The Battle over Electricity

Paul Hockenos recently sat down to interview energy and environment expert Claudia Kemfert. Kemfert, who is no spokesperson for the Greens or anyone else, argues that the naysayers are not shooting straight but rather have armed themselves with spurious arguments, low-ball populism, and outright lies. In her recent book, she aims to correct the myths that, she argues, are slowly turning Germans against the clean energy switch.

Federal Minister Altmaier facing protest against cuts in support for renewables in 2012. (Photo by campact, CC BY-NC 2.0)

Federal Environment Minister Altmaier facing protest against cuts in support for renewables in 2012. (Photo by campact, CC BY-NC 2.0)


How would you evaluate the success of the Energiewende to date?

Electricity supply transition is a better description of what has actually happened. We have a growing supply of renewably generated electricity that is impressive, but otherwise nothing much. The Energiewende had gotten off to a good start, but now it’s faltering and in danger of being stopped entirely. Take, for example, investment into a new and better grid or advances in storage capacity, where little has happened. The demand side is completely ignored, namely energy efficiency in industry, mobility, and buildings.

The boom in renewables is a success but with caveats. Now we need new gas-fired plants that are efficient and low-carbon to back them up, but the problem is that they just are not lucrative at the moment. The gas price in Germany is too high and the price of carbon is too low. So what we see now is investment in coal-fired power plants and this is not compatible with a stable energy transition. If we continue this way and do not, for example, correct the price of CO2 we will effectively be substituting coal for nuclear power. This is harmful to the climate and undermines the effort to reduce GHG emissions, where Germany is clearly failing.

The Merkel government calls the Energiewende one of its flagship projects. What do you think of its policies in the name of the Energiewende?

Policy-wise, it’s more or less a mess. Just to start with, there’s the fact that energy policy is spread out over at least five ministries. What Germany needs is one institution responsible for the Energiewende, whether that is an energy minister or an authorized commissioner. It is not uncommon that the interests of the environmental and economic ministries conflict, but with Energiewende policies there is also the ministers for agriculture, for infrastructure, for buildings, etc., in the mix which makes it all the more complicated.

If we do not manage the Energiewende better, it will fail. What’s happening is that a raft of flimsy arguments are being drawn upon, like for an electricity price cap or a slowing down of the growth of the renewable supply, in order to cover up the gross misadministration of German energy policy. Our politicians are blaming clean energies rather than their own lack of sound policies. It’s a clever communications strategy, and it’s working too, but it’s not based in fact.

What has the replacement of the former environment minister Norbert Röttgen with the current minister, Peter Altmaier, meant for energy policy?

Röttgen was the primary initiator of the Energiewende, but he could not find enough like-minded peers in the coalition. Moreover, a large segment of industry opposed him. It’s not a minority in the CDU that think that the Energiewende is too “green” and is harming the economy. In my opinion they’re underestimating the economic opportunities posed by this kind of transition.

Altmaier’s under pressure to deliver very quickly and at the same time wants to please everyone. But he has more or less accepted the line of the Energiewende opponents in the government. This is mostly what you hear from him these days. In terms of doing anything progressive for the Energiewende – and there have been some efforts – he has faced exceptionally tough opposition from the economic planning ministry. In the end, Germany has to really pursue the Energiewende whole-heartedly or simply give it up. But this current vacillating is not an option.

In your book, you talk about the “battle for electricity” in Germany. You talk about forces of progress and the future, on the one hand, and those of yesterday on the other. But you don’t specially name those of yesterday, or the lobbies that oppose the Energiewende. Who are they exactly and what are their motivations?

It is those figures and forces that want the old status quo of conventional energies back. In other words, they are proponents of the past order. It is a heterogeneous group including some of the utilities, companies with coal-powered plants, energy-intensive industries that fear high investments in energy efficiency, and conservative ideologues who think that everything “green” is bad.

This latter group is convinced that anything environmental will have a negative impact on the German economy. They see the Energiewende as a Green project rather than one for the future of Germany. They say that they are for the Energiewende, but their actions speak quite differently. And it is not just one party that is agitating against it: Take the Initiative Neue Soziale Marktwirtschaft (INSM) [an initiative founded by leftist, centrist, and right-wing party figures near to the metal and electronics workers associations]. They have spent millions on a campaign to slow or stop it.

What is their strategy? How does it work?

Their strategy is to disseminate myths, which is what I describe in the book. These myths prey upon many peoples’ fear of the new and of disorder. Take for example the myth that energy prices in Germany are going up just because of the Energiewende and that the Energiewende is terribly expensive. It simply is not the case, as one study after another has proven. There are many factors behind the price increases. But the Energiewende opponents place it all squarely on the incentives stipulated in the Renewable Energy Act (EEG) as if it is the only factor.

Then there is the claim that the Energiewende is tremendously expensive, that we cannot really afford it. In fact, the cost of renewable energy is really quite small for the average household, about 2.3% of the average household’s consumption expenditure. This is certainly a lot less than the high prices of gasoline and heating since the price of fossil fuels has been rising – and will continue to. In the long run, renewables are cheaper. Germany is making a smart investment in the future.

There are more myths. For example, that we only have ten years to make the Energiewende happen and that this is not enough time. In fact, this is a process that will happen over four decades. Germany doesn’t expect the transition to clean energy to be completed by 2022; this is when nuclear power will be phased out. And then there’s the claim that the Energiewende is part of a planned economic model that has replaced the forces of the free market. As if in the past the energy market was any different! Of course this is not true either. Nuclear and fossil fuels have long been subsidized but the consumer never saw it tacked on to their energy bill the way it is with renewables.

This interview first appeared at https://ip-journal.dgap.org/en/blog/going-renewable/battle-over-electricity

Claudia Kemfert is Director of the Energy, Transportation, and Environment Unit at the prestigious German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin.

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Paul Hockenos

Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist and author of the Going Renewable blog.

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