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The German word Energiewende is gradually edging its way into the English language, as Weltanschauung and sauerkraut, among others, did long ago. It is still too early to tell, however, whether this term is one that Germans will one day be proud of, such as kindergarten, or ashamed for, such as blitzkrieg.
The Energiewende is Germany’s historic, tremendously ambitious transition to clean energy as it exits from nuclear power (which Germans do not consider clean energy) and tries to adhere to tough EU carbon emission targets. In theory, all of Germany’s main political parties are behind it. But as the recently concluded national election campaign shows, there are vast differences of opinion among Germans over whether Germany, a first-order industrial powerhouse, can afford to run its economy on renewable power in the immediate future. Even so, the political legacy of Angela Merkel, who will soon begin her third term as German chancellor, will largely depend on it.
Germany’s relationship to energy has always been peculiar. First, practically all Germans are convinced that climate change is both an extremely dangerous, man-made problem and one that can be halted with the right policies. Unlike in the United States, fracking isn’t one of them. Acquiring natural gas on German territory that way doesn’t stand a chance -- a result, in part, of a tenacious grassroots environmental movement and a strong Green party. Opinion polls consistently show that over 85 percent of Germans are in favor of the Energiewende.
Second, most Germans have been soundly against nuclear energy ever since the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown in Ukraine lofted a cloud of airborne radioactivity over the country’s northern territory. By 2011, most of the political elite had come around to the same conclusion; the final yea-sayers were silenced forever when Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant melted down that spring. Merkel and her Christian Democratic party, which had previously supported a prolongation of nuclear power, shut down a third of Germany’s nuclear capacity overnight after the disaster, and upgraded ambitious targets for the country’s future energy use. Germany was to be nuke-free by 2022, get 80 percent of its electricity from green sources by 2050, and slash greenhouse gas emissions 55 percent by 2030 and 95 percent by 2050.
Those targets would seem much more intimidating if Germany hadn’t already witnessed an astounding surge in renewably generated electricity over the past twelve years. That boom in renewable energy production can be attributed to two crucial policy initiatives that preceded the Merkel era. First, in 1998 the EU mandated energy liberalization measures in the name of market competition, which broke up four utility companies’ postwar monopoly on Germany’s energy production and distribution. Equally seminal were the price incentives set by the red-green coalition government, which ruled from 1998 to 2005; so-called feed-in tariffs guaranteed investors long-term guaranteed prices for a sweeping range of renewables. That’s what coaxed farmers, small businessmen, and homeowners into the energy sector. And, lastly, unforeseen leaps in technology caused prices of hardware to plummet while their efficiency shot up.
No one, not the Greens or anyone else, predicted what would happen as a result. Over the past twelve years, green power production has soared from less than six percent of overall domestic electricity production to nearly 25 percent, as small-scale producers plastered their barns, houses, and garages with solar modules, and independent wind farms appeared along the northern coasts and their hinterlands. Now Germany has over four million energy producers. On days both sunny and windy, Germany generates over two-thirds of its electricity from renewables. Onshore wind power and solar photovoltaic power have dominated the contest because of the negligible operating costs of windmills and solar panels. Remarkably, the giant utilities stubbornly stuck by their fossil fuels and nuclear plants -- betting everything on conservatives’ promises of a policy reversal -- rather than jumping aboard the renewables bandwagon.
The clean energy explosion has already transformed Germany in positive ways. There is now a booming industrial and service sector based on renewables, which employs around 380,000 people (that’s half the number in the auto industry) and produces significant revenue for local, state, and federal government coffers. The new industries found homes above all in eastern Germany, helping pick up the economy there after years of post-unification stagnation. Meanwhile, sales of clean-energy technology have boosted Germany’s exports and bolstered its economic fortunes during the eurocrisis. Moreover, the devolution of power production to so many Germans has empowered a strong and very widely dispersed constituency. And, not least, Germany’s carbon emissions initially sloped downward, ahead of projected targets, before leveling off this year, a result of increased coal burning. (This is the upshot of the unwillingness of the junior partner in the last Merkel administration, the free-market-minded Free Democrats, to help revive the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme, which puts a punitive price on carbon emissions. After failing to breach Germany’s five-percent hurdle to enter the Bundestag yesterday, the party will not be represented at all in the national parliament or government.)
Yet, after a burst of good vibes following Merkel’s 2011 epiphany, the tenor of the public discourse started to turn against the Energiewende. This is the work of a coalition of ideological conservatives, some heavy industry, and the fossil fuels lobby, the latter of which has waged a tooth-and-claw battle to maintain its share of the electricity market. In the run-up to the election, for example, Germany’s heavy industry lobby claimed that the Energiewende "leads to costly inefficiency in the whole system and endangers the affordability of energy as well as Germany as an industrial base." The dire warnings that there would be blackouts, power shortages, and prostrated Germany industries unable to compete on the world market rattled many politicos and burghers, even though the blackouts never transpired and Germany exported at record levels last year. Even more damning, it blamed the high price of electricity paid by consumers solely on clean energy.
Yet there’s something else, too. Germany’s switch to clean power is nothing less than a new “industrial revolution,” as Jeremy Rifkin calls it, which is forcing Germans to contemplate uncomfortable changes to their entire society, including everything from mobility to urban architecture to farming to finance. It’s no accident that Energiewende is often translated as “energy revolution.” The clean energy push, for example, means that the energy market itself has to be overhauled completely to function under the new conditions. Moreover, every newly constructed building has to meet high energy-efficiency standards. Soon, Germany’s mighty auto industry too will have to shift to smaller, more gas-stingy models. Also, while farmers are profiting from energy crops, their crop of choice, namely corn, has negative long-term repercussions for the farmland itself; this must be addressed.
What’s more, there’s been some anxiety about the fact that the clean energy transformation has placed its bets on two power sources, wind and solar power, that are contingent upon the weather and are difficult to store. As Germany’s energy mix -- and indeed all of Europe’s -- has become a decentralized patchwork, the country must construct new and smarter transmission grids to make sure that energy gets where it’s needed. The initial introduction of the technology so far seems to be working. If there’s wind blowing on the North Sea but clouds in Bavaria, Germany’s smart grid sends power from the coast to the BMW and VW factories in the south. Germany’s factories have so far purred along even during severe winter cold snaps. Germany experiences fewer blackouts and power outages than any other country in Europe.
That leaves the question of cost, which was the hottest of topics on the campaign trail of the recent election. Most politicians outside the Green Party were eager to pin blame on the Energiewende for the high electricity prices paid by German consumers. (Industry pays much lower prices and thus has nothing to complain about -- although it does so anyway.) The brunt of their claims about cost, however, are misleading. Germans do indeed pay more than their neighbors for power out of the socket, but only a small portion of this is the clean-energy surcharge tacked onto their utility bill. There are also excise taxes, the highest sales taxes in Europe, transmission grid charges, and other costs. Both the Greens and the Social Democrats have reasonable policy proposals to rein in the costs for consumers without jeopardizing the energy transition. Perhaps one of the parties -- they’re the only choices Merkel has for coalition partners in the next government -- will manage to bring their recommendation on board in the new government.
Alas, one of those Germans who seems to have gotten the jitters is Merkel herself. Bold, visionary, trailblazing initiatives are not her style. During the campaign, Merkel, once dubbed “the climate chancellor,” didn’t mention climate protection but talked almost exclusively about capping the Energiewende. Only the Greens -- who will likely be in the opposition again in parliament, depending on outcome of coalition talks -- consistently boast about the Energiewende’s achievements or propose ways to drive it forward, for example, by making industry pick up more of the bill. While it will be impossible to roll it back, the new Merkel government could slam on the brakes. The days of unbridled expansion are probably over, for the next four years, at least.
It is good news for Germans, though, that the Energiewende can’t be reversed. It has empowered too many actors for that. And fossil fuels will one day be sapped -- be it sooner, as some warn, or later, as others promise. But the next four years will determine whether Germany builds on its position as a far-sighted pioneer or simply falls back into the pack. If the latter, the word Energiewende, too, will fade back into the German vocabulary, perhaps bypassing the chance to take a place along the likes of Wirtschaftswunder and Bauhaus.