How winning over rural constituents changed the political discussions on renewables in Germany

In Germany, support for the Energiewende is not a matter of party membership. It is a field where all parties are active and generally support the Energiewende. To understand this political consensus, one needs to look to rural Germany, explains Alexander Franke.

Gembeck

Rural communities all across Germany have profited from the Energiewende – in turn, the Energiewende enjoys cross-party support. (Photo by GLSystem, CC BY-SA 3.0)


Just as in many other countries, farmers in Germany tend to generally vote in a politically conservative manner: In the last federal election, 74% of farmers voted for Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU/CSU – news report in German), making them one of the Conservatives’ most loyal supporters. When it comes to renewable energy however, a large majority of farmers are staunch supporters of the Energiewende and the fast development of renewables – an outcome that may surprise people in countries where conservatives oppose renewables.
When German policy makers passed the Renewable Energy Law in 2000, they came up with the idea of a differentiated feed-in tariff (FIT) for renewable electricity production, meaning that renewable installations would receive different remunerations based on technoloy and size of the renewable installation. On the one hand, this differentiation was necessary because PV and biomass were still in a very early stage of technological development whereas onshore wind was more advanced – and FiTs reflected those differences in technology costs by granting a lower tariff to onshore wind. On the other hand, the FiT was differentiated by size of the installation, granting a higher remuneration to smaller and roof-top installations of PV, for example. The motivation was to allow small installations to flourish which are generally a bit more expensive than large installations. At the same time, this avoided unnecessary land consumption and incentivized distributed, small-scale investments – reflecting a demand for energy democracy voiced in the environmental movement which saw utilities were seen as one of the main culprits for an energy system largely built around fossil and nuclear power.

By giving citizens a stake in renewable energy development, ordinary people started to become owners of PV installations and co-ops consisting of citizens, farmers and municipalities began to build PV and wind farms. But one group of citizens was especially able to reap the benefits of the FiT: farmers. After all, they are land owners and have biomass and roof surface for PV installations readily available as well as land available on which to build onshore wind. In consequence, 21% of PV and more than 70% of biomass capacity in Germany was owned by farmers in 2010 (German PDF here), not to mention that they became members in many of the energy co-ops that were founded around the issue of financing renewable energy installations.

GET_2A15_renewables_in_the_hand_of_the_people_lBut farmers weren’t the only rural actors to profit from distributed renewable installations: The FiT created additional demand for local craftsmen and small enterprises that got involved in the field of renewables, creating job opportunities in rural areas and reinvigorating local value chains and rural communities all over Germany.

This shift had political repercussions: The politically influential German Farmers’ Association became a supporter the Energiewende and regularly got its supporters on the streets in protests in support of the Energiewende. The same is true for organizations such as the German Confederation of Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises. Even the German language reflected these developments, as farmers, Landwirte, started to refer to themselves as Energiewirte – instead of harvesting crops on their land, they were now harvesting energy.

As these key constituents of the conservatives shifted their position, the conservative party started to adapt its take on renewables too, as parliamentarians supporting industry and utilities were increasingly pressured by rural parliamentarians and constituents in support of renewables (nowhere becomes this more apparent than in the person of Josef Göppel, a rural parliamentarian of the Bavarian CSU). Thanks to this shift, the CDU did not roll back progress made on renewables after Angela Merkel became chancellor in 2005, but actually continued the path taken by the progressive government before it (even though it put more emphasis on biomass as farmers demanded). This is a stark contrast to many other European countries in which a change of government meant a complete halt to renewables as these were a much more partisan issue (see Spain or the Czech Republic as examples, where investor confidence was destroyed due to abrupt changes in policy).

The German experience thus provides some interesting lessons for countries around the world: in order to achieve broad political support for renewables that lasts longer than the next election campaign, policies need to be designed to spread economic and social benefits broadly. It is especially key to win conservative and rural allies in order to avoid renewables to become a partisan issue. A well-designed feed-in tariff can be key to changing the overall political opportunity structure and changing the political narrative around renewables.

Unfortunately, feed-in tariffs have recently come under attack on the European level: The European Commission wants to disallow most forms of FiTs for renewables from 2017 onwards, arguing that bidding models provide cheaper and more market-compatible support for renewables. Yet empirically speaking, tenders have not been proven to be any cheaper. And most worrying of all: the Commission willingly ignores the fact that feed-in tariffs spread the economic benefits of renewables more broadly among different population groups, which in turn is key to increasing long-term support of renewables. Germany’s renewable development would not stand where it is today, if it weren’t for its successful feed-in tariff.

This post is based on a paper titled “Germany’s Feed-In Tariff Design and its Effect on Farmers’ Support for Renewables” by Alexander Franke. He is an MA Candidate at the Otto-Suhr-Institute for Political Science at Free University of Berlin and a project assistant at energytransition.de.

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1 Comment

  1. Na also says

    ” a large majority of farmers are staunch supporters of the Energiewende and the fast development of renewables – an outcome that may surprise people in countries where conservatives oppose renewables”

    “one group of citizens was especially able to reap the benefits of the FiT: farmers”

    Why should anybody be surprised?

    Also nobody has to be surprised that farmers are strong opponents against grid expansion

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