Germany's new Environment Minister Peter Altmaier has a few difficult tasks in his in-tray – and they all depend on how he manages the country's all-important transition from nuclear and fossil fuel power to renewables.
The "energy transition" has become one of the key projects of Chancellor Angela Merkel's tenure. About one year ago, following the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima power plant in Japan, Merkel announced that all of Germany's nuclear power stations would be shut down by 2022 and money would be invested in renewable energy technology.
The first spectacular step was the immediate shut down of eight German nuclear power stations that lacked the most up-to-date safety technology. But the massive energy shortages and winter power cuts feared by many critics did not materialize.
This was a success that former Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen - sacked on Wednesday by Merkel – could claim a piece of. Up until this week, he was the central administrator for Germany's energy transition. But while the closure of the old nuclear power stations went relatively smoothly, Röttgen got bogged down in other areas.
State broadcaster WDR reported that a leaked paper from the Environment Ministry listed 37 points of environment policy that still needed to be dealt with. After his defeat in the state election in North Rhine-Westphalia, it seems that Merkel did not trust Röttgen, a former favorite, to get these unfinished tasks done. Now his successor Peter Altmaier has to solve the pressing problems of the energy transition.
Where to put the nuclear waste?
The question of disposing of the remaining nuclear waste, for instance, remains a thorny issue. No one has yet found an adequate way of getting rid of this toxic sludge, which will be radioactive for millennia. At the moment, it is being stored in temporary storage facilities, often on the grounds of the nuclear power plants themselves, which cannot be a permanent solution.
A disused salt mine near the town of Gorleben in Lower Saxony has long been considered the only potential permanent nuclear waste dump, and the site has been researched and tested for decades. But its suitability remains controversial, and Gorleben proponents and opponents have become bitterly entrenched.
Now the search for a new permanent storage facility is to start again. According to Röttgen, one more meeting will be enough to find a consensus between the opposition center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Green Party, and the various state governments. The SPD and the Greens have called for a scientific assessment of other alternatives before any commitments should be made. But they fear that at the end of the process, the waste will end up in Gorleben anyway, simply because 1.6 billion euros ($2 billion) have already been invested in the site. The plan is for the final decision to pass into law by this summer.
Should solar power be subsidized?
The second big challenge for Altmaier is the row over subsidizing solar energy. The government has said it wants the technology to be developed further, but at the same time it is planning to cut its costly state subsidies. The planned 30 percent reduction was blocked by the upper house of the German parliament, which is made up of Germany's 16 state governments.
The states are worried that the cuts will set off a wave of bankruptcies in the solar technology sector, where German manufacturers are already being undercut by their Chinese rivals. Altmaier has to resolve this conflict as soon as possible, because continuing uncertainty about subsidies is currently hampering investment. In the meantime, the costs of the seven-billion-euro subsidies are already being transferred to consumers.
How to get renewable energy to consumers?
There are also serious problems in the development of Germany's power grid. After all, the electricity from the new renewable energy plants – for instance the large offshore wind energy plants – needs to get to consumers. The networks currently in place are not adequate, but laying new power-lines is expensive, time-consuming, and residents whose homes are affected are already complaining about the proposals.
On top of that, the issue of whether wind energy should come mainly from offshore plants is also controversial. Critics say these wind parks in the sea are too big and too expensive, and are calling for decentralized wind parks to be set up closer to consumers.
Meanwhile, as long as renewables remain an inadequate supply for Germany's energy demand, coal and gas power stations will need to remain on the grid. But energy companies are delaying new investments while the economic circumstances remain unclear, and have been demanding more financial aid from the state. There is still some potential for saving energy in Germany, but European Union proposals for more energy efficiency were weakened following pressure from Economy Minister Philipp Rösler.
How important is the energy transition?
So Altmaier has plenty of problems to solve, and his qualifications look, at first glance, questionable. Up until now he was the chief whip for the governing Christian Democratic Union, marshalling parliamentary majorities for Merkel – not exactly a job that requires familiarity with Germany's pressing environmental issues.
And there is plenty of pressure on him. "The next few months will be decisive for the success of the energy transition," predicted Hans-Peter Keitel, president of the German industry association (BDI), as he offered the new minister his support. Hans Heinrich Driftmann, president of the Association of the German Chambers of Industry and Commerce (DIHK), spoke of the vital importance of a smooth transition. "If there is no strategy soon, then energy supply, energy safety, and energy prices will soon go out of control," he said.
Klaus Töpfer, former director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), and one of the most prominent German environment politicians, called for the development of a clear master plan for the government's energy transition. As far as he is concerned, it is still not clear how its stated targets for the next decade will be met. "There needs to be more pressure to realize the plan," he said.
The world's eyes are on Germany, Töpfer believes. "The world is watching to see whether an industrial nation like Germany will be able to run an energy policy that keeps economic stability, while not using nuclear power and not expanding fossil fuel power stations," he said, adding that the transition had to succeed, "because that's where the jobs of the future will be."
Author: Nils Naumann / bk
Editor: Andreas Illmer