Energy Referendum: Public Buy-Back of Berlin Grid Fails

Activists failed to wrest control of Berlin's energy grid from the Swedish concern Vattenfall. Zoom
DPA

Activists failed to wrest control of Berlin's energy grid from the Swedish concern Vattenfall.

An attempt to buy Berlin's energy grid from the Swedish mega firm Vattenfall fell short at the polls on Sunday. Activists argued the company isn't doing enough to foster green energy, while opponents questioned the logistical advantages of a change.

In a defeat for environmental activists, a public referendum to bring Berlin's energy grid back under public ownership failed on Sunday. Driven by a group called EnergieTisch (or Energy Table), the movement didn't manage to get enough votes to spur the city towards buying back the utility.

In order to pass, the measure would have had to get the support of 25 percent of eligible Berlin voters. Although 83 percent of those voting in the referendum voted yes, the overall numbers fell slightly short -- another 21,000 "yes" votes would have been needed for a win.

The referendum was the culmination of a long-term attempt to wrest Berlin's utility from Vattenfall, the Swedish energy giant. According to critics, Vattenfall isn't doing enough to transfer the city over to green energy sources. Although the grid is, by the standards of large cities, extremely reliable, a mere 1.4 percent of the city's power comes from renewable sources. Activists blame this on Vattenfall's ownership interests -- the company doesn't just manage the grid, it helps produce the energy that feeds it, giving it, activists claim, an incentive to focus on cheap, but highly polluting, coal power. Proponents argued that a buy-back would have made the utility more democratic, transparent and environmentally friendly.

Discontent with German Energy

The referendum comes at a time of growing concern about energy prices in Germany. The nationwide Energiewende, or energy revolution, aims to turn the country from nuclear over to renewable sources, like solar and wind. This policy, which has required the expansion of infrastructure and the construction of new wind farms, and is backed by Chancellor Angela Merkel, has resulted in steeply rising costs with, thus far, questionable environmental advantages. In order to compensate for the still-lacking infrastructure and the closure of nuclear plants, Germany has been relying largely on coal plants to power its cities.

Germans already have the highest electricity prices in Europe, but, as a result of the Energiewende, they have continued to rise, placing a large burden on the country's poor. Although it is unlikely that the Berlin buy-back, had it been successful, would have lowered electricity prices for consumers, it is a sign of the growing popular discontent with the ways the electricity industry in Germany is run. A similar referendum recently passed in Hamburg, and the city's government is now forced to explore ways of buying its energy grid from Vattenfall and a company called E.on.

But opponents of the buy-back in Berlin point to Vattenfall's good record on reliability and the parliamentary control over costs under the current arrangement. They also argue that there are dangers in putting complex management and construction jobs in the hands of local authorities with little experience -- and point to Berlin's spectacularly bungled construction of its new airport as an example. The airport was supposed to open in 2011, but has been hampered by technical difficulties, cost-overruns and endless delays. In October, its costs ballooned by another € 1.1 billion, and its opening is now scheduled for late 2014.

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1. optional
peskyvera 11/04/2013
No entity serving the public good should be in private hands.
2. Germany must reconsider nuclear energy
harry.haddad 11/04/2013
I do agree with the opponents of a publicly controlled energy grid on this issue for the chief reason being that public officials, individuals having little to no knowledge on how to operate such machinery will be taking it over from the experts at Vattenfall who know what they're doing. On the other hand, I see the reasoning behind Germany's Energiewende policy and I do think that this policy has good intentions, but I don't think that it is realistic. Solar and wind power alone cannot possibly provide for all of Germany's electricity needs, and coal with its devastating effects must be ruled out as well. That leaves nuclear energy. The fact of the matter is that events such as Fukushima are extremely rare occurrences, and there currently exists and is being developed extensive nuclear safety technology, such as passive nuclear safety installations, for instance. Unlike fossil fuel power plants, the only substance leaving the cooling towers of nuclear power plants is pure water vapor and thus does not pollute the air or cause global warming. While I understand the feelings of those who are anti-nuclear energy, their feelings are not very reflective of the current need of society for clean, environmentally friendly, cheap, and mass-produced energy. Germany should take the country of France as a model for developing her nuclear energy program. I hope one day for a better future where Germany will realize all of the benefits that nuclear energy can offer her.
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