In the summer of 2011, the conservative federal government of Germany passed a law that will phase out nuclear power in Germany by 2022, and they proclaimed the so-called “Energiewende.” This announcement was made with a lot of pathos and was accompanied by even more talk about the historic nature of this brave decision and the gigantic task that lies ahead.
Despite the fact that this certainly did sound very nice, the close observer of German energy politics knew that the amount of pathos was a means to overshadow the fact that the very same government was hell-bent on a nuclear renaissance a short time ago.
Only a few months before the Fukushima meltdown, during the fall of 2010, the government under the leadership of chancellor Angela Merkel celebrated its biggest (and only) political “accomplishment” to that date. The center-right coalition government extended the operating time of nuclear reactors in Germany until the middle of the century. Its push to re-establish nuclear power as a centerpiece of the German energy policy was an event more than a decade in the making, a rather dogmatic goal that was pursued despite massive public dissent and opinion leveled against the move. Not only did it violate the 2000 nuclear phase out plan, formulated as a bilateral state treaty between the government and the energy corporations, it also endangered the expansion of renewable energy sources throughout Germany.
Reports and complaints that the extension of the lifespan of nuclear reactors would seriously harm the interests of regional utilities and all the other economic parties that were heavily investing in renewable energy sources and decentralized structures were ignored and accepted as collateral damage by the federal government. With the second decade of the 21st century dawning, everything seemed to be set for legal disputes, massive protests (200,000+ people), and a year of highly politicized energy debates.
But as we know today, Fukushima changed everything and we witnessed a rapid political turnaround and the proclamation of the “Energiewende.”
The term “Energiewende” is often translated as “energy turnaround,” which might be a valid translation, but it falls (very) short of capturing the true meaning. The term was originally coined by an environmentalist think-tank back in 1980. It originally described the complete transformation from an fossil- and nuclear-based economy to a 100% renewable-energy-based economy.
The word “Wende” describes a significant social-political change and is commonly used as a synonym for the peaceful revolution that took place in East Germany during the years of 1989/90 and led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification. So, it seems to be safe to say that a more accurate translation of “Energiewende” is “Energy Revolution.”
One doesn’t have to be an expert of German politics or history to understand that a “revolution” (of any sort) isn’t exactly the kind of thing that a conservative government would usually encourage, envison, or actually understand at all.
As the former pro-nuclear & traditionally anti-renewable-energy government coalition ventured out to become or at least portray itself as an energy revolutionary, it also presented the world with “ambitious goals.”
- The share of renewable energy sources in electricity consumption shall double from 17% in 2010 to 35% in 2020.
- The share of renewable energy sources in final energy consumption shall rise from 11% in 2010 to 18% in 2020.
Many domestic and international media outlets did choose to follow the spirit of the official press releases of the government and called the goals very ambitious and difficult to accomplish. Many even went as far as calling them unrealistic and some even said it would be impossible. Almost no one asked the simple, yet very important, journalistic question:
“Why are the official goals that were part of the Renewable Energy Sources Act since 2008 suddenly incredible ambitious and unrealistic?”
In my next “The Road to 2020” post, I will look at encouraging developments on the state level here in the Federal Republic of Germany. There’s a lot of potential to shake things up quite a bit and the nuclear adventures of Berlin politics has had an unintended but important role in this.
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