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Ministers Draw Line in Sand Over Future Energy Policy

Debate over the future of Germany's energy policy is splitting two key ministries. With nuclear plants set to close, Germany must either ramp up its wind power or rely more on polluting coal and gas plants.


Is wind power too expensive to solve Germany's expected energy shortage?

The German media has made much of the battle brewing between Economics Minister Wolfgang Clement and Environment Minister Jürgen Trittin over Germany's future energy policy.

The country has long championed environmentally friendly renewable energies, but under pressure to balance its budget against a backdrop of an ailing economy, there's a growing chorus of German politicians who want to shift the emphasis back to traditional energies like nuclear, coal, oil and gas.

The decision made by the government -- led by the Social Democrats and the Green Party -- to close all of Germany's nuclear power plants by 2020 will result in the country losing access to half the energy production it requires annually. The shortfall will have to be filled -- and that's where German politicians clash.

The German Energy Agency (DENA) has been brought in to mediate the conflict and is planning to release a report by spring that will lay out a plan for the "optimal integration" of wind power into the country's energy grid.

Wind vs. coal

Trittin auf See

Juergen Trittin

Trittin, who as a senior member of the Greens has a clear environmental agenda to push, is backing the current government plan, which would see wind power increasing to a 20 percent share of overall electricity production by 2020.

But Clement, under orders from Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to boost the heavily regulated and depressed German economy, has stated that the 4.5 percent of Germany’s total energy that currently comes from renewable sources is more than enough.

He wants to see more competition injected into the country’s energy market and has called for the end of government energy subsidies that guarantee utility providers high prices for wind power and other renewable energies.

Wolfgang Clement

Wolfgang Clement

Clement (photo) has also argued that wind farms are a blot on the German landscape. If he succeeds, his critics warn, it will make providers of costlier green energy a secondary choice for German consumers.

Major need for renewable energy

Some 40,000 megawatts will be lost over the next years, as aging coal, gas and oil-powered stations are taken out of commission. A further 18,000 megawatts will be lost from the closure of Germany's nuclear power plants.

Now, Trittin and Clement are bitterly divided over the best way to recover the nearly 60,000 megawatts that will be lost. Clement, a former state premier in the coal-producing heartland North Rhine Westphalia, promotes coal-energy and has called for an end to the “subsidy mentality” in the wind energy sector. Trittin, for his part, remains a devotee of wind farms.

Row irrelevant

But top German energy executives -- who are due to attend a conference on Sept. 18 to discuss Germany’s future energy needs -- have said the squabbling between Clement and Trittin is irrelevant.

DENA Chairman Stephan Kohler has called for an end to what it has called “pointless discussion” about wind energy. “By 2020, we will lose some 40,000 megawatts of energy from conventional sources,” he told Deutsche Welle. “Honestly, I think he (Trittin) is redundant. It’s not really a question of whether we need more renewable energy instead of fossil fuels. I regard the coal against wind or coal against renewable energy forms discussion as unproductive. We need both, but both must be highly efficient,” he said.

But politics don't always function the way energy experts would like them to. Often decisions involve political ideologies and closely held interests. But it is deeply embarrassing for the Schröder government to have its ministries split over policies the parties should be united on, and now a growing number of Greens and Social Democrats are calling on Trittin and Clement to reach a compromise and produce a joint policy paper.

They face a number of tough questions. A report released by Clement's predecessor in 2001, Werner Müller, concluded that it would not be possible for Germany to meet its energy needs while at the same time observing the emissions targets established in the Kyoto Protocol if it entirely abandoned nuclear energy. Meanwhile, critics have argued that wind power is too expensive to fill the vacuum left after Germany's nuclear plants go off the power grid.

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