I am writing this because I’ve recently stumbled upon a couple of Breakthrough Institute articles — I wasn’t too familiar with the “Breakthrough Institute” before that. In the middle of May, the Breakthrough Institute (BTI) published an article comparing the alleged costs of what its analysts call “the German solar program” and the costs of a Finnish nuclear project currently under construction and which is plagued by cost overruns. A couple of weeks later, Michael Shellenberger (BTI President) & Ted Nordhaus (BTI Chairman) published an article defending the previous article against unspecified criticism and making a couple of incredibly silly claims in the process.


Reason I wrote this post.

So here’s a roundup of a few straw men, dubious connections, distortions, and stuff that’s plain and simply silly.

#1 – Irrelevant “Cost” Comparison

[unscientific pandering to conventional wisdom]

Comparing the alleged gross-price tag of Germany’s solar policy with a Finnish nuclear project might seem like a very clever thing to do, but in reality it’s simply silly. The comparison suggests a non-existent equality in circumstances, goals, and preconditions that simply isn’t there.

What I am trying to say is, that if you want to judge two policies or projects, you should judge them foremost by their goals and motivations, not by an unrelated number game.

The motivation and the goals of Germany’s unprecedented solar policy are neither a secret nor hard to research (EEG 2004, Article 1). For decades, the main problem of solar had been identified as it being too expensive to deploy. But, at the same time, only deployment and mass production would lead to significant cost reductions. To overcome this barrier, the German parliament adapted the Feed-in-Tariff (FiT) in 2004 to incentivize the installation of solar PV systems, thus creating the first uncapped mass market for solar power. It was the goal to reduce the technology’s cost through deployment, innovation, and market forces within the solar industry. The plan has succeeded a lot faster than anticipated and the cost of PV is expected to decline by at least another 50% by 2020.


The developement of feed-in-tariff rates for solar power (actual production costs / kWh are abit lower).

In contrast, the goal of the Finnish nuclear power plant had been to have a fully operational 1.6 GW Generation III+ nuclear reactor by 2009 for $4.2 billion. Since the decision for the new nuclear plant was made in 2000, that would have been 5 years of planing and permitting and 4 years of construction. Since the current estimate is that it might enter commercial operation in 2015 — 10 years after construction began — and at a price of approximately $11.1 billion, it can with no doubt be considered a massive failure.

Everyone can judge for themselves what they want to think about the two political projects.

  • On one side, a German policy that may have come with a price tag to consumers, but has successfully triggered the global commercialization and industrialization of an energy technology that sat dormant for far too long. (In addition, Germany’s solar industry — far more than solar cell manufacturing — still provides 100,000 high-paying jobs and is registering more patents than ever before.)
  • On the other side, the newest commercial product of the veteran nuclear industry failing miserably at delivering what it promised.

But there’s no arguing about the outcome. In most places around the world (including Germany), installing solar technology onsite can now lower the bill for households, businesses, and even industries. It takes only a few weeks/months from making the investment decision to producing a relatively certain monthly amount of peak-load power.

For any new nuclear power project, there is no such certainty nor is there a similar market-driven investment incentive at the horizon — even after almost 60 years of commercial nuclear power. (This is all something the BTI didn’t care to mention.)

I won’t delve into how nuclear and solar operate in different technological and economic paradigms at this point, but it should be obvious to everyone that neither solar panels nor a nuclear reactor represent a complete energy system. 

#2 – A Dubious Source as the Main Witness

[Questionable Motives]

I was not surprised to find the “100 Billion Euro disaster” paper written by Dr. Frondel of the RWI at the heart of the the first BTI story. What’s amusing is the naïve sort of “a German wrote it, it must be true!” attitude that is rather prevalent in many articles/comments that quote his work. Rarely does any journalist follow the money or intentions, nor does the American press care about the criticism of Dr. Frondels’ work.

In reality, Dr. Frondels’ analysis is nothing more than a simple calculation of a price tag. He then chooses to equate the price tag with macroeconomic costs, by overly simplifying and ignoring the complexity of the economic reality. Basically, the study was written to give lazy journalists easy-to-copy-&-paste headlines and snippets in order to attack solar energy (which is controversial, of course, which brings in readers and makes the journalists look “critical” and “smart”).

Undoubtedly, those economic interests that have commissioned the RWI study and fund the work of people like Dr.Frondel are very pleased to see the BTI making such “good” and uncritical use of their investments.

I’ve created this little infrographic below to illustrate some background information on the history of Dr. Frondels’ study and other somewhat related information. See what you can find.



To give you an even better understanding of the general nature of Dr. Frondels’ work in recent years, I would just like to refer you to the RWI’s publication called “Positionen Nr. 45” from April 2011. The title of this particular RWI paper was, “The Cost Of Climate Protection – A Look At Electricity Prices.” In it, Dr. Frondel comes to the surprising (Who pays the piper, calls the tune) conclusion that German household electricity prices in 2011 could have remained at their 1998 levels if it wasn’t for all that nasty climate action!

I personally find it fascinating how the BTI chooses to utilize Dr. Frondels’ work to discredit renewable energy and attack people like Bill McKibben, while at the very same time, the whole Keystone XL decision is an increasingly important issue in the US.

Well, whatever reasons the BTI may have for its recent urge to make renewables look bad, it did choose not to mention the dubious connections of its main source on the alleged economics of Germany’s renewable energy policy. Its reasoning for withholding this relevant background information is obvious though: A study comissioned by the American Oil & Gas industry, written by a guy who is involved with a German version of the Heartland Institute simply isn’t a very convincing main witness when you are try to make a simplistic case against renewables in favor of nuclear energy.

#3 – The Emissions Blame Game

[Misrepresenting & Oversimplifying]

The good folks at the BTI love to foster the myth that less nuclear must lead to higher emissions, and that Germany’s decision to phase out nuclear will kill the climate. Unfortunately, there is no denying the fact that emissions did in fact rise in 2012.

However, not mentioning the colder-than-usual winter (including the related French electricity crisis in February 2012) and the increase of coal-powered electricity exports due to the collapse of the European emissions trading system is a willful choice.

For the record, with 317 Mio tons of CO2, the 2012 emissions from electricity generation are still well below the 5-year pre-recession average (2003-2007) of 330 Mio tons. If you consider that the German economy made a strong comeback after the global recession in 2009, with record-breaking employment and export levels, this becomes even more significant (i.e. energy productivity increased).

In fact, 2012 emissions per kWh were almost 10% lower compared to 2002, which was the year with the highest nuclear output in Germany. More info on total GHG emissions (not only the 30% caused by electricity generation) is included below.

#4 – Renewables have had no impact!

[Clown Territory Loss of Reality Disorder(?) / Pandering to conventional wisdom]

In their opinion piece titled “No Solar Way Around It,” Shellenberger and Nordhaus get carried away and make the following remark:

“In reality, there’s little evidence that renewables have supplanted — rather than supplemented — fossil fuel production anywhere in the world. Whatever their merits as innovation policy, Germany’s enormous solar investments have had little discernible impact on carbon emissions.” — No Solar Way Around It, BTI

This statement is a showcase example of the the smartass microcosm the BTI president has chosen to populate with his fact-free wisdom. I don’t know what he was trying to say, but the only thing he could have hoped to accomplish is to reinforce anti-renewable mythology. By doing so, he obviously disqualified himself as a reasonable member of the energy debate. But I am hopeful that he’ll correct his claim….

Here are the facts, plain and simple, for you to judge:

Impact of Renewable Energy on the Energy Supply and GHG-Emissions

Impact of Renewable Energy on the Energy Supply and GHG-Emissions. Source: UBA, AGEB, BMWi

During the first 12 years of this century, the final energy supplied by renewable energy sources has more than tripled. Final energy is what is left of primary energy after conversion and transmission losses. At the same time, efficiency increases have reduced the overall final energy demand, despite a growing economy. Both developments did not only compensate for the decline of the marginal nuclear contribution, but they also supplanted about 9.3% fossil fuel final energy consumption since the year 2000.

The Decline of Fossil Energy

The Decline of Fossil Energy. Source: AGEB

Fossil primary energy consumption (energy content of the fuel input of a countries energy system) declined by 11.5% since 2000 and by 18%  since 1990. Which in turn explains the decline of greenhouse gas emissions by 10.5% over the same period and a decline of 25.5% compared to 1990.

It’s important to keep in mind that the German “Energiewende” (energy policy portfolio) is about improving energy efficiency (since the late 1970s) and increasing the share of renewable energy sources (proactively since 2000) at the same time. While the growth of renewables in the electricity sector gets a lot of attention, it’s by no means the only aspect of the “Energiewende”.

Considering this and the facts mentioned before, it’s only fair to notice that the “Energiewende” has accomplished significantly more during just the last 12 years, than the quite substantial nuclear program did since its inception.


These small details (easy-to-access facts) are a good transition to my next and final point in this post.

#5 – The Germans don’t know what they are doing!

[The Straw Giant]

“What that means is that if Germany doubled the amount of solar, as it intends to do, there might be a few hours or even days every year where the country gets 100 percent of its electricity from solar, even though solar only provides 10 percent of its annual electricity needs.

What happens beyond that is anyone’s guess. Some say Germany could sell its power to other countries, but this would mean other countries couldn’t move to solar since Germany would provide electricity at the same hours it would seek to unload it on their neighbors.” — No Solar Way Around It, BTI

Germany-BismarckSuggesting that the German long-term energy strategy is somewhat irrational is a very common thread of most BTI attacks on the “German Energiewende.” They want you to believe that Germany – the fourth largest economy of the world and the country that is excessively proud of its engineering art and long history of industrial innovation — is wandering into some kind of fantasy land. In my opinion, this claim alone should make even uninformed readers pause and question what the BTI is suggesting.

Unfortunately, the BTI is probably somewhat successful in reinforcing conventional wisdom on renewable energy and its “green hippies are naïve” narrative, simply because most people usually don’t get quality information about these rather complex issues. This tilts the game in favour of people voicing simplistic messages (e.g. if you care about climate change => go nuclear!).

The BTI might also be successful in confusing the public because it works so hard to misrepresent Germany’s energy strategy (one of the world’s leading positive examples of strong renewable energy policy), arguing almost exclusively against its little straw men army instead of discussing reality. Is it doing so out of ignorance or because reality is infringing on its late 1980s-style nuclear-salvation narrative? I don’t know.

What I do know is that it spends a lot of time, energy, and money suggesting that Germany’s game plan is to simply go solar (with a little wind added in) or that Germany hasn’t run the numbers.

Obviously all those German scientists and engineers, policy leaders, and business leaders didn’t check the numbers, because they didn’t come to the conclusion that there has to be a nuclear component. It can’t be what must not be!

So what’s the takeaway from all this?

In my opinion it’s very simple. Unless you choose to believe all the comfortable conventional wisdom that comes along, you don’t have to be a Raketenwissenschaftler to notice that the Breakthrough Institute is producing a lot of hot air. If you come to that conclusion, the next legitimate question should be to consider its motives. Why has it chosen to walk down a partisan disinformation alley?

My Humble Opinion

I strongly believe that an informed public is crucial for confronting the global energy crisis so I am obviously kind of disgusted by narrow-minded messages of ignorance being delivered as if they were wisdom from enlightenment. Still, I can not help finding the BTI’s attempts to discredit Germany’s energy vision as quite amusing and at the same time intriguing (more on that at the end).


Why amusing, you wonder?

While there are definatly worse anti-renewable advocates in the US, addressing some of the BTI’s claims gives me the opportunity to relive some of the more ridiculous energy debates that happened 10-40 years ago in my country. In Germany, I can only read and ask people about how previous generations struggled to overcome certain mental barriers. However, due to the internet and the rather asynchronous state of the energy debate globally, I can now experience those struggles firsthand — which is exciting!

Nationwide print campaign by the German power industry - 1993 - Sounds familiar?

Nationwide print campaign by the German power industry back in 1993

Don’t get me wrong, there is still a lot of anti-renewable and anti-Energiewende advocacy going on in Germany, but it has gotten a lot more sophisticated and insidious in recent years due to an overwhelming pro-renewable public opinion.

In Germany, the goal of anti-renewable advocates has long been to suppress the rise of ambitions within the civil society. There are significant vested interests that profit from the status quo, so they fear any challenge of the current structure of the energy industry. De-activating society by feeding it no-future scenarios or by telling it that meaningful action requires technological breakthroughs that are decades away are just two of the common themes. Pretty standard anti-enlightenment stuff. 

In my opinon, the BTI tries to apply the above-mentioned tactics. There is no way for me to prove that opinion or know what the BTI’s intentions or motivations truly are. Perhaps its staff members just sing and dance to the “Status Quo” crowd’s song out of pure personal convictions. What I do know is that they are currently very obviously promoting their upcoming overly emotional pro-nuclear “documentary” Pandora’s Promise. This in mind, I can understand their desire to shoot in all directions, desperately trying to stir up a debate* and get as much attention for their message as possible. (*damn it! it worked on me…)

I can understand it from a PR point of view. Though, I think they are shooting themselves in the feet in the process by attacking renewable energy deployment increasingly often.

A Brave New World

In any case, the Breakthrough Institute is one of America’s first more prominent organizations exercising phase 3 of anti-renewable advocacy designed to discourage those who have realized that there is an alternative, but who are not yet convinced that a rapid transition to renewable energy is feasable or how it might work.

The surprisingly large amount of media coverage which the BTI enjoys — compared to so many institutions and people who are actually having an impact around the world — reinforces my belief that the powerful “Status Quo” crowd wants you to hear their message. This is fact is intriguing because it would mean that somebody is starting to get worried about a long-overdue, massive energy democracy spill on US soil.

Typical phases of resistance to renewable energy, as descriped by Dr. Herman Scheer are as follows:

  • Phase 1 – Belittle & Deny the Renewable Energy Option
  • Phase 2 – Denounce & Mobilize Against the Renewable Energy Option
  • Phase 3 – Spread Doubt & Misrepresent the Challenges in the Disguise of General Support

(Note: reaching Phase 3 doesn’t mean that Phase 1 & 2 will disappear.)

Today, basically every assault on the transition to renewable energy in Germany comes in the disguise of general support. Whether it’s the current German federal government trying to discourage renewable energy investments or the conventional energy industry that builds coal power stations rendered unprofitable by the rise of renewable community power — everyone is officially 120% in favor of the “Energiewende“.

The common use of such phase 3 tactics by the “Pro–Status Quo” crowd is also the reason why many international analysts and journalists fail miserably at understanding the current developments over here. There is a naïve tunnel vision when it comes to looking at the actual front lines of the German energy debate.

This lack of quality by international commentators is also the reason why partisan criticism by people like Dr. Frondel of the RWI and INSM is so often quoted throughout the international press, while all those numerous other German experts promoting the energy transition are hardly ever heard of — despite the fact that they have obviously shaped the country’s policy.

“Clearly we will win, because we got the better arguments. We are on the right track, the Energiewende is a successful model. We have created great markets, we are leading the world in energy efficency.” — Prof. Dr. Claudia Kemfert, Head of the Energy Department at the German Institute for Economic Research, during a TV debate in reply to the question “Who will win this “battle” of pro & con arguments — the US (shale gas) or us (German Energiewende)?”

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Written By

is a close observer of the scientific, political and economic energy debate in Germany and around the globe. Inspired by the life's work of the renewable energy advocate Hermann Scheer, Thomas focuses on spreading information that showcase the possibilities & opportunities of a 100% renewable energy system. Though technology is key for this energy shift, he also looks at the socio-economic benefits and the political, as well as structural barriers.


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