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Curbing the transition

Gero Rueter / nhNovember 30, 2013

Climate protection groups are criticizing the German government's plans to slow down renewable energy development. In spite of a recently decided coalition agreement, the debate about the right pace will continue.

Wind turbines in front of coal-fired power plant in Neurath, Germany (Photo: Oliver Berg)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

"The development of renewable energies has been and still is going quite well," Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed a few hours after coalition talks between her own CDU party, Bavarian sister party CSU and the Social Democrats (SPD) had finally drawn to an end in the early morning hours on November 28. But it looks as though the momentum which the energy transition has gained over the last few years could be a problem for the future government. Merkel and her coalition partners plan to curb the development of renewable energies.

"We need corridors so that the development of renewable energies is in line with network expansion. That would add predictability and calculability to the energy switchover so that the costs of promoting renewable energies under the EEG law don't keep rising," said Merkel.

Electricity customers currently pay the costs for green energy that producers feed into the grid at a fixed price. Over the past few years, an increasing number of solar and wind power plants have been built, causing the market price of electricity to slump. But paradoxically, the fixed green electricity price rose - i.e., the electricity price normal customers pay.

The future government wants to stop that trend. According to the coalition agreement, the further development of renewable energies will be tied to a "legally fixed corridor of development: 40 to 45 percent by the year 2025, 55 to 60 percent by the year 2035." If no such corridor, or ceiling, were imposed and if development were to continue at current rates, then the share of renewable energies in Germany's electricity sector would rise from today's 25 percent to more than 45 percent in the year 2020.

Development halt

The Green party and the Left party have voiced harsh criticism. The two opposition parties warn that both the switchover and international climate policy could fail altogether. The planned ceiling on development means "state-prescribed protection of climate-damaging, coal-powered electricity production," railed Green party's environmental expert Hans-Josef Fell. It would "massively strangle" the development of renewable energies and "almost halve" current investment in the green electricity sector, he added.

The Greens' energy expert Hans-Josef Fell (Photo: Therese Aufschlager/ dpa)
Fell warns of the consequences of failing to protect the climateImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Eva Bulling-Schröter from the Left party agrees. The grand coalition is "running the energy transition into the ground at full speed," she said. She doubts that "the future government is actually serious about climate protection."

Limit to on-shore wind power

But there's also criticism from within the ranks of coalition parties. The coalition agreement stipulates that new on-shore wind power plants will only receive subsidies if they are built at locations with particularly strong wind. That would risk "abruptly choking off wind power in southern Germany," warned Josef Göppel, an environment and energy expert with the CSU who participated in the coalition negotiations.

Josef Göppel (CSU), energy expert walking past Greenpeace demonstrators (Photo: Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa)
Göppel says party heads ignored expert adviceImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Instead, the future government looks set to continue promoting off-shore wind power development without any curbs whatsoever, Stephan Grünger of Eurosolar said, even though electricity generated offshore is roughly twice as expensive. That is a clear "contrast to the commitments stated in the coalition agreement which say that the energy switchover should cost as little as possible," he said.

Göppel is angry that the party leadership deleted paragraphs from the coalition draft which the energy working group had deemed vital in their negotiations. If the coalition agreement is implemented as it currently stands, said Göppel, Germany risks losing its energy leadership role.

'Slowing down development'

Ulrich Kelber, deputy chairman of the SPD's parliamentary group, confirmed that many passages were deleted in the final phase of the coalition negotiations. He blamed chancellor Merkel personally. "Unfortunately, slowing down development of renewable energies was the political scalpel Merkel wanted to have," Kelber told Deutsche Welle. He added that he didn't expect such intervention on Merkel's part, and also that he was surprised to see her wanting to change her own policy.

Ulrich Kelber, deputy chairman of SPD parliamentary group (Photo: Karlheinz Schindler/dpa)
Kelber doubts whether the coalition deal will even be implemented as it isImage: picture-alliance/ZB

Kelber is worried that energy plant builders may now be left insecure, and he questions whether the coalition agreement can even be implemented in its current form. He is convinced that the planned bills will be assessed and corrected.

Once the new governing coalition comes to power, Kelber expects the "battle on the energy transition" to continue over the next four years - in the form of a "hard fight within the coalition and the parties."

Stakeholders want clear commitment

Thomas Bareis, CDU/CSU parliamentary group energy policy coordinator, said the coalition agreement's chapter on the energy transition would "ensure predictability and reliability" in curbing uncontrolled construction of new plants.

Supporters of the coalition deal point out that producers of ordinary coal and gas power plants have to pay their bills, and that they can't operate effectively when their plants stand still for extended periods and are only started up when no solar and wind power is available.

Hildegard Müller, Chairwoman of BDEW (Photo: Michael Kappeler/dpa
Müller welcomed the plans to slow down green energy developmentImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The German Association of Energy and Water Industries (BDEW) shares this view. Chairwoman Hildegard Müller, a former minister in Merkel's chancellery, welcomed "the commitment to a corridor of development" and stresses that everybody had to understand "that there's no way back now that there's agreement about the problem."

Müller hopes that under the deal, fossil-powered plants can keep running for several decades. Their profitability was questioned when the energy transition was first agreed to, because green electricity was given priority and is being fed into the grid first. To establish a stable energy system, however, Germany will need its fossil-fuel power plants to bridge supply shortfalls over the next several years.

Outcry from environmentalists

Environmental groups consider the coalition agreement a "frontal attack against the energy switchover." A mass demonstration is planned in Berlin for this Saturday. Klaus Milke with environmental and development organization Germanwatch warned that the coalition agreement is "the official end of German leadership in climate protection. It's a backward trend and a big victory for fossil lobbyists."

Anti-globalization network Attac is one of the groups organizing the demonstration. Their spokesman Jens-Martin Rode called it a scandal that the future government plans to "stop development of renewable energies - in the light of disastrous consequences of climate change in the global south."