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Spare Germany the blackouts

Portrait photo of Ashutosh Pandey wearing a blue collared shirt and a navy-blue blazer
Ashutosh Pandey
September 23, 2021

The risk of power outages is rising as renewable energy growth in Germany struggles to keep up with coal's exit. We know what must be done, but will the politicians get on board, asks DW's Ashutosh Pandey.

A man walks with a coal plant and a wind farm in the background
Wind energy in Germany has seen its fortunes turn for the worse over the past few yearsImage: Julian Stratenschulte/dpa/picture alliance

The German government needed a rap on the knuckles from the country's Constitutional Court to realize it needed to be more ambitious when it came to its carbon emission reduction goals.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's government responded with an uncharacteristic swiftness as if it had expected it, coming up within a week with the most ambitious climate neutrality target among major economies.

Berlin now plans to become carbon-neutral by 2045 rather than 2050, avoiding nearly 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions. The amended Climate Change Act also calls for cutting CO2 emissions by at least 65% from 1990 levels by 2030. The previous goal was a 55% reduction.

Setting an ambitious target is one thing, achieving it is a different beast altogether. And Germany knows it well; it would have even missed its modest 2020 climate goals had it not been for pandemic-induced lockdowns and economic slump. An internal government report projects that Germany is on track to cut emissions by just 49% by 2030. Merkel must be relieved that the onus of meeting the legally binding targets is now on her successor.

Specter of power outages

The measures would most certainly include a swifter phaseout of coal, which is currently slated for 2038, a rather problematic step in a country where the transition to green energy has slackened considerably over the past few years.

Ashutosh Pandey
DW Business editor Ashutosh PandeyImage: DW

With nuclear power on its way out next year, coal's early exit would need to be compensated by increased output of wind and solar energy, especially when electricity demand is expected to see a steep rise as vehicles go electric and hydrogen production soars.

An ambitious undertaking, given the recent struggles of the wind energy sector, which will have to supply more than half the green electricity by 2030 to meet the decarbonization targets. Only 4.9 gigawatts (GW) of new wind energy capacity was added between 2018 and 2020, lower than the 5.3 GW in 2017 alone.

A hastier phaseout of coal coupled with slow uptake of renewables and a higher rise in power demand would not only drive up electricity bills for German homes, already among the highest in Europe, but also raise the specter of frequent power outages, especially during chilly winters.

In addition to candlelight dinners possibly becoming the norm, power interruptions could prove extremely costly for the German economy. While concrete data on costs of power outages remain scarce, a 2013 study by the Institute of Energy Economics in Cologne calculated that the costs of blackouts in Germany could amount to €430 million ($505 million) per hour.

A map of Europe showing electricity prices

Getting rid of red tape

Germany's infamous bureaucracy must take most of the blame for ruining the renewables party. Lengthy and complex permitting procedures have meant that wind farms with a total capacity of more than 10 GW are waiting for approval. Licenses for wind parks now take two to four years to come, as opposed to 10 months previously. Interestingly, some of that is because there aren't enough civil servants to process the applications.

The permits often come with a plethora of rules, many of which push up investment costs. For example, some wind farms can only operate at night between March and October to protect local wildlife, leading to as much as a 40% loss in their annual output. 

So, what should be done? It's a no-brainer: reduce legal hurdles, bring down bureaucratic obstacles and speed up approvals. Even Merkel — the so-called climate chancellor — agrees. In May, she even advocated for reducing options for Germans to take legal action against the construction of new electricity links by treating them as an infrastructure of national importance.

There is also an urgent need to bring locals, especially those who fundamentally favor wind energy as long as it's not being generated in their backyard, on board by making them key stakeholders in wind farms and debunking fake narratives around renewables. 

No windmills in my back yard

Far-right AfD's influence

What stopped Merkel from implementing her solutions during her tenure as chancellor? Her government came up with an 18-point task list in 2019 to expedite the approval process, but very little has been implemented.

Perhaps the powerful coal lobby proved too hot to handle, or the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) too difficult to ignore. The AfD has been against wind power to capture the votes of wind power opponents, especially in east Germany, forcing the ruling Christian Democrats (CDU) — afraid of antagonizing those voters — to drag its feet on wind energy.

The next government would be ruling in a fool's paradise if it carries on pandering to a small minority of climate deniers and wind energy opponents and diverting its energies toward costly ideas such as importing clean hydrogen from Africa and elsewhere.

The Energiewende — Germany's energy transition policy with a price tag already above €500 billion — promises a greener, cleaner, and more predictable future, but a continued indifference toward renewable energy might instead push us into darker times, marking our return to hoarding candles.

Germany's struggling energy transition

Portrait photo of Ashutosh Pandey wearing a blue collared shirt and a navy-blue blazer
Ashutosh Pandey Business editor with a focus on international trade, financial markets and the energy sector.@ashutoshpande85