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Germany's energy transition

March 9, 2012

Fukushima forced Chancellor Merkel to reverse her policy on nuclear power. The rapid roll out of renewable energy has taken on a new importance. So what has changed, one year on?

Rolf Disch's solar village in Freiburg
Rooftop solar is a highly visible but relatively small source of renewable energy in GermanyImage: Rolf Disch Solararchitektur

Fukushima's three failed reactors were still smoldering when Germany's conservative coalition government announced late May last year that it would phase out nuclear energy.

Chancellor Angela Merkel said the meltdowns proved that even a technologically advanced country like Japan had been unable to entirely shut out the risk of disaster.

"Germany must, in my opinion, rethink and hasten to secure a good and sensible energy supply without atomic power," Merkel said in a video statement.

Days after the earthquake-triggered tsunami caused three of the six reactors at the Fukushima power station to melt down, the German government closed eight of the country's oldest plants. By June 30, the country's major parties had agreed that they would remain offline permanently, and that all nuclear plants would be taken off the grid by 2022.

A fresh start?

For some, the about-face is a sign that Germany is leading the way into a clean energy future.

Others see the nuclear exit as premature. Up until 2010, nuclear energy met roughly a quarter of Germany's electricity needs. There are concerns that renewable energies will not be able to provide the stable loads of electricity that are vital for industry.  

Germanywill need to invest in huge amounts of grid infrastructure to exploit more renewable energies like wind and solar, and to offset their fluctuating levels of supply. Yet critics fear the country will not be able to roll out the necessary power cables and smart grid technologies in time.  

The four largest energy companies in Germany warned that the country would face a dangerous shortage of electricity, requiring energy to be imported from abroad. Energy companies in neighboring countries prepared for expanded business.

Yet a year later, many are surprised to find that Germany has continued to export energy, despite the phase-out.

Wind and solar boom

Merkel's abandonment of one of her party's long-cherished platforms sent an important signal. Yet in a policy sense, the government already had a head start.

Infografik Erneuerbare Energien übernehmen die Stromversorgung in Deutschland Englisch

Ten years earlier the coalition of Social Democrats and Greens under former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder set in motion the first steps to shift Germany away from nuclear and towards renewable energies.

The renewable energy act (EEG) that came into law in 2000 put in place the fixed purchasing prices that have been credited with tripling the amount of energy derived from clean sources over the last decade.

By the end of 2011, renewable energy made up about 21 percent of German electricity production, 4 percent more than the year before.

Wind power is currently the single biggest source at 8 percent. Biomass supplies 4 percent and solar power is now delivering more electricity than hydropower.

As the first reactors were shut down, energy from nuclear sank from 22 percent to 15 percent.

Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen described the change underway as one of the most important modernization projects of the coming decades.

The revolution will not be centralized

Private citizens, who know they will get a fixed price for electricity off a solar panel on their roof or a wind turbine on their land, are driving the change, together with municipal power utilities.

Windpark Wiesensteig near Bavaria
Wind power provides the country's lion's share of alternative energy.Image: dapd

"The shift toward renewable energy is more of a grassroots movement in Germany, which is being supported by politics," said Hans-Josef Fell, a Green Party parliamentarian who helped draft the 'feed-in tariff' laws.

Germany's largest power providers, which until now have been banking on atomic and fossil fuel energy, contributed only 1.5 percent of production toward the renewable energy switch.

"It's not just about those four older energy providers anymore. Rather, there are many new players," Fell said.

For the big four (RWE, Vattenfall, EON and EnBW), the transition is costly. Billions of euros have been wiped off the values of these companies in the last year.

This has been due in part to the premature shutdown of nuclear plants as well as to increased competition from companies producing clean energy.

The EEG law requires utilities to purchase any renewable energy offered to them. This forces them to power down their conventional power plants when large amounts of solar and wind are on offer. The investments that have been sunk into such plants are now less profitable.

On some days, wind and solar can already produce enough electricity to meet all of Germany's demand. This capacity is growing, which spells bad news for RWE, Vattenfall, EON and EnBW if they're not able to adapt.

Power struggle over speed

Germany withstood its first grid restructuring test by getting through a cold winter without power cuts.

While skeptics at home and abroad have been waiting to pounce on any sign of failure, behind the scenes a power struggle has been playing out.

The big utilities say they want to invest in more renewable energy, but are concerned about the speed of its expansion.

In the past two years, Germany has invested in nearly as much rooftop solar devices as the rest of the world combined.

Critics are pointing to high costs for consumers, who shoulder the burden of the feed-in tariffs when utilities pass on the costs of purchasing clean power.  

Economy Minister Philipp Rösler shares these concerns and is pushing to cut the tariffs for solar power by up to 37 percent.

'Squander its advantage'

Some see the splits in government as evidence that not all have fallen in behind Merkel's energy transition.

informational graphic, intelligent grid
It is possible for Germany to get 100 percent of its electricity from renewable energy sources. But for that, the energy system will have to be restructured.

"I'm concerned that the German Republic's execution is coming across as amateurish at the moment. We really need professional project management," said Klaus Töpfer, a former conservative environment minister and head of the UN Environment Programme whom Merkel has appointed to lead Germany's nuclear commission.

Professor Eicke Weber, director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems in Freiburg, also said he was disappointed with German politics.

"Altogether, the German government is showing that it has no clear concept for the energy transition, and that some politicians aren't taking it seriously," Weber told DW.

The respected researcher described this approach as "disastrous and immensely dangerous."

Germany's feed-in tariff model is in the international limelight, and under close scrutiny. If the country were to squander its chances, it would be terribly counterproductive, Weber said.

Author: Gero Rueter / sad
Editor: Nathan Witkop