Energiewende: Protest & Politics

The Energiewende is the idea, and the policy objective, to gradually phase out all fossil fuels and also nuclear power, and develop a more energy efficient and renewably powered German economy. The term was first coined in 1980. It remains a policy objective, but German politics has been riven between the foot draggers and the real energy transition enthusiasts. I have followed developments over the decades. In 2014 I spent a month in Frankfurt studying the process and posted a blog, ‘Energiewende: Success or Failure’.

Now, nearly a decade later, much has changed, and it is time to look again. The German Green Party was the most enthusiastic supporter of the policy, while the larger CDU & SPD parties were both in the foot dragging camp. Both the CDU & SPD supported the construction of the Nord Stream 1 and 2 gas pipelines, bringing gas from Russia. The Greens opposed this, but were overruled. Gerhard Schroder, the former Chancellor and leader of the SPD became a member of the board of Nord Stream 2, which was dominated by Russian energy giant Gazprom. Angela Merkel also supported Nord Stream.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24th February 2022 exposed German economic dependency on Russian gas. Politically Germany had to abruptly stop fossil fuel imports from Russia, and then the Russians blew up their own pipeline. The pressure was on to find alternative sources of energy, and quickly.

The German Green Party was now the minor party in a coalition government with the Olaf Scholz’s SPD. Robert Habeck, as Vice Chancellor and Minister for Economic Affairs got the poisoned chalice of a job of finding emergency alternatives to Russian gas. He had long supported the Energiewende. Had the policies he advocated been acted upon the impossible role he now finds himself in would not have been necessary. He now reluctantly has to keep more coal and nuclear plants going and go begging to Qatar for LPG, as well as increasing gas imports from Holland, Norway and others. Environmental activists were horrified. Protest focused on an open cast coal mine at Luetzerath, where a couple of weeks ago Greta Thunberg joined the long-standing protest, getting much media attention.

I have much sympathy for both Robert Habeck and Greta Thunberg. However I see some hope. These pro coal, LPG and nuclear power actions will probably be short term temporary fixes. The cost of solar and wind power has declined rapidly, and the growth of their deployment has been increasingly rapid. Germany was one of the early pioneers of wind and solar, and by 2003 they were generating 46 TWh from renewables, by 2013 this had risen to 152 TWh, which rose to 256 TWh in 2022. (See above graph)

It looks inevitable that solar, wind, energy storage and transmission systems will now see very much larger investments. The longstanding Energiewende goal of 100% renewables now looks both the cheapest and most politically appealing policy. It is a tragedy that larger investments in renewables and demand reduction were not pursued more vigorously and consistently over the last couple of decades. Dependency on Russian gas and the current desperate measures would all have been unnecessary. There are painful political paradoxes: Robert Habeck and the German Greens are being held responsible for the consequences of policies they themselves spent years opposing. Such is politics!

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