Germany’s energy transition slowed down by the general elections

Germany seesNorth-sea wind power as key to its energy transition.

Germany’s energy transition is losing pace as the upcoming elections on 24 September are taking precedence. EURACTIV partner Journal de l’Environnement reports.

More than 60 million Germans are going to cast their ballot in the election and choose who they want to send to the Bundestag, the German parliament’s lower chamber, among 4,828 candidates.

The winning party will form a new government – either alone or in a coalition. Angela Merkel’s advantage seems beyond doubt but her energy and climate strategy is far from clear.

Launched at the start of the century and progressively reviewed, the Energiewende (“energy transition”) needs new impetus.

An ambitious goal

Energiewende is a highly ambitious goal. Germany plans to reduce 80% of its greenhouse gas emissions between 1990 and 2050, on a par with France and the UK.

To achieve this, it has to develop its sustainable energy capacity, reduce consumption of energy, improve energy efficiency, and transition to electric cars.

Germany’s own target includes closing all nuclear power station by 2022 – a goal imposed by a strong anti-nuclear movement and by an adverse public opinion following Fukushima.

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Fifteen years after its inception, Germany’s energy transition is slowing. But it has a number of achievements under its belt: between 1990 and 2016, CO2 emissions have dropped by 26%. Primarily the result of closing heavy industry in the former East Germany after the reunification.

Sustainable energy production, particularly with regards to electricity, has seen an exponential growth. Almost non-existent in the 1990s, wind and solar power, as well as biofuels, now provide one-third of Germany’s demand for electricity.

In 2015, the renewables sector employed 330,000 people.

However, electricity production (responsible for 30% of German CO2 emissions) is still largely carbon intensive. Coal and charcoal still produce 4 out of 10 volts, and CO2 emissions have dropped by 6% only since 2000.

To finance the development of sustainable energy production and of the electricity grid, consumers have been charged. The price of electricity (kilowatt/hour) for consumers has risen by 50% between 2007 and 2017.

That said, the average energy bill for a German family (€978/year) remains lower than for its Danish (€1,121/year) or American (€1,110/year) counterparts.

To reduce energy costs and the growing opposition to wind turbines parks, Merkel’s government reduced in 2014 the recourse to state aid (as France did in its own law on energy transition) and capped at 2,5 Gigawatts per year the capacity of land-based wind power.

The objective is to maximise the production of sea-based wind turbines (6,5 Gigawatts per year).

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A €17 billion plan

Since 2000, thanks to subsidies for improving the housing stock, energy efficiency has increased by 1,4% per year: a performance similar to France’s. But this is not sufficient to meet Germany’s own objectives.

This is why Germany’s Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel launched a plan worth €17 million in 2016 to improve energy efficiency until 2020.

Like everywhere else (apart from Norway), taking transport off fossil fuels remains a lip service exercise.

Despite the pledge to have one million electric cars in 2020, there are only about 30,000 electric BMW, Volkswagen, and Audi cars on German roads.

The reason is the low attractivity of current models and the lack of charging points. But above all a strong automotive industry (€400 billion annual turnover and 800,000 employees) that is slowing the switch to electric.

The IG Metall trade union is resisting the change for fear that electric cars, which are simpler from a mechanical viewpoint than fuel ones, will result in cuts to the workforce.

Compared to the past, the German EnergiewendeI is no longer a divisive topic of conversation. According to a recent survey published by the think tank Agora Energiewende, more than three out of four Germans support the energy transition.

Complaining voices are a minority, but they raise concerns about the rise in the electricity price or the slow development of electricity grid.

Electoral slow down

Will the pace of the transition pick up after the elections? Hard to say, given the ambiguousness of the main electoral parties.

To allow for a possible coalition with Angela Merkel, the Greens are the only ones who would like to see more progress.

First by banning fuel-powered cars in the coming ten years, and then by closing coal and charcoal powered stations. Their objective is to have 100% renewable electricity by 2030.

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Wishful thinking? Not necessarily. “The last coal mine will close this year,” notes energy journalist Vincent Boulanger. A special commission has been established to work on possible economic support measures for coal-producing regions. It is supposed to report after the elections.

Merkel’s government has already planned the closure of seven coal mines by 2020.

The German social democrats (SPD) have lower ambitions. They suggest a progressive substitution of charcoal by natural gas, to the great pleasure of the Russian government. Martin Schulz’s party proposes to tie public supports to energy to their carbon footprint.

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Unsurprisingly, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) supported by Bavaria’s CSU plans to pursue the current policy but push the accelerator on transitioning to electric cars.

In a recent interview, the German chancellor said it will be necessary to ban diesel and petrol cars – but without giving a cutoff date. Renewable electricity sources will see public support measures gradually phased out.

Whatever their plan, their programs fall awfully short of meeting the goals Germany has signed up to, say Christine Merk and Wilfried Rickels, researchers at the Kiel Institute for global economics (IfW). Enough to worry the wind, solar and metal industries and trade unions. ThyssenKrupp, the German steel giant, recently said that electric cars are also made of steel.

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