The IFTF Blog
Historical Factors behind Germany’s Energy Transformation
Germany’s Energiewende is propelling the shift to a new energy economy. This post is Part 2 of a series on Germany’s energy transformation.
During my week in Berlin with the American Council on Germany, our small group of American delegates met with impressive representatives from the federal government, policy think tanks, foreign service and climate scientists. Not only did we hear about the many facets of the Energiewende, we also heard various reflections on how Germany found itself on the path of such a formidable effort.
First and foremost, Germans cite the success of pragmatism and vision over ideology in their ambitious shift away from fossil fuels and nuclear energy. They also note that 50 years ago, the U.S. was admired for its pragmatism on important issues while Germany suffered from political polarization. Today the roles have reversed with Germany taking a proactive approach to the future. In Germany today, there’s a high degree of interaction across party lines, and common ground is found on critical issues such as climate change.
Historically, a number of factors have contributed to Germany’s current path with the Energiewende including deep-seeded environmental values. Culturally, the German affinity with the forest goes back 2000 years with the defeat of the invading Roman Empire and has been carried forward through the works of writers, artists and political leaders. In the 1970s, opposition intensified to the stationing of American nuclear missiles in Germany. The growing peace and environmental movements led to the founding of the Green Party in 1980. A cornerstone of the party’s aims was the elimination of all nuclear power and weapons. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 elevated concerns of environmental sustainability to the same level of considerations of cost effectiveness and supply security in the country’s power generation.
The coalition government of the progressive SPD and the Green Party in 1999 initiated the first steps of the Energiewende. The Renewable Energy Act set up generous incentive structures to build renewable systems. A galvanizing issue of the Green Party, the nuclear exit negotiated in 2000 committed to the phase out 19 nuclear reactors by 2020.
In 2005, the new coalition government took over made up of the conservative CDU/CSU and the economically liberal FDP. They proposed to reverse the scheduled shut down of all nuclear power plants in 2010. Very soon thereafter came the Fukushima disaster in 2011, and German public reaction resulted in the government shutting down eight reactors within three months of the tsunami and reaffirming its commitment to phasing out all nuclear energy.
With the sudden closure of the nuclear power plants, the discussion was less about compensating shareholders for lost assets and centered more on the view that ratepayers had covered the costs of regulation and therefore the plant shareholders were more to be viewed as trustees. In addition to the influence of its strong environmental lobby, the German public interest lobby is also very powerful.
How do we drive the necessary shift to a new energy paradigm and new economic gains? As reflected in the German experience, pragmatism and vision must trump ideology. The U.S. must reconnect with its pragmatic past and rekindle a view for the common good in order to take a proactive approach to shaping the future in our alarming context of climate change.