The World from Berlin Doubts Rising over German Switch to Renewables

Germany's revolutionary switch to renewable energies is stalling and the country's new environment minister has now admitted as much by casting doubt on the ambitious goals set last year. Media commentators say that he and the rest of Chancellor Merkel's government must do more.
High-voltage lines in western Germany. The country's energy revolution is stalling.

High-voltage lines in western Germany. The country's energy revolution is stalling.

Foto: dapd

Chancellor Angela Merkel outlined a grand vision for an energy revolution  a year ago, shortly after her government had decided to shut down all nuclear reactors by 2022 in a spectacular about-face following the Fukushima accident.

Germany was to put itself at the forefront of the fight against global warming by radically expanding the use of renewable energy to 35 percent of total power consumption by 2020, rising to 80 percent by 2050. Currently, it represents 20 percent of the country's energy mix.

But now two ministers, Environment Minister Peter Altmaier and Economy Minister Philipp Rösler, have cast doubt whether the targets are reachable and said their priority is to make sure that electricity prices don't rise too much.

Altmaier, a close ally of Merkel who took over the ministry after his predecessor Norbert Röttgen was sacked in May,  on Sunday cast doubt on whether Germany will be able to cut its energy consumption by 10 percent by 2020 as planned -- a precondition for reaching the 35 percent renewables target that year.

"If we still want to manage that somehow it will take huge efforts," he told Bild am Sonntag newspaper. Altmaier said his ministry had made mistakes, that there had been a lack of coordination and that forecasts for electricity prices had had to be revised. He even warned that the energy revolution could lead to social problems if prices rose too high. "For me it's a priority that electricity remains affordable," he told the paper.

He also questioned the country's ability to reach its goal to introduce one million electric cars by 2020. As of the beginning of 2012, only 4,541 electric cars were in use, according to the German Federal Motor Transport Authority. "We may have far fewer electric cars than assumed so far," said Altmaier.

Economy Minister Philipp Rösler echoed Atmaier on Tuesday, telling Bild newspaper: "The timeframe and the goals of the energy revolution are intact. But we will have to make adjustments if jobs and our competitiveness should become endangered." He said it was a "top priority" that electricity should remain affordable for consumers and customers.

The similarity between the two ministers' comments is noteworthy, as is the fact that two of Merkel's top ministers are calling one of her government's central projects into question a mere year after it was launched.

Merkel Sounds Warning on Global Warming

The pessimism coincided with a warning by Merkel on Monday that global warming will accelerate at a dramatic rate unless leaders reach a deal on limiting greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible.

After marathon talks in Durban last December, countries agreed to forge a new deal by 2015 that would for the first time force all the biggest polluters to limit greenhouse gas emissions.Critics said at the time, however, the plan was too timid to slow global warming.

"Time is of the essence," Merkel told an international conference in Berlin, where delegates from more than 30 countries are preparing for a major UN climate conference at the end of the year in Qatar.

Referring to her own energy revolution plans, Merkel, who has been preoccupied with combating the euro crisis over the last year, said in an interview on Sunday: "I say it is difficult but that we can manage it."

German media commentators say the government shouldn't lose faith in its own energy policy, and that rising electricity prices shouldn't be an obstacle to weaning Europe's largest economy off fossil fuel.

Center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"Why is Peter Altmaier casting doubt on the energy revolution? He says 'affordable' electricity prices are the 'top priority.' If he regards that as more important than the energy revolution, then the country has an environment minister with very strange priorities.

"Politicians who want to soften the economic consequences of the energy revolution should help people to use less energy -- through incentives and rules. Instead, Altmaier appears to be losing courage and is doubting the government's goal of cutting energy consumption by 10 percent by 2020. If the government is worried about the price of electricity, it could make an effort to distribute the costs of the energy revolution differently. The government is exempting companies that consume large amounts of power from charges linked to renewable energy generation -- which means billions of euros in revenue losses. As long as that is possible, money doesn't appear to be the problem with the energy revolution."

"True, the price of electricity has risen significantly, by almost 30 percent since 2007. But renewable energies account for less than half of that rise, the bigger share is due to price increases by power companies. Consumers get angry about expensive power, but evidently not angry enough to do anything about it. One could save money by changing tariffs or one's energy provider. But most people don't even want to go through that bit of trouble. People spend money on cars, dogs, tennis racquets and nail varnish. No one would think of complaining that such things cost money. But they want electricity and the energy revolution to be as cheap as possible. And the environment minister of all people is adopting that stance. "

Conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"Since the decision was taken a year ago to switch off the last German nuclear power station in 2022, it has become evident that the art of the revolution isn't just about making technical adjustments. It consists of focusing all political policy, perhaps with the exception of defense, on this goal -- and not just horizontally at the national level, but vertically right down to the municipal level. It has to go so far that not only the energy providers, not just the countryside, but the whole administration and democracy must change. Paradoxically, the art will consist not just of pensioning off the supposed dinosaurs of the nuclear age but also of slaughtering a few of the sacred cows kept by ecological romantics."

Left-wing Die Tageszeitung writes:

"Altmaier is quite right that it won't be easy to reach the goals. But this isn't due to technical reasons, it's due to the powerful lobby of the inefficient fossil economy. As environment minister, it should be Altmaier's task to combat this and to fight for the goals. After many failed global summits, there's a realization that the slowest country mustn't be allowed to dictate the pace if something is to be achieved. The same applies at home. Anyone who shies away from conflict and lets the slowest government minister dictate the pace shouldn't be surprised if no progress is made."

Business daily Handelsblatt writes:

"Altmaier is doing what every manager and every politician does after taking on a new big job and finding a lot of unfinished work. He points out problems his predecessor left behind. His analysis is ruthless and accurate in many points. But that's not enough. The CDU politician must set a new path. So far there's no sign of this path. That must change quickly. If one looks at the key points of the energy revolution decided a year ago, one quickly notices that very ambitious targets were set while the path to reaching them was only outlined sketchily. Many players in the affected industries don't know what to do. They have been told to take action and invest billions, but the conditions remain unclear."

"Here's a practical example. Natural gas-fired power stations are an integral component of the government plan for the energy revolution. They are best suited to ramp up power output whenever there are short-term outages of renewable power because there's no wind or the sun isn't shining. New natural gas-fired power stations must be built for the expansion of renewables to continue quickly and for nuclear power stations to be taken offline as planned by the government. But potential investors lack incentive to build new natural gas-fired power stations at the moment. Even existing facilities are being taken off the grid because it is no longer profitable to keep them in operation."

-- David Crossland