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Day Number Five

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Updated: 5/19/2014 2:00 pm

It's our final day together as a group, but for the first time there is no frühstück speaker.  Everyone ambles down on their own, gathering in twos and threes for food and conversation before the scheduled 9:30 meeting time in the Grand Westin lobby.  I can only guess that the people assembling the itinerary realized the group would be getting worn down by now, and need a bit of a breather before getting started.  This is also the only day that has a built-in break later on--nothing is scheduled between 5:15 and 7:00 PM.  Sarmad--who is a Berlin resident--has offered to use this time to offer a tour of the Reichstag, the historic building that is home to the Bundestag, or German Parliament.

But first, another historic location:  The United States Embassy in Pariser Platz.

I should mention before going any further, that I have been laboring with a leg brace for the entire week.  In late October I had heard that this trip with the American Council on Germany was a possibility, but also that I needed to schedule an elective knee procedure.  I hadn't heard from ACG and rolled the dice...deciding to get the surgery on November 7.  It was while I was groggy that afternoon recovering from the surgery that I checked my email on my phone and found out I had been approved for the trip.  Both my orthopedist and my physical therapist said it would be a little extra work, but would not have any ill effects on the procedure if I accepted the trip, and so I did.  I felt bad for those who found themselves behind me on staircases, where I had to do all the climbing with one leg.  In this case, the Embassy was several blocks away, and people seemed motivated to get moving.  So I was struggling mightily to keep up as we walked from the hotel.

The US Embassy had opened on Pariser Platz in 2008.  A little background:  In 1930, the US Embassy had been relocated to Blücher Palace on Pariser Platz, just south of Brandenburg Gate.  But it only operated there briefly until the building was damaged by a fire on April 15, 1931.  While repairs were underway, the Nazi regime arose in Germany, and Pariser Platz--the large square on the east side of Brandenburg Gate--was frequently used to stage rallies, and American Ambassador William Dodd requested that the Embassy remain in its temporary location at the Tiergarten.  I highland recommend a book about the Dodd years, "In the Garden of Beasts" by Erik Larson.  After the war, Pariser Platz ended up in the Soviet-controlled sector, and eventually on the DDR* side of the Berlin Wall.  It was not until several years after the 1990 reunification that discussions began for relocating on Pariser Platz once more.  The current US Embassy which opened in 2008 is not at the exact location as Blücher Palace, but rather just inside the Brandenburg Gate.  The construction is brand new and very eye-catching, both inside and out.

Security was tight, as you imagine.  And for the fourth time in five days, I removed my leg brace and processed it through the metal detector along with my camera equipment and pocket contents.  Once beyond the security checkpoint, we had some time to take in the lobby, with a skylight illuminating the preamble to the Constitution etched in the curved walls, along with a plaque commemorating the opening.  And then we were ushered into an adjacent meeting room.  The Germans always had coffee and water available for our meetings at a bare minimum.  Often juices and cookies, too.  The Americans get straight to business--at least with American guests.  We were told there is a small entertainment budget for foreign visitors.  But all that was of no consequence.

Since we had arrived a bit ahead of schedule, the meeting began with a de-briefing of program participants on this last day.  We were all appreciative of the efforts Helena, Johanna and Sarman in putting together this packed itinerary.  There was some general agreement as to which meetings had been most illuminating (Potsdam Institute for Climate Research, BASF) as well as individual presenters (Nicola Brüning, Tiglet Aslan).  All agreed as well that there was a great deal gained not just from the presenters, but from fellow members of the Study Tour.  Since we all came from different approaches, we all had different viewpoints to offer, and there were countless discussions in differing combinations over the course of the five days of the tours which helped to fill in the blanks.  It also helped us to assess each presentation when we spoke with each other about which points seemed most striking, or if there seemed to be discrepancies.

When the Embassy delegation arrived, it consisted of Deputy Chief James Melville, Counselor of Public Affairs Tom Miller (whom we had met at the first evening's dinner) and Economic Officer James Boughner.  Much of the conversation was freewheeling and off the record.  This was the first presentation we had from only Americans, speaking in their native tongue.  It was made clear that this meeting was off the record, and so I am going to withhold the details, mundane though some of them may have been, providing the American take on many of the issues we had been discussing the past few days.

But there was one moment that jumped out.  If there is one word I would have used at the outset to describe Deputy Chief Melville, it would be "amiable".  He was a very pleasant fellow with a warm smile, and clearly comfortable with his 25-year career in foreign service.  He seemed unflappable, at-ease and well-spoken in a casual, disarming way.  This changed when one member of our group raised a point and asked a question which clearly hit a nerve.  Melville's demeanor changed in an instant.  He suddenly became quite serious, lowered his voice and delivered a steely-eyed, no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is response.  While I forgot to talk to anyone else about it afterward, my guess is that my fellow travelers were as startled as I was.  Once he finished what he had to say, the smile and the twinkle in the eye returned, and Melville was back on the main topics.  But I left thinking "This guy is definitely a professional diplomat", adjusting his delivery quickly as fit the particular moment--at least in his view.

Speaking of politics I am going to wedge in another one of my 2009 reports from Germany as part of the RIAS-Berlin German American Journalist Exchange.  This one concerns the magnetically-levitated train (MagLev) studied for implementation between Las Vegas and Los Angeles since the early 80s, using technology developed in northwestern Germany.  If successful, it would likely have had a dramatic effect on the I-15 corridor through the Mojave desert, reducing congestion, fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.  At one point in 2001 it seemed probably that a demonstration project from Las Vegas to Primm would receive federal funding.  However, when this 2009 report aired, Senator Harry Reid--previously a maglev enthusiast--had thrown all of his support behind DesertXpress (later rebranded XpressWest), a steel-on-steel high-speed train from Las Vegas to Victorville.  That project was recently denied the federal loan it needed to move forward.  There are currently no active prospects for interstate passenger rail service in Southern Nevada.

Back to Berlin in December of 2013.  We had about a half hour to kill after the US Embassy before a scheduled lunch meeting at the famous Theodor Tucher restaurant across the square.  So many of us walked around Pariser Platz in the chilly weather, snapping pictures and enjoying the moment.  The area directly in front of the Brandenburg Gate (on the east side) has definitely gotten more of a "Fremont Street Experience" feel than I remember from my last visit in 2009.  In addition to all the tourists milling about, there are many people in costume--some themed with the location, some not--who will gladly be photographed with you for a nominal tip.  I joined a couple of others in our group in approaching an ersatz East German border guard at a card table.  For a "bribe" in his tip cup, he would stamp your Passport and allow passage.  I tossed in a couple of Euros and offered my Passport, to which he applied five different stamps (all on one page) including Checkpoint Charlie, Brandenburg Gate and the former DDR.

Our lunch meeting was at Theodur Tucher, a restaurant designed to have the look of a library.  It's a favorite for visiting dignitaries.  We were told that in recent years, the second floor private dining room we were using had been the setting for luncheons in recent years where Chancellor Gerhard Schröder had hosted George W. Bush and Hemult Kohl had hosted Bill Clinton.  Today's principal speakers were REpower CFO Marcus Wassenberg and CEO Andreas Nauen.

REpower started aggressively pursuing wind power before it was cool.  That is to say, while Germany first started passing legislation that provided incentives for renewables as far back as 1991, it was not until the government outlined a new policy in 2010 and the Fukushima  disaster in 2011 that the Energiewenda became a top priority program and a topic of hot debate.  REpower came together in 2001 as a wind turbine specialists.  Andreas Nauen has been involved with wind energy since the early 1990s, when he was employed by Siemens in Florida, eventually becoming CEO of their worldwide wind division before moving to REpower.  Nauen is very enthusiastic about the prospects for the can find a brief clip on the upper left side of this page. 

Although REpower is in an industry (wind power) that is steadily gaining market share, Nauen does not feel a great deal of resistance from traditional suppliers, i.e., coal energy companies.  Rather, he notes that those companies recognize the growing importance of wind power as part of the mix, and have started their own wind divisions so that they can compete in the marketplace.  He also points out that his company is working on greater efficiency at existing sites, so as to minimize the need for right-of-way acquisition.  REpower has recently developed a higher tower with a larger turbine, so that they can get 50 percent more energy out of the same site.  We expect to hear more from REpower, but with a new name. Beginning next year, they will be called Senvion.

After lunch, one more formal meeting.  This was another "Passports, please" situation as we entered the Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology for presentations by Dr. Berend Dickman (Head of Division, External Economic Policy, North America), Dr. Diethard Mager (Deputy Director General for Renewable Energy) and Dr. Axel Bree (Advisor to the Department of Raw Materials and Mining Industry Law).

I have to start with the last, first.  For four days, we had heard over and over that "fracking" was not an option in Germany.  Dr. Bree's presentation was largely about preparations for fracking in Germany!  I glanced around at my fellow Study Tour participants to see if surprise was registering elsewhere, but everyone had poker faces.  In the course of the presentation and the Q&A afterward, it seemed that the policy is that Germany will not practice fracking.  Unless, that is, Germany really needs the extra reserves and decides to change course, in which case they want to be ready...just in case.  And so the FMET is preparing a "demonstration project"...which also struck me as somewhat odd since there are already hundreds of fracking areas available for examination in the United States and elsewhere.

Dr. Mager then launched into a rather detailed explanation of the current state of affairs of the German energy situation, along with a brief history of the Energiewende.  Rather than try to sum it up here in a couple of paragraphs, I am going to attach Dr. Mager's PowerPoint presentation which was forwarded to us by Helena Kane Finn.  Between that and a couple of key links at the upper left of this page, you will have all the reading you need to get up to speed with what Dr. Mager had to show us.

At this point, there was about an hour and a half free time before we would meet up for dinner.  Sarmad Hussain had volunteered to lead a tour of the Reichstag for anyone interested.  Not only is Sarmand very familiar with the building, but his position as a Foreign Policy Advisor and Chief of Staff to some members of the Bundestag (Parliament) gives him access far beyond what would be available to a tourist coming through the front door.  I've been fortunate enough to go behind the scenes at the Reichstag a couple of times in the past, so I opted out.  But about a half dozen of our group joined Sarman for the tour. 

The Reichstag was completed in 1894 and became home to the German Parliament until it was partially destroyed by a fire in 1933.  The Nazi regime blamed a communist conspiracy and used this a pretext to dissolve parliament.  The Bundestag did not reconvene there again until 1999, nine years after reunification.  The restored Reichstag a magnificent glass dome with a spiral staircase.  Follow the link for more information about the Reichstag.

Our farewell dinner was at the historic Lutter and Wegner restaurant adjacent to Gendarmenmarkt since 1811.  Our special guest was Reuters Journalist Erik Kirschbaum, who I had first met 10 years earlier on my first visit with the RIAS-Berlin German American Journalist Exchange Program.  It was easy to strike up a conversation with Mr. Kirschbaum, as he had spent some of his early career in the mid 1980s as a reporter for the Las Vegas Sun.  Kirschbaum still remembers his time in Las Vegas fondly, and I was able to update him on some of his former colleagues and sadly the current downward trajectory of that newspaper.  Kischbaum retains his American citizenship, but has resided in Berlin since 1989.  He likes it there, and has no plans to move back to the United States any time in the near future.

Before getting to the main topic, Krischbaum regaled us about his latest book "Rocking the Wall".  In an unexpected conversation with a cabbie, Kirschbaum stumbled on the beginnings of this little-known and unlikely story of how "the Boss" found himself flaunting East Germany authority and holding a concert that help stir the unrest that led to the end of the Wall.  It's available on Amazon.

When I heard Kirschbaum as a guest speaker a decade ago, it was all about his role as a writer for Reuters.  Since then he has developed a secondary career, which was the focus on this evening.  For a few years now, Kirschbaum has been easing himself--with some partners--into the Photovoltaic Solar Panel business.  Kirschbaum started with a project that took advantage of government subsidies to supply solar power to a local school.  Since then he has acquired loans, grown the business and started several new projects, so that he is now a successful small businessman in the solar power industry, as well as a journalist and author.

After dinner, plenty of wine and goodbyes, it was off to the Westin Grand for one last night.  Before leaving though, I would have a couple of more encounters with members of the Study Tour Group.  One the next morning (Friday) and another the following morning (Saturday).

* Deutsche Demokratische Republik, the official name of East Germany from 1949 to 1990.  In English, it was the German Democratic Republic, so you often see the acronym GDR.



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