Bärbel Höhn: Renewables are ‘the most important source of energy in Germany’

Bärbel Höhn

“It is simply not worth it to invest in coal power plants,” says Bärbel Höhn. Speaking to EURACTIV Poland, the German lawmaker talks about the realities of the Energiewende, its costs and benefits, as well as its impact on coal-rich areas.

Bärbel Höhn is chairperson of the Committee on the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety of the German Bundestag. She was interviewed by Krzysztof Kokoszczy?ski, courtesy of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung.

In recent years, Germany has witnessed a significant transformation of its energy sector, the so-called “Energiewende.” You have started moving away from coal and nuclear power towards renewables. How successful is this change so far?

Very successful. Nowadays, the renewables’ share in the energy mix rose to 28 percent, and currently they constitute the biggest, the most important source of energy in Germany. We gain more energy from renewable sources than from any other.

More importantly, we have managed to convince the whole society of this idea. If you were to ask people in the street what they think about Energiewende, I’m certain that over three-quarters would say they support it. And most of them are willing to accept moderately higher energy prices in return for this project.

Speaking of energy prices, how would you describe the social cost of the switch to renewables? Over the last few months, Polish coal miners have managed to stop the government form closing down their mines. I guess the Energiewende has left many people in the coal sector without a job?

I live in the Ruhr region, in the federal state North Rhine-Westphalia, which is rich in coal and known for its industry. My father in law was a miner himself, thus I know these issues first-hand. In the high period, in the 1960s and early 1970s, there were over 600,000 jobs connected with coal. Today there are only 15,000 connected with it, and 22,000 from lignite. The deep cut came long before the Energiewende started.

On the other hand, there are new opportunities created by the renewable sources. Miners, whose jobs require being well-versed in technical matters can find new employment, as, for example, locksmiths.

Even whole companies can adapt to the new reality. My region, for example, is home to the steel company ThyssenKrupp. They used to manufacture equipment for coal power plants, but now they make components for windmills and other renewable energy sources.

ThyssenKrupp is one of the biggest steel companies in the world. But what about those who lose their jobs? Work in mines is usually labour-intensive. It requires a lot of people.

There is no easy answer to this question. These processes become less and less labour-intensive due to modernization. Furthermore, subsidizing coal, or fossil-fuel jobs in general, means there is no money to invest in the future. People advocating this old model, are still ensnared by the past; by their “fossil-thinking”. They look at the past and they do not see the promises of the future, just its risks. For example, in the Ruhr region there are many big piles of old coal, so called “Halde”. Some people see it just as remainders of “glory days”. But someone with new thinking could say: “Hey, let’s put up some windmills on top of that.”

And there is a question of timing, of course. Poverty and debt can appear in regions and states that make the transition to renewables too late, too swift, or without proper preparation.

Furthermore, there is also one other thing that might be of significance for a country with a strong agricultural sector, as Poland. I was minister of agriculture for North Rhine-Westphalia for 10 years, from 1995 to 2005 and I saw back then what changes could be brought by a “prosumer-driven” electricity. Consumers and producers of electricity are merging.

Where there had been poverty-ridden villages in the past, almost abandoned, seemingly with no future, now there are vibrant, happy communities. Prosument electricity not only gives farmers a way to save on utilities bills – they can also make a modest but steady profit off it, which can help them in securing their economic well-being in case of agricultural problems on the market.

How did you manage, then, to have such a significant switch to renewables?

We started small. The initial laws allowing for prosument production of electricity, for example, were not opposed by major lobbying due to the fact nobody had even dreamed that it would manage to take more than 5% of the market.

Even we, the Greens, underestimated the potential. We hoped to have 12.5 percent top share in 2010. Now we have over twice as much.

There are windmills that produce energy cheaper than coal power plants – they actually make coal power plants lose money as they decrease the energy prices dramatically. Even the relatively more expensive option photovoltaic cells are getting cheaper – their cost has decreased by 80% over the last 10 years.

Today we have over 1.3 million of prosuments who see that it is cheaper for them to produce the electricity themselves than buy it from utility companies. They even make a profit. This situation creates a strong base of support for green energy policies. Attempting to limit them would go against the will of the people.

But was there not any opposition after the renewable wave started to gain momentum?

Of course there was. Utilities companies, such as RWE, have a significant pull in politics and they were not happy about losing their business. They provide many jobs and a significant income for many towns holding shares of RWE, so their opinion influence a lot of politicians. And since Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel wants to run for Chancellor in the next general elections, he needs broad support from the fossil-fuel-reliant states. Therefore, he would like to cap the renewables’ share in the energy mix. He also managed to introduce a tax on photovoltaic cells.

Furthermore, when the Christian Democrats took power, they decided to put a stop to the nuclear phase-out, began by the Red-Green coalition. Nevertheless, after the Fukushima catastrophe, they did not have any choice and started to join in the national consensus and shut down further plants. Renewable energy has taken up the spot left by the shutdown of nine nuclear plants easily.

And what was the most important in the process of convincing people to take up the renewable energy sources?

The people and most importantly local communities. When local mayors realize how much money can be saved by renewable energy and by promoting prosument energy, they usually become local ambassadors of the idea. They would promote it among the others in the region and they would provide good practices to make the transition easier for others.

You have mentioned subsidies for renewables. There is an ongoing debate in Poland about the subsidies for these energy sources. What, in your opinion, makes such subsidies effective?

Our law on renewables clearly states that subsidies for renewables have to decrease regularly. It forces viability and does not allow producers to become too reliant on government’s support. Our current subsidy for photovoltaic is 12.5 eurocent per kWh. In 2004 it was 56 eurocents per kWh, so it was a fivefold decline.

On the other hand, the Polish situation is or will be better. Germany had to carry a burden of developing many new technologies. The system had to make sure that a photovoltaic plant has a guaranteed income for the next 20 years, despite the fact it is inefficient by current standards. This was necessary to drive the costs down.

Countries introducing renewable energy to their mix only now can therefore reap the benefits of our work. They start with the already efficient technology that we have created, so probably your support schemes will not be as costly as the German one.

Some people would argue that Poland is different from Germany in one other important aspect as regards green energy – our climate and terrain. The winds are not as strong and the days are not as sunny. What can we do in such a situation?

Well, this argument sounds like it was 10 years old – like somebody did not know about all these developments we have made in the technology of renewable energy productions. We can now build taller and more efficient windmills.

Technology also got cheaper – both in terms of economic means and environmental costs. For example, it takes between 1.5 to 2.5 years – depending on the sunlight –  for a photovoltaic farm to recoup its investment. For a windmill, it is only one month. In addition, in terms of environmental costs, a windmill, in its expected lifetime, produces 20 to 25 times more energy than used to produce the windmill.

Even so, the last month has shown that coal still has a strong position in Poland. Could CCS technology be a bridge in a shift to renewables?

I would be careful about CCS. There are two kinds of risks connected with this technology – economical ones and environmental ones.

I take it that the environmental risks are the lack of experience of this technology and the potential impact of storing carbon on the environment. But what are the economic risks?

Costs, to put it simply. Adding appropriate CCS facilities to the existing coal power plants often requires significant changes and so it is a very costly and lengthy process. But even for new power plants, CCS is still prohibitively expensive. If one spends such money on, say wind energy, one will get much more. It is simply not worth it to invest in CCS.

What would you recommend for Poland then?

We are no teacher and we do not want to lecture – you have to find your own way! However, we have cleared some of the way for you, and your journey will be hopefully easier.

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