The Impending Power Gap Where Will Germany's Energy Come From?

Nuclear power is too dangerous. Coal is too dirty. Gas involves too much dependence on Russia. And renewables are insufficient. So just where is Germany going to get its power from?


One way to partially address Germany's impending energy crisis would be to connect Sigmar Gabriel to a district heating pipeline. After all, Germany's environmental minister certainly likes letting off steam.

"We're talking about the core of our industrial society," he tells SPIEGEL, adding that environmental groups are merely helping to support nuclear power by opposing new coal power plants and power lines. And, says Gabriel, the fact that politicians from the center-left Social Democratic Party -- to which he himself belongs -- are joining forces with the environmentalists can only hurt steel and autoworkers, who would suffer as a result of higher electricity prices.

Gabriel is convinced that the general population has little more than a superficial understanding of where energy comes from. "What has now happened is exactly what the old nuclear lobbyists warned against in the past: Citizens think that electricity comes from their wall outlets," Gabriel complains. These days it is even difficult to gain approval for a biomass power plant, he adds.

Gabriel is just getting warmed up. Berlin's grand coalition government, he says, "allowed itself to go far too long without developing a strategic energy policy." But that, he adds, is about to change. Gabriel, it appears, is resorting to an age-old strategy of politicians: Paint an apocalyptic picture of the world so that the public longs for a savior -- and then present yourself as being just that savior.

Gabriel places a position paper on the table. In only 10 pages, it describes the fine balance with which climate protection, the nuclear phase-out, affordable electricity prices and energy security can apparently be combined. Gabriel is anxious not to leave the prerogative of interpretation up to Economics Minister Michael Glos, a member of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), who wants to rehabilitate nuclear power and tone down climate protection. Glos had just upbraided and embarrassed Gabriel a week earlier because of the biofuel debacle, in which Gabriel had to abandon his plans to increase the percentage of ethanol in gasoline.

But finding this fine balance will be difficult. With great resolve, the Social Democratic and Green Party coalition government of former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder wrote into law that Germany would phase out nuclear power by 2022. Current Chancellor Angela Merkel has been equally rigorous -- she benefits from the added legitimacy of being a trained physicist -- in prescribing drastic climate protection goals for Germany: a 40 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2020. But how exactly is this supposed to happen?

Nuclear power is too risky, coal too dirty, gas too Russian and renewables too costly. Is this the new energy consensus?

Graphic: Germany's impending energy gap

Graphic: Germany's impending energy gap

Until now, the powers-that-be were quick to claim there was plenty of time to reconfigure the energy landscape, make up for the lost output of nuclear power plants when they are phased out and promote energy efficiency nationwide. And there was also enough time, they argued, to convert the sensitive power grid to be able to cope with vast amounts of power from moody and unreliable renewable sources.

But now the doubts have started to crop up. Precisely the opposite of what is actually needed is happening all across Germany: Energy projects of all kinds are being cancelled or scaled back on an almost weekly basis, creating an enormous backlog of investments, even in renewable forms of energy.

There are many causes. Investors are growing tired of waiting out lengthy approval processes and citizen protests against coal power plants, such as those taking place in Ensdorf in the south-western German state of Saarland, in Berlin and Hesse, in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Hamburg. Germans want electricity, but they want it without any risks or side effects whatsoever.

To add to the problem, global demand for power plants has caused prices to double in recent years. And then there are the imponderable costs of even the most efficient new gas power plants, especially now that the European Union has decreed that, beginning in 2013, emitters will have to purchase emission certificates on an exchange for each ton of carbon dioxide they produce. From then on, prices for CO2 emissions rights will fluctuate like the prices of stocks.

In addition to the heads of Germany's major energy utilities, who have until now shamelessly earned billions from their oligopoly, strategists at alternative providers, like German renewable energy company Lichtblick, are also now saying that, unless something changes, Germany is headed for a "power shortfall."

When that happens, electricity will become scarce and far more costly than it already is today. "We could face a power shortfall of between 12,000 and 21,000 megawatts," predicts Wulf Bernotat, the CEO of major German utility company E.on. The figure corresponds to the amount of power generated by at least a dozen large nuclear or coal power plants.

Gabriel insists, at every opportunity, that there is "no power shortfall." All that he means by this is that Germany is unlikely to be plagued by major blackouts. But he does agree that a lack of investment will lead to supply bottlenecks and sharp increases in the cost of electricity, unless Germany builds new power plants and an adequate network of new power lines.

A study by the German Energy Agency (DENA) confirms fears of a power shortfall. However critics say the study's conclusions are hardly surprising, given its origins: In addition to having been created by the energy utilities for a meeting with Chancellor Merkel, the study was also paid for by the utilities. Rainer Baake, the head of the German Environmental Aid Association (DUH), accuses DENA of acting in the interest of the utilities.

Stephan Kohler, the head of DENA, strongly rejects that claim. "Anyone who thinks that we can be bought for €100,000 has taken leave of his senses," he says. The growing power shortage can be calculated away at will, says Kohler, "but only if one uses the wrong methodological approaches."


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