Energiewende thwarted: Germany’s course jeopardises global climate protection
Some time ago one might have had the impression that the German word Energiewende would make the leap to the English language as Kindergarten, Rucksack and Autobahn have done. Ever since Fukushima the world has looked to Germany to learn how to transform a centralised and fossil-based energy supply in a climate-friendly, fair and affordable way. “If anyone can do it, it’s the Germans,” you heard politicians, industry representatives and citizens say everywhere – in European countries, on the other side of the Atlantic and as far away as Asia and Australia.
But the mood has changed. The word on the street is that Germany is being brought to its knees by the costs of the Energiewende; that the nuclear phase-out is leading to more coal power plants and with them increased emissions; that the Renewable Energies Act turned out to be the wrong political instrument. The Economist’s mid-January headline: “Germany’s Energiewende: sunny, windy, expensive, dirty”.
The USA is now saying that “even the Germans” are turning their back on the Renewable Energies Act. In February the New York Times published a documentary entitled “Germany’s Coal Addiction” about the alleged connection between the nuclear phase-out and an increasing demand for brown coal. On the other side of the world, in Australia, the senator of the federal state Queensland, Ron Boswell, states: “We can’t afford to follow the example set by Germany”.
How much truth is there to the myths?
Like most myths, there is a grain of truth in these messages – but which, divorced from context, becomes a lie. It’s true that the share of brown coal in the German power generation increased slightly in the last years. But it’s wrong to hold the nuclear phase-out responsible for it.
First of all, the nuclear phase-out accompanied by the renewable energy expansion was set in motion in 2000 by the then-government. Nuclear’s share of gross electricity generation decreased from 29.5% in 2000 to 15.4% in 2013. The share of coal (brown coal and black coal) decreased too in that period, from 55.2% to 45.5%. In contrast, the share of renewable energies increased sharply from 6.6% to 19.7% (AG Energiebilanzen e.V.). The fact that 2013 – despite these successes – was the “year of coal” in Germany is associated above all with the failure of the EU emissions trading; brown coal is particularly benefiting from vastly underpriced pollution permits.
The second myth of the high costs of the Energiewende was invalidated long ago. In fact, renewable energies have dramatically reduced the price of electricity on the trading floor. The problem is that the resulting benefits aren’t passed down to end consumers. Therefore, the surcharge mechanism has to be revised.
The call, then, to scrap the Renewable Energies Act because it is supposedly too expensive is utter nonsense.
The end of the hit German export Energiewende?
How did Germany lose its forerunner status that quickly? The answer lies in politics. The populist statements on energy costs driving renewable energies during the election campaign last summer were insufficiently questioned insufficiently – both domestically and abroad. Sigmar Gabriel – German Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy – perpetuated this discourse by making renewables the scapegoat for increasing energy prices, by turning away from the principles of the Renewable Energies Act and by equating renewables with fossil fuels in his paper ‘Renewable Energies Act 2.0’.
In recent days, weeks and months many scientists, economists and politicians have highlighted the negative impacts this course has on the 370,000 jobs in Germany’s renewables sector and on global climate protection. Unfortunately, these voices and corrections fell on deaf ears abroad.
Do we not care about the image of Germany and its Energiewende?
Again and again, government representatives emphasise that the Energiewende must not fail as this would send a devastating signal to the world about global climate protection progress. While international negotiations falter and stall, while global emissions continue to increase despite 19 – and counting – UN climate change conferences, and while a growing human population demands ever more energy, governments and citizens all around the world are looking for success stories that can be adapted to their region.
They are searching for political solutions that empower them to shape the transformation that is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, necessary to avoid dangerous climate change. The actual political course of the new German government encourages no one to tackle this major project resolutely. Instead, the myths surrounding renewable energies are being cemented and the government plays straight into the hands of renewables’ powerful opponents from the nuclear and coal lobby.
What is Gabriel to do?
Sigmar Gabriel and his partners call all the shots. The paper ‘Renewable Energies Act 2.0’ is but a first proposal and many capable experts have offered their support to refine it. Instead of branding renewables as the scapegoat of an excessive increase in electricity costs and curbing the renewables expansion, Gabriel must present a total package that confronts the real drivers of energy costs.
This means that he has to stabilise the electricity price on the trading floor and correct the so-called merit-order-effect. Just prices for the ecologically harmful effects fossil fuel combustion as well as a reform of the emissions trading are vital. Beyond that, the decentralised expansion of renewable energies must be promoted, not stopped. If Gabriel turns the reform of the Renewable Energies Act into a unilateral brake of the expansion of renewables he will be playing into the hands of the opponents of the Energiewende domestically and abroad. And this would be fatal for the climate and the environment.
This article was first published in German on www.klimaretter.info
Friday, February 21st, 2014