Craig Morris just spent three weeks in Berlin and other German cities speaking with a slew of energy experts off the record. Today, he talks about the nervous mood in the wake of the recent policy changes.
The EU is clamping down on member-state energy policy, and its new Commission is to create an Energy Union. Rather than fight for its famous Renewable Energy Act, which has served as a model for energy policy around the world, the German government adopted fundamental changes in August.
Is Berlin using Brussels as an excuse to change German energy policy? The sentiment is certainly widespread in Germany. This month, German journalist Jakob Schlandt said as much (blog post in German), and I have found other evidence indicating that Berlin may be exaggerating the intervention from Brussels as well.
Why would Berlin do so? Some insiders believe that experts now want more control of the Energiewende. Back in 2012, the government tried to slow down the growth of solar, but the Bundesrat (upper house) opposed the Bundestag’s changes. A compromise was reached, but the government may have learned a lesson from the conflict: there are limits to fighting popular will. The Germans love their Energiewende, and many of them don’t want the government to tell them they have to stop building renewables.
Both Energy Minister Gabriel and his Undersecretary Baake are now adopting an approach that sounds to their critics like TINA (There Is No Alternative): since Brussels requires certain modifications, there is no point in discussing them. The harshest critics charge that Berlin is using Brussels as a ruse to force changes past a potentially oppositional Bundesrat.
The real litmus test will be whether Berlin uses the channels available in order to continue negotiating with Brussels. As I discussed here, the European Commission wants a shift from feed-in tariffs to auctions, but exceptions can be made. If Berlin does not even try to take advantage of those loopholes, its critics will be convinced, as several people put it, that German politicians actually asked Brussels behind closed doors to intervene.
However, this is one litmus test that Berlin may actually pass. It seems that the German government does plan to keep fighting for its Renewable Energy Act in talks with the Commission. In a recent high-visibility case, for instance, the European Court of Justice ruled once again that member-state support for renewables is admissible. The renewables community in Germany breathed a sigh of relief upon hearing the announcement, which it took as evidence that the court would also uphold German feed-in tariffs if challenged. Word is that the German government will indeed defend feed-in tariffs based on that court ruling; that fight would certainly help convince the renewables community that their government is still on their side.
The problem seems to be planability. A court case could take years, and the agreement reached with Brussels for Germany’s amendments adopted last month only applies until the end of 2016. If Germany does not adjust its policy, the renewables sector will be in legal limbo in 2017 if the case is still pending in court – and that’s the best-case scenario. In the (admittedly unlikely) event that Germany loses that court case, money from that interim might need to be paid back. The result would be financial chaos.
What’s at stake is the broad community movement; people fear that, if the auctions Brussels wants to replace feed-in tariffs with are implemented, community wind projects, say, might be told they cannot put up more turbines because someone else can do it slightly cheaper elsewhere. But there are also signs that the government itself is concerned about this outcome. A study is being contracted, for instance, to see how citizen input could be included as a requirement in auctions.
In a way, though, the discussion has already slipped out of the hands of citizens and into the hands of experts. A journalist friend who recently went to work for a consumer advocacy group told me he will not miss writing about renewables. “People don’t understand all these details anymore,” he said.
I can sympathize. Ten years ago, I published a book in German explaining to the German public what the Energiewende is. The chapter on wind power talked about things like whether turbines are bad for birds and what had been done to make the machines quieter. Nowadays, we talk about how turbines can provide reactive power to stabilize the grid and how we need to focus less on generator size and more on swept area in order to increase capacity factors. Which one of those sentences did you understand better?
Somehow, Germany must find a balance between these expert debates and the citizen involvement that continues to make the energy transition possible. Both are needed. We need experts to tell us, say, how much solar we can build before storage is required and what the storage options are at what price. But in the end, it is up to citizens – not experts – to decide which option is chosen.