Energiewende

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Characteristics

The role of the grassroots movements before 2011

Paul Hockenos:

"The Energiewende – a full-scale transformation of society and economy – arose out of enduring grassroots movements, an evidence-based discourse, concern about climate change, and key technological advances, as well as hands-on experience garnered along the way in Germany and elsewhere (see Timeline).

The origins of the Energiewende are diverse, but one potent stimulus was West Germany’s powerful movements – known as the New Social Movements (NSM) – that gathered steam across the 1970s in the wake of the late 1960s’ student rebellion.

The anti-nuclear energy campaign was the most important NSM for what years later would be called the Energiewende. The anti-nuke campaign came to life with a bang in 1973 in Germany’s southwestern-most corner in the wine-growing region near the Black Forest that abuts Switzerland and France. There, in the hamlet of Wyhl, the area’s wine farmers, joined by activists from the nearby university city of Freiburg, as well as concerned French and Swiss citizens, organized to stop the construction of a planned nuclear reactor. They first occupied the construction site and then – after police used excessive force to remove them, a spectacle watched on TV across the country – took the utility to court, where it eventually backed down.

Until then, the West German utilities, with the full support of the Federal Republic’s political elite, had been gradually putting plans into motion to make nuclear power a cornerstone of the country’s energy supply. Both of the major political parties – the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats – were on board, some of their ranks claiming that the safe, clean technology might one day even eliminate energy bills. “Nuclear energy can be a blessing for hundreds of millions of people who today still live in the dark,” read a 1956 SPD party resolution.

Yet there was a critical strand of postwar West Germans who had already been sensitized to issues around the splitting of the atom (nuclear fission). In the 1950s and early 1960s, several nationwide peace movements emerged in the Federal Republic in opposition to the Cold War and the stationing of NATO-administered nuclear weapons on West German territory. The Protestant church, some trade unions, many war veterans, and assorted leftists rallied in moral protest against the build-up of nuclear weapons worldwide and in particular in the two Germanies, which had become the militarized frontline of the East-West conflict. One explanation for Germany’s sensitivity to nuclear power is that early on, the postwar critique of nuclear weapons was linked to the civilian use of nuclear fission. (A second wave of the German peace movement in the 1980s would also bolster a younger generation’s resistance to nuclear power.)

“The protests at Wyhl shaped the anti-nuclear movement and even the Energiewende,” says Eva Quistorp, an activist and leading figure in the NSMs. “It began locally, as the whole movement would, in places directly affected. At the heart of the movement were the farmers, vintners, families, housewives, and parish pastors. Students and experts contributed too, but the movement’s force came from self-organized, citizens’ initiatives,” she says, explaining the tenacity of the protests over decades. Unlike the elitist, male-dominated student movement, notes Quistorp, the NSMs reached out across gender, age and ideological boundaries.

Beyond Wyhl, West Germans near other nuclear-power-related sites in places with names like Gorleben, Gundremmingen, Wackersdorf, Grohnde, and Brokdorf, began informing themselves about the dangers of nuclear energy – and possibilities to block its expansion.

In the past, energy wasn’t an issue that ordinary Germans were supposed to know anything about, says Quistorp. “But ordinary people began reading up and talking about technical issues like nuclear waste disposal, the warming of rivers through discharge from reactor cooling towers, the relationship between radiation and cancer, and the consequences of a meltdown or other kinds of accidents.”

With the concerns about nuclear energy, academic scholars and others with expertise began evidence-based research, and started up alternative-minded working groups, institutes and think tanks, like the 1977-founded Öko-Institut (Institute for Applied Ecology) in Freiburg. Among its founders were figures like Michael Sailer and Rainer Grießhammer, both of whom came from the movement’s ranks. (Today the Öko-Institut is just one of many dozen green think tanks in Germany. It employs more than 155 staff, including around 100 researchers at three locations in the country.)

In Germany there were bona fide experts among the dissidents from Day One. Holger Strohm, for example, was a prolific science writer whose 1971 Friedlich in die Katastrophe: Eine Dokumentation über Atomkraftwerke (Heading Peacefully to Catastrophe: A Documentation of Nuclear Power Plants) was a detailed, technical 1,300-page study on civilian nuclear facilities that sold 640,000 copies in West Germany. The best-seller Der Atom-Staat (The Nuclear State) by Robert Jungk, one of the world’s first “future researchers,” examined the relationship between the military and civil use of uranium.

The nuclear engineer Klaus Traube had worked in top posts in German and U.S. nuclear installations in the 60s and 70s. On the job, he had witnessed human error cause an accident, which alerted him to dangers that the industry wouldn’t admit to. After the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979 in the U.S., Traube switched sides and delivered the movement – as well as his party, the until-then pro-nuclear SPD – invaluable information about technical aspects of nuclear power.

“Other anti-nuclear movements in Europe,” explains Lutz Mez, a political scientist at the Free University Berlin and former director of an ecological think tank, “didn’t have someone like Traube who came from the industry itself. And they were always impressed at how well the German activists knew their stuff. Traube’s books and others like them were widely read in Germany, even discussed on Sunday TV talk shows.” (https://www.cleanenergywire.org/dossiers/history-energiewende)


The preparatory role of the red-green coalition

Paul Hockenos:

In autumn 1998, Germans voted out Kohl’s conservatives after 16 years in office in favor of a coalition run by Social Democrats and Greens. “Red-green” governments already existed in many localities and in some federal states (Länder), too, but the 1998 election marked a sea change in the country. The coalition promised it would prioritise “ecological modernisation,” which included climate protection, renewable energy expansion, energy efficiency, and sustainability measures. An “Energiewende” – though not mentioned as such in the coalition agreement – was now part of the Federal Republic’s agenda.

Two of the administration’s first major moves were to pass ground-breaking laws to phase out nuclear energy and promote investment in renewable energies.

The 2000-finalised nuclear phase-out was a compromise with the big utilities to shut down Germany’s nuclear reactor sites (which accounted for 35 percent of Germany’s power) gradually over a period of thirty years. Although observers saw the deal as a crowning victory of the anti-nuclear movement, its activists and many Greens saw the long transition period as a betrayal – and an opening for the utilities to revise the agreement when the conservatives returned to power. They had manned the barricades for years and braved winter nights blocking nuclear waste transports in order to end Germany’s nuclear era immediately, not three decades down the road.

As for clean energy, the Renewable Energy Act (EEG), also passed in 2000, established significant feed-in tariffs for a wide range of renewable energies that – because of high investment costs – were not competitive with conventional energy on the market. The tariffs acted to stimulate investment by covering the difference between the cost of production and the market price. The act also stipulated that grid operators must buy electricity and gas generated by renewable energy producers at the price fixed by the act. The stated goal was to cover 12.5 percent of Germany’s electricity needs with renewables by 2010. Remarkably, the act, which would catapult Germany to a global leader in renewable energy production, was passed with virtually no fanfare or opposition in the Bundestag – unlike the fiercely contested nuclear phase-out.

Another factor that prepared the ground for the Energiewende to take off were several late-1990s EU directives designed to open up national electricity and gas markets. They demanded the deregulation and liberalisation of domestic energy markets in the EU with the aim of lowering energy prices by encouraging competition, which had until then been severely limited by sector monopolies. (In Germany, four giant utilities, the so-called “Big Four,” owned almost all of the energy production as well as the transmission grids.) Another directive addressed the “unbundling” of the ownership of production facilities and distribution infrastructure.

These directives were turned into national law by Germany, which in the years to follow effectively broke up the production and distribution monopolies. This opened the market for the entry of many smaller renewable-energy producers; customers could thus choose their energy supplier. Today, there are more than one thousand participants in Germany’s electricity market, the vast majority of which do not own power plants or supplier networks. Moreover, the Federal Network Agency – a key player in the Energiewende – was established in 1998 as part of the process. Its task is to regulate the electricity and gas markets, which includes ensuring fair competition and overseeing the transmission networks.

The red-green government came and went (leaving office in 2005) with non-energy-related issues – like the stagnant economy – dominating the news shows. But in the form of the feed-in tariff and grid priority for renewables, the seeds had been planted in the newly liberalised market. Mostly small actors, like farmers, co-ops, citizen-led groups, and other non-industry companies, began investing in green energy production, mostly thermal and PV solar, bio-energy and onshore wind technology. The share of renewably produced electricity in Germany shot up to 14.2 percent in 2007, far outpacing the original targets.

“No one expected the renewables to shoot up so high, so fast,” says Nina Scheer. “The act sparked a real grassroots citizen’s movement. Germans turned the Energiewende into their own project.”

A key component of the act’s success (renewables electricity’s share rose to 17 percent by 2010) was the fact that it didn’t prioritise one kind of technology or another, says Scheer. “There was no master plan but rather a general direction and a support scheme with priority access for renewable energies. No one knew in 2000, for example, that the cost of solar PV would sink so dramatically and become such an important pillar of the Energiewende,” she says.

In 2010, the center-right government led by Angela Merkel formulated an Energy Concept that set ambitious targets for renewable energy expansion, energy efficiency, CO2 reduction, and low-carbon transportation. Yet the administration maintained that Germany could not expand renewables so rapidly without its nuclear fleet functioning as a “bridge technology.” That same year it passed laws extending the lifetimes of Germany’s reactors for more than a decade, a significant modification of the red-green phase-out.

On March 11, 2011, the world watched aghast as reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power station in Japan melted down after being hit by an earthquake and then a tsunami. The disaster deeply unsettled Chancellor Merkel, a professional physicist, who immediately shut down three of Germany’s oldest reactors and formulated a new plan for an accelerated phase-out of nuclear power by 2022.

“As a scientist, Merkel understood climate change and the dangers of nuclear power,” says Martin Faulstich, chairman of the German Advisory Council on the Environment (SRU). “But she thought there could never be a meltdown in advanced, developed countries like Germany or Japan. To her credit, when exactly that happened, she acted quickly and took steps that might not have been possible at a later point.”

Only in the aftermath of Fukushima did Merkel begin to regularly use the term “Energiewende.” In autumn 2011, her administration beefed up the Energy Concept, replacing some of the goals and time tables with more ambitious targets. In 2014, the new center-left Merkel-led government revised the Renewable Energy Act by lowering feed-in tariffs, authorising new transmission corridors, and devoting more funds to facilitate energy efficiency.

In understanding the Energiewende, says R. Andreas Krämer, founder and former director of the Ecologic Institute, a Berlin-based think tank, it’s essential to see that Germany “was never as hooked on nuclear power as other nations.” Moreover, says Krämer, Germans consider themselves “citizens of the world with a sense of duty to do good.”

“Germans seem to be proud of the Energiewende as a model that the rest of the world can learn from,” said Dieter Rucht, explaining the consistently high approval rating for the Energiewende, despite concerns about cost. “But we’re only going to know if it is successful two or three decades from now.“ (https://www.cleanenergywire.org/dossiers/history-energiewende)


Discussion

Debunking the Myths about the so-called failure of the Energiewende in Germany

By Chris Nelder:


"Myth: "After the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan two-and-a-half years ago, Merkel quickly decided to begin phasing out nuclear power and lead the country into the age of wind and solar." (This one is from the above-mentioned Der Spiegel article.)

Fact: Germany's switch to renewables started in 1991, and the nuclear phaseout started in 2002.

Craig Morris, lead author of German Energy Transition, is always the go-to source for factual reporting on the Energiewende, and for debunking Der Spiegel's latest calumnies. He set the record straight:

"In fact, the age of wind began in 1991 with the Feed-in Act, followed by the Renewable Energy Act of 2000; solar, however, did not really get started until that Act was amended in 2004. Likewise, the nuclear phaseout began in 2002 under Chancellor Schroeder. Chancellor Merkel simply reversed that policy in 2010 and then did an about-face in the wake of the disaster at Fukushima."


Myth: Germany is building more coal plants because of its nuclear phaseout.

Fact: The count of coal plants under construction has actually fallen by six since Germany began its nuclear phaseout in 2011.

Morris set that record straight in April:

"For instance, Datteln starts in 01/2007 (January 2007) and the latest date for the beginning of a plant’s status is 07/2009 for Neckerau Block 9.

The two plants that went online last fall received permits way back in 2005 (Grevenbroich) and 2006 (Boxberg). The eight others soon to be completed were all underway by 2009 at the latest. Go down further into the list of “abandoned” projects ... and you’ll see that six of those 20 projects have been abandoned since the nuclear phaseout. The only positive changes for coal since March 2011 concern two plants currently “planned” ... and here nothing is currently being built.

As a reaction to the nuclear phaseout, Germany has thus started building zero coal plants but stepped away from six. At current power prices, all conventional projects are on hold, and coal power may soon be unprofitable in Germany."


Myth: Germany is burning more coal because of its nuclear phaseout.

Fact: The increase was temporary, and is now reversing.

Germany's recent uptick in coal consumption has been a temporary situation, primarily driven by high natural gas prices which made coal power cheaper. It's simply incorrect to lay that at the feet of the nuclear power phaseout or the Energiewende.

Bloomberg reports:

"Coal is more profitable to burn than natural gas at power stations, according to Bloomberg data. The fuel will be used first by grid operators to meet demand, which gives it an influence in setting the price of electricity. Generators can earn 14.08 euros a megawatt-hour from burning coal next month compared with a 14.67 euro loss by using gas, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. […] The German next-year clean-spark spread, a measure of the profitability at plants burning natural gas, has been negative since January last year and will stay below zero until 2016."

But even coal is now looking at a declining market in Germany. This week Morris noted that German coal giant RWE is considering closing the Garzweiler brown coal field (one of the largest in the world), due to falling expectations for coal demand. Why? Because Germany's massive build-out of solar and wind capacity is destroying the economics of conventional "baseload" power generation. Now 26 coal and gas-fired power plants are slated for closure.

Load factors (how much of the time a power plant runs) for conventional power in Europe have been falling steadily under the pressure of solar and wind production, which has an effective marginal cost of zero. In 2006, conventional power plants had an average load factor of 51 percent. In 2012, that had fallen to about 45 percent.


Myth: Germany is the only European country opposed to nuclear power and overreacted to Fukushima.

Fact: Germany isn't alone, nor even the most anti-nuclear country in Europe.

As a 2012 Paul Hockenos paper [PDF] for a Heinrich Böll Stiftung foundation series on Energiewende explains, popular German opposition to nuclear power began in the 1970s, and is not unique to Germany.

"Of the many misconceptions that cloud the perception of Germany's energy stands, one is that Germany is somehow on its own in Europe, on the fringe of the continent's mainstream. In fact, Ireland, Austria and Norway dismissed the nuclear option years ago. Greece, Portugal, Italy and Denmark don't and never will have atomic power plants. Like Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Belgium are in the process of phasing out nuclear power. Spain has banned the construction of new reactors.

In terms of popular opinion, more than 80 percent of Germans oppose nuclear energy, a figure that climbed higher in the wake of Fukushima and is comparatively high in Europe. But 90 percent of Austrians object to the nuclear option, and Austria even has no-nukes enshrined in its constitution. In 2011, 94 percent of Italians voted against nuclear power in a popular referendum."


Myth: Large amounts of renewable power are putting Germany's grid at risk of blackouts.

Fact: Germany has the most reliable grid in Europe.

As I detailed one year ago, Germany's grid is now the most reliable in Europe, thanks to good grid planning and management designed to accommodate variable renewable power. The real problems with integrating renewables into the grid are human, not technological.


Myth: Opposition to renewables is rising in Germany.

Fact: The vast majority of Germans fully support the Energiewende. Citizens are now wresting control of the grid away from private utilities.

Polls show Germans overwhelmingly support the energy transition. A roundup of the results by Morris stated:

"The most recent poll found that a whopping 93 percent of those surveyed believe that further growth of renewables is "important" for "exceptionally important."

Indeed, some 65 percent of the renewable power generated in Germany comes from small, privately owned producers (citizens, farmers and the like) not from major utilities. This has engendered a sense of public pride and ownership. The Energy Transition blog notes that "municipal utilities own only about 6 percent of Germany’s clean-energy capacity."

But citizens are still frustrated at the slow pace of transition by the utilities, so now German municipalities such as Hamburg are taking control of their grids:

"50.9 percent of the population voted to re-communalize electricity, gas and district heating networks which are currently in the hands of multinational energy companies Vattenfall and Eon.

The motivation for Hamburg citizens? That energy supply is a basic public service that should not serve profit motives. They concluded that Vattenfall and Eon -- the current grid operators -- don’t act in the best interest of the people and are delaying Germany’s shift to renewable energy. […]

Other initiatives similar to the one in Hamburg have stepped forward, e.g. in Berlin where the referendum takes place this November. Indeed, since 2007 there have been about 170 municipalities which bought back the grid from private companies. Cities that have chosen to not privatize -- like Frankfurt and Munich -- are now showing that it’s worth keeping energy supply in municipal hands. Both major German cities have a 100 percent renewable energy target."


Myth: Wind and solar are laughably small contributors to German grid power.

Fact: Wind and solar are rapidly taking over power production in Germany.

Renewables now provide 25 percent of Germany's total grid power.

On particularly windy and sunny days, the renewable share is much higher. At noon on Oct. 3, 2013, wind and solar contributed 60 percent of the grid power in Germany. Over the course of the entire day, they made up 36.4 percent of the power supply, enough to drive the price of power on the European electricity price index (ELIX) at 2 PM -- the peak demand part of the day -- down to the same level as it was at the 6 AM demand trough.

The all-time daily record for renewable production in Germany is 46 percent, which occurred on Dec. 31, 2012.

World solar photovoltaic capacity is now more than 102 gigawatts, of which 31 gigawatts was installed in 2012 alone. For perspective, that's roughly equal to the entire nuclear capacity of the United States, the world's top nuclear power user. (However, because nuclear plants run more of the time than solar plants, it's not equal to U.S. nuclear generation.) By the end of this year, Germany will have 36 gigawatts of capacity, making it by far the world leader in solar.


Myth: The Energiewende is driving up German grid power prices.

Fact: Not really.

Merely noting that Germany's retail grid power prices, which are heavily influenced by high taxes and high natural gas prices, are the highest in Europe misses the point that renewables are driving wholesale grid prices down. As Bloomberg reported last week: "Wholesale costs have declined almost 60 percent after peaking in 2008 above 90 euros as a boom in renewable energy in Germany boosted supplies at the same time as the financial crisis last year cut demand to its lowest level since 2009."

As Morris painstakingly detailed last month, the main driver of rising German grid power prices has been falling wholesale prices. This counter-intuitive result owes to the structure of the surcharge that pays for the feed-in tariff that has driven solar growth:

"A study published Aug. 21 by energy analysts at Energy Brainpool (PDF in German) found that 52 percent of an increase in the renewable surcharge to 6.1 cents would be the direct result of these lower wholesale prices. It may sound ironic for lower wholesale prices to increase another price component -- in this case, the renewable surcharge -- but in fact, the calculation makes sense.

Essentially, when this calculation was designed last decade, proponents of renewables realized that all of the green electricity that would be generated (and have to be purchased) would offset conventional power production, which would in turn reduce wholesale prices. The wholesale rate is therefore subtracted from the average feed-in tariff paid for renewable electricity, and as renewables make up an ever-greater share of the pie, there is less and less to subtract.

Renewables are not even the second biggest cause of the increased surcharge. That honor goes to the greatly expanded industry exemptions to the surcharge. The Social-Democrat/Green coalition under Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder wisely implemented exemptions for energy-industry players that face international competition, lest these firms be driven away from Germany. But the current coalition has expanded these exceptions to three times as many companies, many of which can hardly leave the country (such as municipal transportation services).

Because these exemptions would make up 25 percent of an increase to 6.1 cents, merely reducing the number of exempt firms by two-thirds to the original number could reduce that increase by more than the cost impact of new renewables. According to Energy Brainpool, new renewables would only make up 13 percent of the price hike to 6.1 cents."

Got that? The structure of the surcharge is the problem, not the direct cost of solar power. And industry is getting a free ride, pushing the entire surcharge onto retail customers. Higher electricity costs for households have mainly resulted from the rising cost of fossil fuels, not renewables.

(For a more technical discussion of the surcharge issue, see the German Energy Blog.)

A new report to be issued next month by The German Advisory Council on the Environment comes to the same conclusion.

It's also worth noting that thanks to its strong pro-solar policies, small residential solar systems in Germany cost half as much per watt as they do in the United States. Those policies can also be credited for driving down the cost of solar power globally." (http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/intelligent-energy/myth-busting-germanys-energy-transition/)

More information

  • extensive dossier focusing on the history of the Energiewende by Paul Hockenos: "The history of the Energiewende: Energiewende – the first four decades " [1]



[2]

Michel Bauwens comments: "This is a really crucial policy paper, because it shows the inter-relationship between 2 , or even 3 crucial factors in the success of the energy transition in Germany: First of all came the voluntary, politically and ecologically motivated pioneers, who made it politically viable to introduce the second factor, without which it would have stalled or remained a niche. The second factor is the regulation that permitted feed-in tariffs, which created a safe market to recuperate investments, which was the third factor. This combination made the enduring success, while in other countries, where such policies and favourable market conditions were not present, the transition stagnated or even regressed."