Energiewende – Think Again!

Teaser Image Caption
Rainer Baake, director of Agora Energiewende

Living in Germany, one might understandably have a skewed impression of what the rest of Europe thinks about Germany’s epic Energiewende, or clean energy transition. After all, all of the European Union member states are committed to cutting carbon emissions and introducing renewables into their energy mixes. And Germany takes the lead: Europe’s biggest economy, and a world-class industrial powerhouse, is forging ahead at a rate that has taken even dyed-in-the-wool greens by surprise. So you’d think everybody’s watching the great Teutonic clean-energy pioneer in awe and wonderment, ready to jump on the bandwagon themselves, right?

Well, think again. As became clear very quickly at the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s two-day conference entitled “Energiewende – Think European!” in Berlin on April 9-10, there’s a lot of skepticism about and even deep-seated resentment toward Germany’s energy policies. Poles and the French, Czechs and Brits, in fact most of the EU27, are not on the same page as Germany and its small band of cohorts, including Austria and the Scandinavians. This fact has enormous implications for Germany’s policies, something that the Germans are in the process coming to grips with and incorporating into their modus operandi.

The conference was studded with energy experts from across the continent, both enthusiasts and detractors of the Energiewende. And the latter didn’t wait for long to take the gloves off.

First though, Rainer Baake, the director of Agora Energiewende, one of Germany’s newest and most intriguing think thanks, presented his assessment of the Energiewende to date. Baake is interesting in and of himself, a likely prospect for a key post in a red-green government (maybe EU Commissioner?) in the unlikely event that the fall elections bring a leftist leadership to office. He was State Secretary (Staatssekretär) in the environment ministry in Hesse in the 1990s and again on the federal level in the 1998-2005 red-green administration. As such he was one of the behind-the-scenes architects of the Energiewende, and is now in charge of a think tank doing cutting-edge analysis of the transition. Baake summed up the Energiewende’s accomplishments, and then quickly moved on to underscore the key issues that Germany must confront now that the energy transition is no longer in swaddling clothes: demand management, the creation of capacity markets, revamping of the energy market, reform of the Renewable Energy Sources Act, and expansion of the transmission grid, among others.

But neither of Baake’s co-panelists, Cécile Maisonneuve, Director of the Center for Energy of the Institut Français des Relations Internationales, and Olaf Osica of Warsaw’s Center for Eastern Studies, shared his enthusiasm for Germany’s energy overhaul. In France, argued Maisonneuve, there remains a sound consensus on the necessity of maintaining nuclear power, even if the Hollande government has pledged to reduce its dominance. There’s not a national debate on energy issues, she says, and the government’s election promises to modify France’s energy mix have so far gone nowhere. The French remain convinced that nuclear is the way to meet the EU’s carbon emissions targets and cut fossil fuels bills, even though they’re watching the Energiewende with curiosity and interest. French policymakers though, she said, resent the fact that Germany is “going it alone” rather than working together with its EU partners. “We have to cooperate in the EU context,” she said: “If it goes on like this there will be a total mess in Europe that will jeopardize your Energiewende and ours.”

This, though, was mild compared to Osica’s view from Poland, which the Czech Republic and most of the other Central Europeans seem to share. The Poles see Germany’s energy policies as “very ideological” and “moralizing,” he said, and based on an overreaction to the Fukushima disaster in spring 2011. That is when Chancellor Merkel panicked and abruptly struck out on her own path, which the Germans hadn’t begun to think through in terms of its implications for either Germany or for its neighbors. Osica underscored the “loop flows” of German renewable energy that swamp both Poland’s and the Czech Republic’s grids on sunny and windy days. This phenomenon (Germany electricity flows pass through both countries on their way from north to south) pushes their grids to the brink of collapse and costs Poland 50 million euros a year. “That’s our contribution to the German Energiewende,” he said sarcastically. Poland doesn’t share Germany’s angst about nuclear – it’s safe and clean, Osica said – and Poland is contemplating building its own reactors. (It presently has none.) It’s not that Poland isn’t ‘green,’ said Osica, but it’s going to do things its own way and maybe even pick up upon some of Germany’s best practices at a later point, once the wheat has been separated from the chaff.

In the course of the conference other countries also registered their skepticism and unhappiness with the Energiewende. In a nutshell: traumatized Germany has set out on its own without consulting anybody; it’s now facing the disastrous consequences of shifting to a supply-led energy mix based on fluctuating energy sources like wind and PV; and despite the enormous problems it’s now facing, like insecurity of supply and rising prices, it’s trying to bully the rest of Europe into following its lead. It’s not that they don’t take global warming just as seriously as the Germans, but they feel there’s another way to go about addressing it – nuclear energy being one critical element in their strategies to replace fossil fuels. Quota and certificate schemes are as valid as Germany’s expensive feed-in tariff system, and maybe even more effective.

Even though there was plenty of German reaction to these charges (stressing, for example, the fact that the Energiewende has been underway at the very least since 2000), the Germans were on the defensive. This anti-Energiewende sentiment was an indication of what several panelists in the course of the conference referred to as a Europe-wide “backlash” against a pro-active, German-style push for a future based on non-nuclear renewables. If there had been any doubt that this was the case, the conference dispelled those doubts.

Much of the discussion that followed, both on the stage and during the breaks, was about the proper role of the EU in coordinating and guiding European energy policy. Of course, according to the Lisbon Treaty energy policy is a matter for the member states. But the EU does have a say about renewable energy, climate protection, the internal energy market, energy efficiency, and other issues that impact directly on national energy policies. There are EU-inspired national action plans, an energy road map for 2050, 20-20-20 targets for 2020, an EU emissions trading system (EU ETS), and other measures. Not to paint too black a picture, these initiatives and national policies have led to an increase in renewables across the EU 27.

But what about the future? Interestingly, it was the Energiewende-doubters who were in favor of greater EU coordination, namely in order to reign in Germany. Some of the Germans, on the other hand, expressed their wariness about common EU policies that might dilute their Energiewende. Baake, for instance, said that as long as there are such divergent energy policies in the EU and no chance of coming to a common position, Germany is best off pursuing bilateral and trilateral deals with neighbor states, like Poland and the Czech Republic, on issues such as loop flows. Germany’s representative from the environment ministry struck a similar note, saying explicitly that Germany didn’t want to jeopardize the feed-in tariff or expansion of renewables by going for ambitious EU-level common policies. At the moment, he said, Germany would lose. Better to forge on with like-minded member states and show the rest that they are indeed on the right track. In time, the others will come around.

What everybody might possibly agree upon – the lowest common denominator – was the “no regrets” long-term 2030 policy framework meant to replace the current framework that expires in 2020. The “no regrets” option calls for smart and flexible infrastructure and increased energy efficiency, in addition to a substantially higher share of renewable energy in EU gross final energy consumption beyond 2020. There was more disagreement about whether or not the targets for 2030 should be binding and whether there should be any renewables target at all, or just carbon reduction targets that every country could pursue as it wished. There were also a few entirely justified snide remarks about the fact that it is Germany that is holding up the current efficiency legislation on the EU level (thanks to Mr. Rösler and the Economics Ministry) as well as improvements to make the ETS work, also undermined by the same faction.

Thus the final panel (a 2.5-hour German-style marathon) entitled “100 Percent Renewables in Europe: Are We Well on Our Way?” concluded that even though renewables had all of the arguments on their side – and much of public opinion, too – Europe is not well on its way to a zero-carbon future. There’s no consensus on nuclear despite its being much too expensive; the “anti” clean energy lobbies are better organized than the “pro” forces; the German government is divided within itself; coal remains the largest energy source in Europe; the euro and financial crises have caused major setbacks; and the necessary infrastructure enhancements will take decades.

As little agreement as there was on most issues, all of the non-Germans I talked to agreed that the level of discussion at the conference was extremely high. In none of their countries – for different reasons – was there anything equivalent to this kind of discourse on energy matters. For this reason they had no regrets about coming – or intention to return.


Paul Hockenos is a US, Berlin-based journalist.


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