Robert Habeck: Germany’s First and Only Minister for the Energiewende

Germany’s northernmost region Schleswig Holstein was the first to establish an Energiewende ministry, which is now lead by the Green Robert Habeck. Paul Hockenos explains how the State became a pioneer of renewables – and the challenges that come with being the forerunner.

Robert Habeck

Robert Habeck (Photo by Biogastour 2013, CC BY-ND 2.0)

The fact that Robert Habeck is the first Energiewende minister in Germany – in its northern-most state, Schleswig Holstein – is only one of the attributes that distinguishes the 43-year-old, Baltic-Sea native from the average German politico. Habeck, head of the regional Green party here, is also a doctor of philosophy, punk-rock aficionado, and author of a dozen books – from children’s stories to novels and theoretical tracts. The father of four boys (all bi-lingual German-Danish) cites the late Czech poet and president Vaclav Havel as his foremost political inspiration.

A novice to politics just four years ago when he entered the Schleswig Holstein legislature, Habeck’s out-of-the-box thinking and charismatic style have gradually turned him into a nationally known figure. But his priority, he underscores, is his home state, Schleswig Holstein, a wind-swept isthmus between the Baltic and the North Seas that connects northern Germany to Denmark. In 2012, the Greens came to power in this sparsely populated state of just 2.8 million together with a senior coalition partner, the Social Democrats, and the little party of the Danish minority.

It’s no coincidence that Schleswig-Holstein, of all of Germany’s 16 Länder, is the site of the country’s first Energiewende ministry. (The office’s full title is the Ministry for Energiewende, Agriculture, and Environment.) The gusty northern reaches of the republic, long known for its milk cows, are today a potent source of wind power. Nearly 3,000 turbines boast over 3,400 MW of capacity, enough to cover 50% of the region’s power needs. This will increase to 4,500 MW by 2015, should all goes as planned. By 2020, the state could generate three times as much electricity as its industry and population requires.

“We in Schleswig-Holstein want to be the forerunners and make the Energiewende a success,” Habeck tells visitors to Kiel, the state’s capital city north of Hamburg. One of the new government’s first moves was to double the territory upon which wind turbines could be erected. With wind power, Schleswig-Holstein can cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 80 to 95% by 2050, he says. “It’s already on the way.”

Habeck claims that an Energiewende ministry makes all the sense. “Look at how conflicted the last [federal] government was,” says Habeck. “There was constant fighting between the economic planning and environment ministries. One ministry responsible for energy issues is a practical solution.”

Too Much Wind: Traveling through Schleswig-Holstein’s northern landscape and visiting its quiet seaside towns, one is awed by the gigantic wind parks one after another that dominate the inland right up to the Danish border. These aren’t just any wind parks, rather they’re overwhelmingly Bürgerwindparks (citizens wind parks), which were planned, financed and are operated today by local communities.

The management of this abundance of wind power and its rapid expansion is Schleswig-Holstein’s problem – and now Habeck’s. On super windy days, many of the wind parks have to be shut off – there’s simply too little high-voltage grid to handle this volume of green electricity.

“It was obvious that we needed several new transmission lines to transport this volume to the rest of the country, in particular to industrial regions in southern Germany,” says Habeck, a handsome man with short brown hair and square jaw. Photos often show him with a windbreaker and jeans rolled up to his knees, wading through the soggy sands of the Waatenmeer, the tidal flats that stretch for miles into the North Sea at low tide.

At the wind parks along Waateneeer National Park, Habeck seems to have won the respect of the wind power branch, at least for the moment. “Of course, the creation of a ministry for the Energiewende raised expectations here,” explains Jess Jessen, director of the Osterhof wind park along the Danish border. “Habeck in an honest, hard-working minister. His intentions are good but sometimes I wonder if he really knew what he’s getting into. Visions are one thing, implementing policy is another.”

For Habeck, the Energiewende is more than an economic or infrastructure project, it is a sprawling, open-ended experiment in democracy. “The expansion of the grids are a task and challenge to our whole society. This is why the public must play a central role. This way everyone can participate in the Energiewende.”

This experiment, however, has proven hard to transfer from the wind parks to the transmission grids. Plans to lay over a thousand kilometers of high-voltage lines have run into fierce opposition on the ground, not least from conservation-minded citizens, including many who might well vote for the Green party. Schleswig-Holstein is involved in three new transmission corridors: one along the length of its west coast; another linking Germany to Norway (NordLink); and a third heading south to Bavaria and Baden-Württemburg (SüdLink). Because the latter two can run underground, they are not at the center of the storm.

The shortest of the lines, the 150-kilometer, 380-kV west coast cable, however, must travel over land, an eye sore that some of the resident northerners do not want (yes, in their backyards). “Sure there are conflicts, lots of them,” says Habeck, who has been whistled down and booed out of town hall meetings. “We could just go ahead and say we’re going to do this Energiewende anyway. But these are conflicts we can solve. In the long run, it saves time.”

And, make no mistake, time is of the essence. The west coast line and SüdLink, acknowledges Habeck, have to be fully operational by the time the last German nuclear reactor goes offline in 2022.

The idea behind the citizen’s grid was to win acceptance by enabling local residents to partake in it. For one, there’d be town hall meetings to discuss prickly issues. Also, shares would be sold, local investors putting up 15% of the total cost of the €210 million project.

Yet shares in the west-coast citizens grid, offered by the grid operator TenneT, did not sell like hot cakes. In fact, participation was very low. According to insiders, private financial experts couldn’t recommend that their clients with moderate capital invest in something so long-term and speculative.

”The idea of the citizen’s grid was different from the wind parks in an important way,“ explains Sina Clorius of Windcomm, a business development agency dealing with wind power. “People aren’t going to have a voice in the decision making and operation of the grid, just the investment.”

Despite the muted enthusiasm for the investment scheme, the west-coast cable is going forward. “A lot of people in this region [along the North Sea] own parts of the Bürgerwindparks,” says Clorius. “The new grid is entirely in their interests. It was a loud minority against it.”

Construction begins in 2015. This, at least, is more than past Kiel governments had to show for years of wrangling.

Schleswig-Holstein’s onshore wind power may be its big selling point today, but Habeck is not alone in envisaging the region as invaluable to the nation-wide Energiewende in other ways as well.

For one, the NordLink cabling to Norway will provide a vital option for storing electricity. Currently, the means of large-scale electricity storage is limited – a marked drawback for intermittent wind and solar power. One of the technologies ready-to-go is pumped-storage hydroelectric, which stores energy in the form of water, which is pumped from a low reservoir to one of higher elevation. When demand requires, the water is released through turbines to produce electric power.

Norway’s high-altitude fjords are so ideal for the purpose that some observers see Norway as “Europe’s battery“ of the future. Denmark and the Netherlands are already connected to Norwegian grid. Norway could store many thousands of megawatts of electricity for Germany. What’s needed is 600 kilometers of high-voltage power line along the floor of the Baltic Sea, which will take years to engineer.

And then there’s the enormous potential of offshore wind power, so far one of the Energiewende’s underachievers. Between Germany’s two seas, Schleswig-Holstein should be in the cat bird’s seat. Yet, so dismal have the results of offshore has been – and so spectacular the success of onshore and solar PV – many critics argue that offshore is an unnecessary and expensive lark.

Habeck disagrees. “It’s right now to scale back the goals set for offshore,” says Habeck, referring to the plans of Germany’s incoming administration. ”We may not need it to get Germany to 50% clean electricity. But to get to 100% we will definitely need it. And that’s our goal.“

This post by Paul Hockenos was first published in the European Energy Review. Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist and author of the Going Renewable blog.


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.

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