Energy Revolution Stalls: Berlin Struggles to Realize Nuclear-Free Ambitions

By and

In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, the German government made a sudden and unexpected decision to phase out nuclear power by 2022. But precious little progress has been made. Key questions remain unanswered while various ministries quibble over their roles and Chancellor Merkel focuses on the pressing euro crisis.

Demonstrators in Berlin protest against plans to cut solar-energy subsidies with images of German Chancellor Angela Merkel (right) and Economics Minister Philipp Rösler. Zoom
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Demonstrators in Berlin protest against plans to cut solar-energy subsidies with images of German Chancellor Angela Merkel (right) and Economics Minister Philipp Rösler.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel rarely shows her feelings. But she appeared deeply shocked by the disturbing images of the exploding Fukushima nuclear power plant broadcast around the world on March 11, 2011. Visibly moved, the normally detached physicist spoke of a "turning point for the world" and of "tragic times."

Soon thereafter, the chancellor proved that her words were not hollow promises. Indeed, Merkel's dismay about the disaster in a country as technologically advanced as Japan prompted an undertaking of historic dimensions. Although she had only recently extended the life spans of Germany's nuclear power plants by 12 years, she announced a complete about-face and set her country on an entirely different path -- one out of the nuclear era. Within weeks of Japan's nuclear meltdown, Merkel decided that all German nuclear reactors would be offline by 2022. It was to be an energy revolution -- and every environmentalist's dream scenario.

One year later, the images of Fukushima have faded from people's minds. And the further the disaster recedes into the past, the less decisive the German government gets. Granted, the coalition of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) passed an extensive package of legislation last summer. But, since then, little has happened, and the initial momentum has given way to inertia.

Indeed, too many questions still remain unresolved, whether they concern the expansion of the national power grid, the construction of new gas-fired power plants, the increase in the proportion of electricity derived from renewable energy sources or the search for a place to store spent nuclear fuel. Efforts aimed at altering where Germany gets its energy from have gotten bogged down, the players within the coalition government have tied themselves in knots over who is responsible, and no one seems to be steering the ship of state toward the nuclear-free horizon. Germany's grand and ambitious aim of transforming itself into a bastion of green energy is now in jeopardy -- and, with it, the largest and most important project of Merkel's chancellorship besides the euro-rescue efforts.

'No Time to Lose'

"Not enough is being done," former Environment Minister Klaus Töpfer complained several weeks ago. "The energy turn-around is faltering." Töpfer isn't just any old critic. He has become something of a symbol of the conservative government's attempts to scrap nuclear power. Last year, Töpfer led Chancellor Merkel's ethics commission tasked with providing recommendations for the country's shift away from nuclear energy to more sustainable sources. Now he says that the decision to move away from nuclear power "is too far-reaching to be treated as a minor consideration."

Other experts are wagging their fingers, as well. Matthias Kurth, until March the head of the Federal Network Agency, whose regulatory responsibilities include ones relate to the energy supply, believes Germany will manage to wean itself off nuclear power. However, in an interview recently televised on the German public broadcaster ZDF, he cautioned against complacency. Kurth said the switch would only work "if all goes well." In other words, there's no room for mistakes. And most importantly of all, he added, there's no time to lose or waste.

Unfortunately, that's precisely what people think is happening. Of course, the pro-nuclear lobby's dire warnings never materialized: After the country's eight oldest nuclear power plants were immediately shut down, there was neither a spike in electricity prices nor blackouts. Nevertheless, it's still unclear how Germany will overcome the enormous challenges that lie ahead. According to the official timetable, the proportion of Germany's electricity generated in an eco-friendly manner should increase from the current level of about 20 percent to more than 35 percent by 2020. In addition, by 2022, all of Germany's remaining nuclear power plants are supposed to be shut down for good.

The road ahead is rocky. One problem concerns the expansion of the national energy grid. According to the German Energy Agency (DENA), more than 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) of power lines will be added over the next decade. Wind power, which is produced mainly in the north of the country, must be transported to more industrial southern and western areas, where it is much needed. Unfortunately, approval procedures are long, and even local Germans are rebelling by resisting the erection of power lines and masts wherever they are planned. As a result, only a fraction of the required lines have been set up so far.

The construction of new power stations is plagued by similar problems. But without additional conventional power stations that can balance out fluctuations in the supply of "green" electricity from weather-dependent sources, Germany won't be able to move away from nuclear power. It had been hoped that gas-fired power plants, in particular, could fulfill this role because they are more eco-friendly than their coal-fired counterparts. But building these plants is also behind schedule since doing so isn't necessarily profitable for their operators.

New energy storage systems could help out, but the technology is still in its infancy, and established alternatives, such as pumped storage hydroelectric power stations, can't be set up just anywhere -- nor are they welcome everywhere.

Who's in Charge?

These are just a few of the elements of this highly complex undertaking. What's more, the political situation surrounding these efforts is rather confused. For months, Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen, who is responsible for renewable power sources, and Economics Minister Philipp Rösler, who is responsible for fossil fuels, have been at each other's throats because each considers himself the man really in charge of Germany's energy about-face. Whether it's on the issue of environmental protection or of promoting renewable energy, the two men's views of their role and ultimate mission share little in common.

This was most recently noticeable in the debate over the future of state solar-power subsidies as well as European Union regulations on energy conservation. The row may have been resolved now, but even some of their coalition partners are wondering if the compromises will genuinely benefit the planned nuclear about-face. Solar subsidies are being cut drastically, and EU member states are being told to worry less about saving energy than about increasing efficiency.

Röttgen and Rösler aren't the only ministers who want a say in the matter, either. There's also Peter Ramsauer, the minister of transport, building and urban development, who's in charge of overseeing efforts to make new and newly renovated buildings more energy-efficient. Then there's Education Minister Annette Schavan, who's focused on the implications for research. And, finally, there's Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, who has to bankroll the energy revolution. Each has his or her own interests at heart, and their negotiations and disputes often devolve into heated haggling matches. Worse yet, no one person is at the helm captaining the ship.

Doubts within the Coalition

Under these conditions, Klaus Töpfer is adding his voice to the chorus of those who have already demanded "comprehensive management" of all efforts to implement the energy realignment. He'd much prefer to see the government appoint an "energy-transformation czar" who could hold and pull all the strings, as needed.

Matthias Kleiner -- the president of the German Research Association and Töpfer's former co-chairman on the ethics commission -- says, "Given the challenges ahead, we need more binding commitments to the implementation of the energy turnaround. Monitoring and project management have to be improved."

Hans-Peter Keitel, the president of the Federation of German Industries (BDI), has also called for better planning and monitoring. He envisages the creation of a task force that would "actively steer a complex technical project on a daily basis." Uwe Leprich, the head of the Institute for Future Energy Systems (IZES) in the southwestern German city of Saarbrücken, is calling for the establishment of "political power base for the energy revolution" and believes that the most sensible place to situate it would be within the Chancellery.

However, for the moment, it appears that Chancellor Merkel would prefer to keep herself above the fray, especially since the euro crisis is consuming most of her time. Likewise, her government is in no mood to hear about problems with its planned phase-out of nuclear energy. "The energy turn-around is in full swing and running exactly according to plan," Environment Minister Röttgen told SPIEGEL.

But even voices within the coalition are secretly starting to express doubt that the project can go on as it has been. Some are even wondering whether it wouldn't be simpler to just create an energy ministry and give it overall responsibility for implementing the project. Indeed, it wasn't until a few days ago -- and almost a full year after Fukushima -- that leaders of the parties in the ruling coalition succeeded in hammering out a timetable for the current year. March may be somewhat late in the year for reaching such a agreement, but it has at least brought a certain degree of relief to some coalition members.

Adding to the voices of doubt is the European Union's Energy Commissioner, Günther Oettinger of Germany. In an interview with SPIEGEL published on Monday, the European Commission member urged Germany to appoint its own energy minister. "I recommend that both the federal government and the states bundle responsibilites for energy into its own ministry."

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt

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