The Energiewende: ‘for’ or ‘with’ Europe?

An image from the German map within the board game ‘Power Grid’. Photo by Stefan Bouzarovski.

Dr Alexander Wochnik, a member of CURE and Visiting Research Fellow at the School of Environment, Education and Development at the University of Manchester, reflects on some of the implications of Germany’s new ‘Grand’ coalition agreement for the ongoing low carbon transition. His piece also provides rare insights into an issue that is currently at the margins of current academic and policy debates – the implications of the Energiewende for Germany’s relations with its neighbouring countries in the EU.

On the 14th of December, the members of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) sanctioned Germany’s third Grand Coalition with the Christian-Democrats (CDU/CSU) since 1949. This merits a look at the coalition agreement’s approach towards the Energiewende, since it outlines the policy framework for the next four years. Although coalition agreements are not legally binding they provide transparency and a benchmark against which the government will be judged by the public. The Energiewende will be one of the top priorities of the next government.  A sign of this is the appointment of Sigmar Gabriel, chairman of the SPD, as federal minister of economics and energy.

In 2000, Germany’s SPD-Greens coalition passed the Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG) leading to the Energiewende, an energy system transformation entailing the transition towards a de-carbonised and – from 2022 onwards – de-nuclearised, renewables-driven economy. The feed-in tariff (FiT), guarantees prices to investors for 20 years, caused the share of renewables of Germany’s power production to soar from five percent to roughly 25 percent to date (and more than 30 percent in the summer). Germany’s media has written much about the next government’s wish to curtail the speed of this growth: how past targets shall be delayed by five years (40-45 percent renewables by 2025 instead of 2020); how this strengthens the domestic coal industry; strengthens the three big players E-ON, RWE and Vattenfall overall; threatens the renewables industry and how private households will continue to bear the burden of the subsidies for renewables whilst the industry is exempt from its costs etc.

Far more neglected in public debates and the coalition agreement itself is how the Energiwende influences Germany’s relations with its neighbours, and the EU’s energy policy more broadly. The Energiewende has considerable effects on Germany’s economic and political relations with its European partners in three ways: first, Germany has become a significant net exporter of electricity (depending on the season and time up to a quarter of its electricity production travels abroad). This threatens to destabilize the electricity grid of most notably the Netherlands, Poland and the Czech Republic to where Germany’s excess electricity goes. The eastern neighbours will install phase shifting transformers to stop the unwanted electricity; the Netherlands could follow suit. These states have also delayed plans to build their own power plants. Second, Germany will stop producing nuclear power by 2022. The Vattenfall co-owned nuclear power stations were taken from the grid, surely to great annoyance of its owner: the Swedish state. France continues to rely on nuclear, so does the Czech Republic. Poland has long dreamt of going nuclear. If Germany and the public deem nuclear power dangerous, how can they accept nuclear power at their doorstep? Also, how far will Germany’s leading role in going renewable affect the neighbours’ public opinion and possibly influence their political landscape? Third, Germany’s greenhouse gases reduction targets are ambitious and the coalition agreement promises a similar stance at EU level (40 percent reduction by 2030). Will this bode well with states like Poland, which is unlikely to disappoint its own coal industry?

In the European policy section the coalition agreement reads: ‘The Energiewende must also be thought of in the European context’. One wonders whether the authors mean to think the Energiewende for Europe or with Europe?

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