What Germany’s new cabinet means for the Energiewende

On Sunday, the key posts were announced for Chancellor Merkel’s new cabinet. Craig Morris says a number of appointments make it clear that the new government aims to do what Germans do best: find a consensus.

Sigmar Gabriel will be the new minister for the economy and the Energiewende. He was previously minister for the environment between 2005-2009. (Photo by blu-news.org, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Sigmar Gabriel will be the new minister for economics and energy. He was previously minister for the environment between 2005-2009. (Photo by blu-news.org, CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Social Democrat Sigmar Gabriel (SPD) has been appointed “Super Minister” for economy and energy. The last time anyone held the title was Wolfgang Clement, who became Minister of Economics and Labor (merging what was previously two ministries). From 2002-2005, Clement ensured that then-Chancellor Schroeder’s plans to reform unemployment benefits went forward. The policy was a major challenge to the German social safety net, something Germans generally held dear – especially those in the SPD. Schroeder’s policy split his party.

This time, Germany faces yet another giant task – the Energiewende. I must admit I was not too pleased upon hearing that Gabriel, who previously held the post of Environmental Minister from 2005-2009, is taking charge of the energy transition. His stance on community ownership – energy democracy – is unclear. And while you might expect him to generally support renewables, he actually stated during the election campaign that the transition needs to be slowed down – and that coal power will still be needed decades from now. He sounded like a doomsayer at times: “If the energy transition is not completely relaunched and finally put under professional control, we face the largest deindustrialization program in our history.”

But Gabriel’s first decisions have already been announced, and things are shaping up quite well. Two SPD members quite competent in the field are Jochen Flasbarth and Gert Billen, who are to become Undersecretaries. Flasbarth heads Germany’s Environmental Agency (UBA); Billen is head of German consumer advocacy organization VZBV. (Consumer advocacy groups in Germany have always been strong supporters of the energy transition.)

Another appointment shows that Gabriel is willing to go beyond party limits and recruit talent – Green party member Rainer Baake is to become another Undersecretary. He currently heads Agora Energiewende, the Berlin-based think tank devoted to the energy transition, making him one of the country’s biggest experts on the matter. From 1998-2005, he served as Undersecretary under Schroeder, so he helped implement German feed-in tariffs, emissions trading, the nuclear phaseout and the environmental tax reform.

But not everyone in the renewables community will like this arrangement; Agora’s recent proposal for new feed-in tariffs caused quite a commotion.

Add on the appointment of Barbara Hendricks (SPD) at the helm of the Environmental Ministry, and the package seems quite well-rounded. In 2008, Hendricks received the Adam Smith Prize for her work in market-based environmental policy, and she comes from urban planning. If the German energy transition needs anything, it is a view beyond the power sector, and Hendricks could be the right person to help. The details are still unclear, but it is likely that Gabriel will receive the renewables department within the current Environmental Ministry, with Hendricks still covering climate issues and environmental policy in the new government.

Astonishingly, the CDU seems to have pulled out of the Energiewende altogether. The current Environmental Minister Peter Altmaier is to be Merkel’s cabinet head; otherwise, everyone handling the transition is from the SPD (along with the Greens’ Baake).

But maybe Merkel is right in leaving Germany’s next gigantic project up to her coalition partner. The next fight will be over the phaseout of coal power. The Social Democrats were once the party of labor unions and coal miners. The rift between renewables and coal is not one between the CDU and the SPD, but one between two camps within the SPD – just as under Schroeder’s reform plans for the labor market.

But as dismayed as I have been over Gabriel’s commitment to coal power over the past few months, I have to hand it to him that he is now surrounding himself with some of the most knowledgeable proponents of renewables in Germany. May the best reasoning win!

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of German Energy Transition. He directs Petite Planète and writes every workday for Renewables International.


Craig Morris (@PPchef) is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende.

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