Energy Democracy: Germany’s ENERGIEWENDE to Renewables
Click to unfold the individual chapters.
Chapter 1: Energiewende: The Solution To More Problems Than Climate Change
Did the Energiewende start in 2002 with the nuclear phaseout agreement, in 2000 with the Renewable Energy Act, in 1991 with the Feed-in Act, in 1980 with the first Energiewende book, or in some other year – maybe in 1974 with the protests against industrialization in a farming community? Whatever the answer, one thing is clear: it didn’t start with Merkel’s post-Fukushima phaseout of 2011. The decision did, however, draw international attention for three reasons: the timing, the message, and the messenger. So what lessons can we draw from the Energiewende?
Chapter 2: The Birth of a Movement: 1970s Protests for Democracy in Wyhl
Germany’s anti-nuclear movement is considered to be very powerful. But it did not start with concern about radioactivity. Rather, in 1974 German citizens began protesting against the industrialization of their quiet rural farming communities – and against an authoritarian government and arrogant technocrats trying to push through a large nuclear plant. The Energiewende thus began with a call for energy democracy.
Chapter 3: Fledgling Wind Power: The Folly Of Innovation Without Deployment
As the fledging wind turbine sector shows, even the world’s best engineers were unable to build modern units from scratch. Government officials threw money at researchers – along with unrealistic expectations. What’s worse, corporate management at the big firms mainly wanted the R&D funding so they could prove that wind power didn’t work. Innovation did not come from early R&D.
Chapter 4: German Wind Pioneers Fighting Power Monopolies In The 1980s
Those who said “no” to nuclear knew they needed to say yes to alternatives. One was wind power. While large firms struggled to build giant prototypes, startups with no R&D funding gradually, but quickly scaled up from small models that worked well. Entrepreneurial risk kept them focused on market success. Meanwhile, conventional utilities fought to keep these startup turbines off their grids.
Chapter 5: The Power Rebels of Schoenau
When a group of citizens in the Black Forest decided to buy their town’s grid back after Chernobyl in order to stop purchases of nuclear power, the utility and government treated them with disrespect. But the campaigners weren’t just idealists; at crucial times, they repeatedly turned out to have someone in their ranks who knew exactly what to do. Waiting for liberalization was not an option, so they came up with a winning slogan to take back the grid.
Chapter 6: Renewable Energy In Conservative Communities
In most countries, environmentalism is associated with the political left. But in Germany, “conserve” is still the mantra for both conservationists and conservatives. How can environmental campaigners elsewhere get such support across party lines? Maybe by understanding what Bürgerenergie is and how it drives so many citizen projects in Germany: people want to save their communities first before they save the planet.
Chapter 7: The 1990s: Laying The Foundations For The Energiewende
In 1990, an unlikely coalition of parliamentary backbenchers fought hard to pass a law that would later turn into a world-class policy: a nationwide feed-in tariff. Under normal circumstances, influential utilities would have easily killed the legislation, but German Reunification and, later, the liberalization of power markets across the EU distracted them. At a time when solar startups got going, they doubted renewable energy would make much difference – a mistake no utility anywhere is likely to repeat today.
Chapter 8: Green Capitalism Made in Germany
The German reading of Adam Smith differs from the mainstream interpretation of his work in the English-speaking world, and that different reading opens up a few policy options. German policy aims to tap the entrepreneurial spirit of capitalism – but also directs markets in a desirable direction. German economic policy for renewables is not laissez-faire or planned economics, but fettered capitalism. Feed-in tariffs are not mistaken for generous subsidies, but floor prices that increase competition between market players.
Chapter 9: The Red-Green Revolution (1998-2005)
A political revolution took place in 1998, when post-War Germany got its first completely new governing coalition. For a brief time, popular will reached the top echelons of policymaking. Red-Green passed the eco-tax, the Renewable Energy Act, and the original nuclear phaseout within a couple of years. The result obviously hurt incumbent utilities, so they should have fought back harder – but they still doubted renewables would matter much. And anyway, they had bigger fish to fry.
Chapter 10: Healthy Democracy: Key To The Energiewende’s Success
Germany’s relatively bad solar and wind potential does not explain its role as a renewables leader, nor does German engineering. So why did Berlin pass a set of robust, long-term policies for a transition to renewables. Might its political system explain this success? Keeping money out of politics, preventing legislative gridlock through a cooperative federalism, and diverse media play an important role in that respect. But the struggle to keep the debate civil is continuous.
Chapter 11: Utilities Bet On Gas And Coal and Renewables Boom (2005-2011)
Before Fukushima, Chancellor Merkel was still a demure leader who enforced the party line, which still focused on big utility needs. For their part, utility experts were still in denial about the threat that renewables posed to their business models. So corporative board rooms voted for a boom in coal plant construction – even as solar, wind, and biomass were exploding.
Chapter 12: From Meitner to Merkel: A History of German nuclear power
The Germans first split the atom. In the 50s and 60s, the initial years of atomic hype, most Germans saw nuclear power as a pillar of future civilization. But by the 70s, banks had opted out, and an eroding public faith in the nuclear complex began. Left behind was the hollow shell of an envisioned world with endless energy – and a powerful industrial sector hanging on for dear life. After years of public debate and massive protests, that shell collapsed in Germany in March 2011 when it lost its last influential proponents. How different the story is in France – where critics had been silenced with brute force and pink slips.
Chapter 13: Merkel Takes Ownership of the Energiewende (2011-Today)
Merkel’s Blitzwende after Fukushima caused a lot of concern. Lots of predictions have already turned out to be false, sometimes comically so, like the fear of power shortages when Germany actually has become Europe’s biggest electricity exporter. And the flip side of utilities finally taking renewables seriously turns out, unsurprisingly, to be real pushback. Is the grassroots movement that powered the Energiewende over at the very moment it becomes uncontested governmental policy?
Chapter 14: Will the Energiewende Succeed?
It’s been 35 years since the first Energiewende book of 1980 – and it’s another 35 till the targets for 2050. At halftime it’s time to review what is needed to shift to a renewable energy economy. Scenarios for the Energiewende overlap; there is a scientific consensus matching the political consensus that it will work and even be more affordable than a non-Energiewende. So the question for Germany is less about whether it will switch to renewables, but how: driven by a few large corporations, or by communities and citizens?
Chapter 15: Act Now Or Be Left Out
The energy transition represents a one-time window of opportunity to democratize the energy sector, in Germany and around the world. But mostly, discussions about the energy transition focus too narrowly on affordability and carbon emissions. These are, no doubt, important criteria to consider. But so are civil rights in the energy sector. You have a right to make your own energy. And people are citizens first; consumers, second.