In Bavaria’s recent election (October 14), observers watched agape as the Greens took nearly 18 percent of the vote – a record high for the little environmental party in the conservatively minded state.
The preeminent power in the German Alps, the Christian Social Union, or CSU, garnered “just” 37 percent, which might not appear shoddy but it’s an all-time low for the Christian democrats who have ruled Bavaria, usually with an absolute majority, since the postwar years.
The ostensibly obvious conclusion was that the Bavarian voters who left the CSU for the Greens did so because of the CSU’s querulous behavior in Angela Merkel’s federal government and its stubborn, borderline xenophobic positions on migration and integration. Bavarians aren’t that narrowminded after all, concluded many with justification.
This may be part of the explanation, but there’s more to it too.
Bavaria has profited enormously over the past twenty years from Germany’s transition to renewable energy – which no party touts more vigorously than the Greens. In fact, and inexplicably, no other German party even mentions the Energiewende these days, unless it is to disparage it. It is so low on the Merkel administration’s agenda that seven months into its term there isn’t even a deputy minister appointed to head up the energy department in the economy ministry. The CSU, the Bavarian sister party of Merkel’s CDU, itself has not substantially updated its energy policies in decades and is usually one of the first parties to knock the renewables transition for being too expensive, anti-business, and sullying the Alpine landscape.
This is obviously a blind spot for the parties other than the Greens because the Energiewende is extremely popular across Germany, and especially so in Bavaria. For years, opinion polls show approval for the renewables transition in the high 80s and low 90s. More than half of Germans say the Energiewende is proceeding too slowly.
One doesn’t have to take vacation in Bavaria – where just about every farm is plastered with solar panels and farm waste ferments in ubiquitous yard-side biogas units — to see how much the southerners have picked up the Energiewende and run with it. Numbers show that renewable energy is a key second income flow for farmers. Bavaria is second only to Baden Württemberg in share of population actively involved in the Energiewende: tied with Hesse at 28 percent, the national average being 23 percent.
Bavaria ranks first among the 16 federal states in the “successful use of ” and third in overall ranking of the federal states’ use, implementation, and benefit of renewables. Bavaria leads all of Germany in consumption of solar, geothermal and hydroelectric power, and has more biogas units than any other state. Over 40 percent of its electricity production (43.3 in 2016, 36 terawatt hours) hails from renewables – mostly hydro, solar PV, and biomass, but ever more wind turbines are popping up in Bavaria – making it Germany’s leading clean-power producer.
Yet this prodigious effort came from below, made possible by federal laws, not Bavaria’s. Bavaria’s statutes include the so-called 10-H regulation, which requires new wind turbines to be located at a distance of 10 times their height from residential areas. The controversial CSU law has effectively stymied wind investments in the state.
It wasn’t that long ago that the CSU actually had a spokesperson for the renewables transition in the Bundestag. His name was Josef Göppel from Franconia, his district lying outside of Nuremberg. I used to stop by his office and he’d tell me how dramatically renewables generation had changed life in his district. The septuagenarian forest ranger by profession described the uptake of renewables as a veritable “revolution” in the region. Why then, I asked him does the CSU remain so willfully opposed to the Energiewende? He’d roll his eyes and shrug, explaining that he had been doing his utmost to change this … but to no avail. Göppel resigned last year after 15 years in the Bundestag – and since then no one in the CSU replaced him as spokesperson for renewables. (Merkel’s CDU is hardly better, having lost energy expert Norbert Röttgen in 2011 and never replaced him either.)
Many pro-Energiewende Bavarians had been leaning toward the Greens in terms of energy program for years, but they voted CDU out of habit. When the CSU’s leaders ran amok, which is exactly what happened, voters shifted seamlessly to the Greens. It wasn’t a shift to the left as there’s nothing intrinsically leftist about renewables. The Bavarians voted with their pocket books. After all, Bavarian energy producers reap more of the clean-energy subsidy for their product than any other state: €5.4 billion in 2016.
Ultimately there has to be a cross-party consensus on the Energiewende and climate since it affects everyone, regardless of party affiliation. Until then, the Greens are the only party that Germans concerned about these topics can vote for. Unfortunately, it’s a single-party monopoly – one just waiting to be broken up.