The Battle over Electricity: Part II

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. This is the second part of a two part series.


(Photo by az1172, CC BY-SA 2.0)

As for the costs, there are figures saying Germany will spend €100 billion on renewable energy subsidies. That does not seem negligible. Is this correct? How much will the Energiewende cost?

This amount is not an annual figure but for a time horizon of 20 years. Even if we would say the cost of the energy transition is 20 billion euro a year, we need to look at the figure relatively: Germany spends 90 billion euro per year on fossil energy! If you would add this up for the next 20 years we would have a real costs tsunami of trillions of euro. And the investments in the Energiewende are investments in the German economy, very different than costs for fossil fuels, money that is leaving the German economy. This investment goes into grids and the like that would have to be made anyway because the German grid is old, as are many power plants.

Is that cost 2.3% of household spending for electricity annually? And for how long? Is that really so little?

The mobility and heating costs of the average household are more than that. Really, it is a “pseudo-argument” that the opponents of the Energiewende want to make us believe. Many consumers do not even know how much they spend on electricity; this is the reason why over 80% of the people never change their electricity provider.

You obviously believe that the better arguments are those on behalf of the Energiewende. If so, why then aren’t they winning in the public debate?

The opponents arguments are put into circulation one after another and indeed now you see that popular support for the Energiewende is waning. It is a very effective PR strategy. When these myths are repeated again and again, they begin to sink in after a while. Not so long ago Germans were extremely concerned about climate change and the dangers of nuclear power. Now they’re scared of the Energiewende.

At the same time there aren’t enough politicians standing up and saying that this set of arguments is factually wrong. The Energiewende opponents are becoming increasingly vocal and there’s no one out there refuting them. No single party in Germany has proudly made the victories of the Energiewende part of their public campaigns.

Why have conservative political forces not come around more quickly when one considers the way that many of their constituencies have benefited immensely from the Energiewende?

That’s a good question. Some conservatives think that the vision they had, and obviously still have, is one of a better world. They think they’re right. They think that change can only happen through “green-thinking”. But that’s not true. All you have to do is look at the way nuclear power was introduced in the 1960s. It was heavily subsidized and now it’s here.

After all, many different sectors are benefiting from the investment that’s coming in from all over the world. We need more of this kind of investment into the grid, into capacity, into decentralized energy systems. Local economies have benefited enormously. Our economy needs this kind of push over a longer time. These conservatives claim the Energiewende hurts the economy, but the opposite is true. That’s another myth.

What about German industry itself?

It depends. Not all of industry is against the Energiewende. Many companies and sectors are profiting from it and some admit as much.

But not all are so forthright. There’s a huge discrepancy between what some of them say in public and how good the Energiewende has been to them. The chemical industry, for example, is largely reliant on gas. The price of gas depends on the world market, not German renewable energies. This has nothing to do with the Energiewende. But hearing it from the chemical industry you’d think the Energiewende was to blame. Moreover, the chemical industry is always ranked highly on worldwide sustainability indicators, which measure how sustainably a company produces and how sustainable its strategy is. Large chemical firms produce a lot of energy efficiency materials, like insulation for buildings, appliances, and mobility. These are key products for the Energiewende, and the replacement of oil. Industry is harmed by the high price of Russian gas, not the Energiewende, but they don’t say this.

The same goes for a company like Siemens. It earns incredibly well on an array of products associated with sustainability. But recently one top manager at Siemens called the Energiewende a mistake. I can’t understand why Siemens would say this when it benefits so much from producing sustainable products. Maybe Siemens says this because it has experienced losses on wind farms and solar projects, but the grounds for these losses lie in developments on the international market, namely the result of over-capacities and price reductions. But it’s trendy these days to blame the Energiewende rather than mistakes made by the company.

If there’s so little behind these arguments, should they eventually lose their clout? For example, two winters in a row now there have been no blackouts and Germany has exported electricity…

I wrote this book because I want to inform people that these claims, like this claim about blackouts, come from a “fear campaign.” In fact, we’re exporting more and more to our neighbors – too much for some of them. The Netherlands had to shut down their gas-fired plants because of the renewables from Germany.

This skewed and adversarial discourse is very unfortunate because there are in fact a lot of important maters to discuss and improve upon. But there’s no room in the current debate for rational discussion.

You talk about the adversaries of the Energiewende and their propaganda. What about the proponents, including the Greens? Do they speak the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

We see right now that election campaigns have started and that all parties, including the Greens, talk about “Strompreisbremsen” (electricity price cap) although they too know that the core of the problem is the wholesale price, the low coal price, and the low CO2 price. None of them are providing solutions to these problems. All of the proposals, including those of the Greens and other proponents to cut electricity prices, do not address the core problems. This is the dilemma of being in an election year.

What has this battle done to the debate about reforming the EEG?

The important issues, like EEG reform, aren’t being debated. This is part of the strategy to convince people that the Energiewende is too expensive, and that we need to stop it. This isn’t solving any problems.

If we want the Energiewende then we have to go the whole way. We can’t say after the first couple of kilometers, oh maybe we were wrong… We have to talk about how to bring both markets together, that of conventional fuels and of renewables. We need to think carefully how to do it, and there are options out there. But we’re not discussing the essence of the problems. Take the recent proposal of the environment ministry for capping the EEG and taxing clean energy producers. It doesn’t get at the root of the problem but simply blames clean energy for the total price increase.

Just a word about prices: You seem to think that the consumers should not be stuck with the whole bill. Who then should step up to pay? Part of the Altmaier plan is to make industry chip in on the costs.

Yes, this one aspect of the Altmaier plan is valuable. We have to broach the topic of the fair distribution of costs. It’s fair to exempt those companies with very high-energy costs and those on the international market. But this is really just a small number of companies. We have to look at different aspects, like for example that the wholesale prices are declining, whether taxes can be reduced, or the possibility of paying for the Energiewende from taxes, as we did with nuclear energy. Above all, we need a more honest and transparent debate.


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. Miguel A. Vico says

    Do not allow the lobbies to do what they have already done in Spain!
    We have the same scenario in my country (Spain). Group of interest who
    only want to preserve their wealthy, have managed our government!

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