Photo Gallery: 'We Have the Situation Under Control'

Foto: Patrick Pleul/ dpa

SPIEGEL Interview with German Environment Minister 'Germans Are Willing to Pay' for Renewable Energies

In a SPIEGEL interview, German Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen, 46, discusses the nuclear phase-out, controversial solar power subsidies and why he believes Chancellor Angela Merkel's energy revolution -- which will see the country move to clean energies -- is still on track.

SPIEGEL: Minister Röttgen, it's been a year since the nuclear accident at Fukushima. Do you still want to phase out nuclear energy?

Röttgen: More than 90 percent of Germans want that, and they're right, because there's a better alternative.

SPIEGEL: Then why are you doing so little to ensure that the phase-out is a success?

Röttgen: Why little? In 2011, renewable energy was, for the first time, in second place after nuclear energy. Since last summer, we have been working continuously, one step at a time, to make the energy revolution a success.

SPIEGEL: But things aren't progressing. Neither new power grids nor replacement power plants or electricity storage facilities have been built yet. European Union Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger accuses you of lacking a plan. He says: "Does a German energy policy exist? Not really!"

Röttgen: Then he should take a closer look. We have approved an enormous legislative package, which we are now working on, which ranges from expanding the grid to upgrading buildings, and from promoting offshore wind energy to promoting combined heat and power generation. The energy revolution  is in full swing, and it's moving along successfully.

SPIEGEL: How great is the risk that the power will go out?

Röttgen: The recent cold temperatures have highlighted how well our energy supply works. The power supply was secure at all times. We had the lowest market electricity prices in Europe and exported massive amounts of electricity. When we did approach critical situations recently, it wasn't the fault of renewable energy, but of electricity speculators.

SPIEGEL: The grid operators say that they now have to intervene again and again to prevent blackouts, and that this never happened in the past.

Röttgen: It's true that expansion of the power grid is critical. We are behind in this respect , but it's a sin of the past. For years, the major electric utilities had no real interest in investing in the grids, because grids mean competition. This is now changing, but it takes years, not months. New grids will be built bit by bit.

SPIEGEL: The Federal Network Agency warns that the system is at the limits of its capacity.

Röttgen: The Federal Network Agency has stated several times that it has been necessary to intervene more frequently than in the past, but we have the situation under control.

SPIEGEL: The expansion of offshore wind farms is stalling , partly because there aren't enough power lines. The grid operators, for their part, are waiting for lawmakers to iron out the underlying conditions. Is it your fault that things aren't moving forward with wind power?

Röttgen: No one can seriously believe that the energy turnaround can be completed within a few months. It's a matter of years and decades. And as far as the wind farms are concerned, we meet regularly with all the companies involved, and I'm sure that we will be able to propose a solution to the most important problems by Easter.

SPIEGEL: Czech Prime Minister Petr Nečas says that Germany can only afford the nuclear phase-out because France and the Czech Republic are still producing electricity with nuclear power. Is he right?

Röttgen: No. It's a matter of course that we buy electricity from our neighbors , just as they buy it from us. The bottom line is that last year Germany was still a net exporter of electricity and not a net importer. Besides, the Federal Network Agency determined last year that most of the additional electricity we imported was not from nuclear power plants.

SPIEGEL: After Fukushima and the immediate shutdown of German nuclear power plants last March, the balance shifted for the first time.

Röttgen: That was the case in the first few months after Fukushima. But since October 2011, we have continually exported more than we import. During the extremely cold period in January and February, we supplied France with large amounts of electricity, so that the electric heating systems there wouldn't shut down. Have you forgotten that already?

SPIEGEL: Does it make sense to shut down German nuclear power plants and buy nuclear electricity from France and the Czech Republic instead?

Röttgen: That's generally not the case.

SPIEGEL: With the exception of a few days, France is Germany's biggest power supplier, and the trend is rising. And in France the overwhelming majority of electricity is produced in nuclear power plants.

Röttgen: That's correct, but it certainly doesn't contradict the course we have chosen in energy policy.

SPIEGEL: It's a question of whether Czech Prime Minister Nečas is right. Does Germany depend on the nuclear electricity of its European neighbors? And if so, is this reasonable?

Röttgen: It's reasonable to consistently move in the direction of renewable energy and energy efficiency, which is something you have to start somewhere.

SPIEGEL: Trouble-prone foreign reactors are now running at full capacity to supply us with electricity. Doesn't this trouble you, as environment minister?

Röttgen: Your claim is factually incorrect.

SPIEGEL: Bavarian Economics Minister Martin Zeil says that Bavaria's dependency on the Temelin nuclear power plant in the Czech Republic is worrisome.

Röttgen: If I were Mr. Zeil, I would be more concerned about the question of what to do with the radioactive waste from nuclear power plants. After all, we have to think beyond the present, and about the waste that we are leaving behind for our children and grandchildren.

SPIEGEL: Economics Minister Philipp Rösler is responsible for the grids, while you are responsible for renewable energy. Do we need a separate ministry to tackle the nuclear phase-out ?

Röttgen: It might make sense to consider combining forces for the future, but that isn't an issue at this point. Philipp Rösler and I work together closely and well.

SPIEGEL: At least you're significantly ahead of schedule in one area: the expansion of solar energy. Another 7.5 gigawatts were added last year, or twice as much as you had expected. Is this a curse or a blessing?

Röttgen: Both. The good thing is that the costs of solar electricity have fallen considerably. This year, for the first time, solar electricity will be cheaper than the electricity consumers obtain from the grid. The bad thing is that too many solar systems create a burden on the grids. The system can't handle the addition of 7 gigawatts a year. That's why we will now change our subsidization policy  to limit expansion to a reasonable level.

SPIEGEL: Jürgen Grossmann, the head of (electric utility) RWE, says that the expansion of solar energy in a country with as little sunshine as Germany makes about as much sense as growing pineapples in Alaska.

Röttgen: Yes, it's one of the same old clichés.

SPIEGEL: Anchorage has more hours of sunshine than Berlin, so in that respect Grossmann is right.

Röttgen: But it's an oversimplification. Solar energy already makes a relevant contribution to the power supply in Germany. Besides, it's an export technology. The fact that Germany doesn't just invent this technology but also uses it, and that added value and jobs are created in the process, is a success story. There are about 100,000 jobs in the solar-panel industry in Germany. We are a technology leader. We have an export quotient of between 50 and 80 percent. In other words, we're not just talking about national energy issues here, but also about technologies and industrial policy.

SPIEGEL: You invest the largest amount of money in the most inefficient technology. The photovoltaic industry collects 56 percent of all subsidy money, but supplies only 21 percent of subsidized green energy. Does this make sense?

Röttgen: There is no question that solar power will absolutely be competitive in Germany in the near future. The technological and economic development is moving forward at a rapid pace. The systems are becoming more powerful and less costly. It won't be long before solar panels don't require subsidies anymore.

SPIEGEL: The solar lobby has been saying that for years, and yet the systems that are already installed will cost us more than €100 billion ($134 billion) in the coming years. A costly beginner's mistake?

Röttgen: A serious mistake by my predecessor Sigmar Gabriel, in particular. His subsidization of solar energy was far too generous. Unfortunately, I can't reverse Gabriel's faulty subsidization policy.

SPIEGEL: But you don't have to repeat the same mistake.

Röttgen: I'm not. I've reduced subsidy rates for solar systems by more than half overall.

SPIEGEL: The solar systems installed last year will cost electricity customers about €18 billion in subsidies in the coming years. Do you also want to blame that on your predecessor?

Röttgen: We experienced a year-end rally in solar systems in 2011, something that no one had really expected. The reason was that the subsidy rates were substantially reduced all at once on Jan. 1. We learned from that. In the future, we will reduce subsidies by a little each month.

SPIEGEL: Economics Minister Rösler wanted to reduce subsidies even further. What was wrong with his proposal?

Röttgen: We want to get the costs under control, but we don't want to bring the entire technology to a standstill. That's why we have now developed an approach that makes sense both environmentally and economically.

'We Are In the Process of Massively Reducing Subsidies'

SPIEGEL: The panel of experts on environmental issues, which reports to you in order to advise the government on the issue, also advocates strictly limiting subsidies for inefficient photovoltaic systems.

Röttgen: I'm more than happy to listen to the panel's suggestions, but in the end the responsibility lies with politicians like me, not the professors. We cannot destroy solar energy in Germany. Then it would have all been a waste of time. There would be massive economic losses and layoffs.

SPIEGEL: How expensive will the energy revolution be for normal people?

Röttgen: An average household pays a little more than €10 (about $13) a month to promote renewable energy. It shouldn't be much more than that, which is why we have to take advantage of all conservation options at this point.

SPIEGEL: Do you think it's fair that an average family living in a rented home has to pay more than €120 a year to finance the solar panels of homeowners?

Röttgen: All surveys show that Germans are willing to do this, because it's an investment in the future of our energy supply.

SPIEGEL: You believe that a family living on the Hartz IV welfare program (a reduction in welfare benefits for the long-term unemployed introduced by the government of former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder that provides around €374 euros a month to single, unemployed people) is happy to invest €120 a year to expand our country's energy supply?

Röttgen: I don't know. But the cost of electricity for Hartz IV recipients is a completely different issue that has nothing to do with what we're discussing. The German Renewable Energy Act is not an instrument of social policy.

SPIEGEL: German economic think tank RWI expects the burden on citizens to continue to grow, because you have not been able to get subsidies under control.

Röttgen: We are in the process of massively reducing the subsidies -- against strong resistance, by the way. This is one of the many alarmist reports that some are deliberately using to politicize the issue.

SPIEGEL: Only the environment minister is keeping a cool head.

Röttgen: First they were saying that electricity prices were going to explode. That didn't happen. Then we were warned that the grids would collapse -- wrong again. And there is also no indication that the alarmist reports about rising subsidy costs are true. Besides, we would make adjustments if this sort of development became apparent. Our proposal gives the federal government the ability to intervene quickly.

SPIEGEL: Why haven't Poland, the Czech Republic, France, the United States, Brazil, Russia and China recognized the signs of the times, choosing to stick with nuclear power instead?

Röttgen: Every country has to make its own decisions. But based on many conversations I've had, I know that the world is paying very close attention to the energy turnaround in Germany. There is enormous interest, and if an industrialized country like Germany manages the turnaround, it will rub off. I'm convinced of that.

SPIEGEL: Minister Röttgen, we thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Alexander Neubacher and Konstantin von Hammerstein. Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.