Why German Conservatives Should Learn to Love the Clean Energy Transition

Within the German Christian Democratic party, resistance against the German Energiewende persists. Our guest author, Paul Hockenos, explains why this stubbornness might actually hurt Merkel’s party in upcoming elections.

Protest for Support For Renewables

Renewables: No longer a niche topic in society and politics. (Photo by 350.org, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The Merkel administration’s ambiguous relationship with the country’s transition to renewable energy, or Energiewende, speaks volumes about German conservatives’ troubled relationship with a project the administration has stamped its name on. At some opportunities, Merkel and her lieutenants praise to the sky the clean energy switch that Merkel embraced in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima disaster. And then at other times they urge caution, gripe that everything is moving much too quickly, and damn renewables for high consumer prices.

The fact is that German conservatives are split over the Energiewende, with the nay-sayers still largely predominant. This is a huge miscalculation, not only with negative implications for Germany but for German conservatism, which is forsaking a topic that fits in well with a conservative weltanschauung and will continue to cost its parties votes if the energy hawks win the day.

Merkel’s Christian Democrats have had a small environment-friendly and pro-renewable energy wing since the 1980s.  In line with conservative ideology, they  emphasize environmental justice for future generations, ecological conservation, the responsibility to respect God’s creations, and opportunities for entrepreneurs. These are fundamental conservative values.

Few observers remember that it was not the Greens who initiated incentives for clean energy in Germany, but rather Helmut Kohl’s government in the early 1990s. Kohl was pushed to do so not by Green Party tree huggers but by conservative landowners with small hydro-power operations who wanted to sell their electricity to the utilities. Probably even fewer remember that the earliest formations of the Greens in the late 1970s/early 1980s included the likes of the former CDU minister Herbert Gruhl. But Gruhl and a mixed bag of other conservatives fled the party when the splintered detritus of the ultra-left, including one disillusioned anarchist by the name of Joschka Fischer, appeared on the scene, yanking it to the left – where it would remain until today.

Since then German conservatives have by and large left and clean-energy topics to the leftist parties.  The most prominent contemporary conservatives associated with green issues – former environment ministers Klaus Töpfer and Norbert Röttgen – are not in the current government nor do they have prominent roles in the party. Röttgen’s successor in the current post, Peter Altmaier, is a political operator and close Merkel ally who plays up to all sides but in fact seems to have internalized the arguments of the transition’s foes.

Indeed within the CDU the voices rallying against the Energiewende are still much stronger and more potent than those in favor of it, which is why public discourse around the Energiewende has of late turned negative and why popular support for the project – which had been very high – is beginning to wane. These forces were the ones who dictated the CDU’s energy polices until Fukushima, pushing through the extension of the lifetimes of the country’s nuclear reactors in 2010.

The CDU, as much as it has modernized under Merkel, remains a hierarchical, top-down party. When Merkel pulled her Fukushima u-turn on nuclear energy, most of the party dutifully fell in line behind her. But neither Merkel nor anyone in the party had a plan for making the Energiewende work – nor solid, convincing arguments to justify it. This is why the government has looked so hapless since then, floundering when trying to address issues like grid expansion, pricing, and supply stability.

This is also why the hardcore energy hawks in the government have managed to reassert themselves in the debate. They continue to represent the interests of the fossil fuel and nuclear lobbies, as well as industries that refuse to help pay for the Energiewende. Despite the much stronger arguments in favor of the Energiewende, their scare tactics dominate the public discourse. And they have a powerful, pro-active frontman in the person of Philipp Rösler, leader of the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) who as economic policy minister has managed to brake the Energiewende at every turn.

But this tact is short-sighted and ultimately self-destructive. The conservatives’ energy hawks are fighting a rear-guard battle to reassert a former status quo that has already long been overtaken by the reality of the renewable energy boom. Their vision is of a past that simply no longer exists. The CDU’s recent defeats in regional elections and the FDP’s dismal opinion polls illustrate how out of touch they are with voters.

Germany’s switch to renewables has created a powerful industry, workforce, and lobby that draw on traditional conservative constituencies, and that is now more powerful – in terms of money and votes – than those of fossil fuels and nuclear energy. The renewable energy industry in Germany accounts for 385,000 jobs, many of them in eastern Germany.

It is also, for example, the political conservative Mittelstand, namely the owners of small and medium-sized businesses, that has profited enormously from the renewable energy boom. One thing that the 1.3 million owners of PV installations and 1.8 million owners of solar thermal units have in common is that they are property owners. Over three-quarters of all renewable energy installations are in the hands of individuals, small-and-medium-sized businesses, and cooperatives. These are classic conservatives constituencies. Studies show the main motive for founding energy cooperatives is neither green ideology nor profit but the desire to keep added value in the community.  These are voters like those in Baden Württemburg who last year voted in a Green-led regional government for the first time in the country’s history.

Not all German conservatives are blind to the transformed landscape initiated by the Energiewende. Take for example Josef Goeppels of the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the CSU.  Like others in the CSU, Goeppels has realized that the Energiewende has changed the core interests of his constituency. Bavaria leads the country in photovltaic installations (412,000), and energy crops have revived the businesses of many of its farmers. Bavaria has gas 2,372 biogas producers, the most in Germany, and more Bavarians are employed in the renewables branch (68,850) than in any other land. It was Goeppels’ office that within an hour of its release, slammed the recent Altmaier proposal for capping the energiewende, in particular for its curbing of decentralized PV and onshore wind.

Yet while the CSU is beginning to catch on, the CDU and its energy hawks remain wedded to the past. They continue to carry water for industries like the chemical industry that earns enormously from the Energiewende but bad mouths it in order to avoid chipping in a single cent. At some point, the fear-mongering about black outs (that never happen), soaring prices (that aren’t exploding because of the Energiewende), and prostrate, uncompetitive industry (when Germany breaks one export record after another) will lose their potency. It’s incredible that they still have any now.

Undeservedly the Merkel administration has attached its name to the Energiewende (which, in fact, began at least 15 years ago). But it has shown itself unable to cope with its success. If Merkel’s team doesn’t manage to fill the project with positive content, come election time this autumn it could hang like a millstone around its neck.


Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist and author of Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin.

1 Comment

  1. ArneJJ says

    Amazing how conservatives come around on renewables when it pays off to their constituents (like the CSU and the Bavarian farmers). Should apply to conservatives around the world!

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