A New Focal Point
In the first part of this “Road to 2020” series of posts, I looked at how the pro-nuclear & renewable-sceptical center-right federal government of Germany made a 180° turnaround in terms of energy policy back in 2011. While this was good news, it’s of course very questionable if all the politicans of the government coalition had a complete change of heart over night. What is certain though is that the debate about the future of the energy supply seems to be finally over. All political parties in Germany are now officially supporting the end of nuclear power and a complete transition to a 100% renewable energy system. A goal that has overwhelming public support.
While the question of “renewables vs nuclear” is finally settled in Germany, this victory for renewables only means that the “frontlines” have moved. The new conflicts, debates, and political struggles have a different focal point. The sides of this new phase of the struggle for a fast “Energiewende” are split between proponents of “centralization” and “de-centralization” of renewables energy generation.
Until now, the “Renewable Energy Sources Act” enabled all sorts of people and businesses to invest and become an active part of the solution to the energy crisis of the 21st century. The system they’ve been building is growing rather naturally to utilize the potential of renewable energy sources in an efficient distributed way, close to the consumers themselves and utilizing synergy effects like combined heat and power generation. It’s a system with more than 1 million independent energy producers at this point and it is increasingly focused on values like regional energy autonomy, democratic participation, self-determination, and economic common sense under the banner of “local value creation“. This spirit is being supported by the current political framework which was designed to empower people to invest in renewables and become active participants.
The successes of this framework are obvious — rapid growth of renewables, a growing awareness of energy efficency’s value, macroeconomic benefits, and overwhelming public support despite the microeconomic downside of slightly higher electric bills. While tweaks & improvements of the legal framework are of course necessary at times, the continuation of the current “spirit” is paramount to ensure further fast, efficient, and cost-effective development toward a 100% renewable energy system.
Berlin Taps the Brakes
Unfortunately, it has become more and more obvious that the current federal government based in Berlin wants to change the political framework of the “Renewable Energy Sources Act” to favour centralized renewable energy projects (primarily offshore wind), disenfranchise small and medium investors, and oversee an “orderly transition”. This development started with the formation of the current center-right coalition government after the 2009 elections.
Fortunately, clean energy does have a very strong standing in Germany today and a complete rollback is almost impossible now. That’s a little miracle in and of itself, because the German Renewable Energy Sources Act would have been suspended if the current center-right government had won a majority in the 2002 or 2005 elections. Today, there are entire industries with hundreds of thousands of jobs and even more industries that depend on them. That means that even a rather critical federal government that dislikes the design of the law due to ideological reasons can not simply dismantle the “Renewable Energy Act” openly.
16 States = 16 Agendas
Just like the United States, Germany is a federal republic. That means that each of the 16 “Länder” (states) has its own independent government with its own set of goals and motivations. Unlike in the US, the German state governments have a direct role in federal politics and they control about 40% of the total government spending. The states also have control over most of the critical regulations that are highly important when it comes to building renewable energy projects. This includes regulations about land-use, granting permits, and arbitrary restrictions that can affect the profitability of projects (like restrictions concerning the height of wind turbines). This makes the states very powerful players when it comes to shaping the expansion of renewable energy systems.
This level of control in combination with rather renewable-sceptical governments also explains a very uneven level of growth in renewable energy capacity from state to state. This has been particularly true for inland states in the west and south. The populous coal state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), the central german state of Hesse (HS), as well as the two southern industrial powerhouses Baden-Württenberg (BW) and Bavaria (BY) actively blocked renewables throughout the last decade.
States on a New Course
I bet this sounds very familiar, but there is hope. Over the course of the last 1-3 years, there have been significant political changes in both NRW and BW. In both states, recent elections brought coalition governments of the center-left Social Democratic Party and the Green Party to power, the parties that created the “Renewable Energy Sources Act” 12 years ago. After a historic vote last year, the conservative stronghold of Baden-Württenberg is now actually governed by a prime minister from the Green Party!
While Hesse and Bavaria remain under strong conservative control, both face the question of how to replace 50% of their electricity generation within the next 10 years due to the nuclear phaseout. Since the economic benefits of “local value creation” are indisputable in terms of jobs, prosperity, and tax revenue, those state governments also have made a radical transition of their own:
“From an active hindrance to active supporters of renewables in their states.”
In my next post in this “Road to 2020” series, I will look at the actual renewable energy goals of the states and how this interacts with the “35% by 2020” goal of the federal government. While I don’t want to spoil too much, the range of policy goals ranges from 20%, 38%, and 50% by 2020 to actually ambitious goals of becoming renewable energy exporters with 200-300% of electricity generation coming from renewables by 2020, or a 100% renewable energy supply by 2030.