Where has all the courage gone? Germany's transition to renewable energy used to be a prestige project. But a new flawed reform is endangering its core principles, says Richard Fuchs.
Anyone who has driven along a snow-covered winter road knows that you have to be careful with the brakes. Push the pedal too hard and the car can spin off the road in seconds. Just as braking hard on ice doesn't guarantee success, last year's renewable energy reform is the wrong way to keep Germany's energy transition on track.
Last summer, the government coalition of the conservative CDU and the center-left SPD drove a new energy reform through parliament. Its aim was to ensure that Germany's renewable energy subsidy, set by the Renewable Energy Act of 2000, should incur no increased costs. The reform may achieve this, but an unwanted side effect could well be that Germany's successful development of renewable energy could stall.
Instead of pursuing its goal of 80 percent renewable energy by 2050, the government has shackled the transition. The extent of new wind farms and solar plants will be capped - the new rules mean that any such enterprise will only be subsidized if, at the time it goes online, the government's target has not yet been reached. And this target is shamefully low - indeed, for an ambitious energy transition, something of a farce.
We need more courage
All this faintheartedness creates security for bureaucrats - and chaos for investors. Long-term investment in wind parks will become a financial kamikaze act, and could slow down a sector that has been very dynamic, and has created more than 380,000 new jobs in Germany.
There is much at stake - in the past 15 years, wind and solar power have become Germany's most important source of energy. Even now, 27.3 percent of the country's electricity production is green. But the new rules won't allow that to continue. On the contrary - this U-turn is likely to seriously dent the international reputation of Germany's energy transition.
It also seems fainthearted that, on top of the un-ambitious caps on wind farms and solar power plants, we could be seeing the suspension of one of the principles of current energy policy. Up until now, renewable energy always had priority access to the grid - in future, it will have an equal status to lignite coal and nuclear power. Once again, at the latest press conference on energy reform, the government failed to explain how abolishing that privilege squares with the declared aim of building up renewable energy by another 50 percent.
Beyond a certain point, renewable energy providers will have to market their power themselves. They will no longer be able to feed their power into the grid ahead of others, but will have to sell it at the energy exchange in Leipzig like everyone else. For one thing, that contravenes the core aim of the energy transition - to replace electricity from CO2-heavy coal-fired power plants with green energy. For another thing, it seems less than reasonable because it radically alters the playing field.
No more privilege
Smaller renewable energy providers will increasingly be driven from the market, while large energy companies - especially Germany's four biggest energy corporations - will be offered a helpful branch to grab onto at the expense of the taxpayer. Only the big players with a lot of expertise in marketing electricity will be able to succeed in the renewable energy market of the future. The obligation to sell and market your wares will require expertise that only major companies have. As a result, the transition to renewable energy will not only be slowed down, but it will become a playground for major companies, and pass out of public hands - where Germany's energy has been for the past 100 years.
Germany's subsidy for renewable energy was a success mainly because it was so popular, and a decisive factor in this popularity was the fact that more than 50 percent of all new renewable energy plants were operated by private citizens or small energy cooperatives. If the energy transition used to be decentralized, it could soon be big business.
So last summer's renewable energy reform is a threat to decentralization - and to its popularity. So it is high time for those who took to the streets to support the end of nuclear power to get their protest banners out again. Now, more than ever, we need people to demand a courageous transition to renewables because at the end of the day, only a courageous transition will be a successful transition.