Why do the Germans accept the high cost of the Energiewende?

The Germans pay the second-highest power rates in the EU after Denmark. Yet, there have been no popular demonstrations against the Energiewende – only for it. That’s because Germany’s energy transition has always been a bottom-up, grassroots movement. Think of Germans as citizens, not just consumers.

In 1980, a book entitled Energiewende was published. Written by a group of researchers funded with donations from the public, the book came out of protests that have gone down in history as the beginning of Germany’s anti-nuclear movement. In 1974, citizens in the conservative farming region around Kaiserstuhl did indeed begin protesting plans to construct a new nuclear plant – but that’s not all. The reactor would have provided far more electricity than locals needed, so the government aimed to attract industry.

In the very beginning, local citizens did not know what radioactivity was. They were concerned about pollution and environmental changes. A lead production plant was also announced as a buyer of the nuclear power. That plant was also successfully blocked (and one can imagine that the investors were, in retrospect, happy their lead production plans had been stopped, given the rollback against lead). A pamphlet distributed among the protesters in 1974 reads, “The worst impact of the nuclear reactor will be water vapor.” A study had found a 12 percent increase in precipitation around a reactor’s cooling tower in central Germany.

Demonstrasjon for Energiewende i Berlin 30. november 2013.
Demonstration for the Energiewende in Berlin November 30, 2013.

As the protests dragged on, citizens occupied the construction site around the clock. They created a makeshift Volksschule, a kind of adult education center, to draw more people out. It was there that normal citizens first learned about radioactivity from people like the scientists who would later write Energiewende. In 1979, the accident at Three Mile Island (USA) drew even more attention to the risks; after Chernobyl in 1986, radioactivity became the main concern once and for all. But the movement started with protests very similar to those in conservative US towns standing up to fracking firms and telling their governments not to privatize profits and socialize risks.

About the author
Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of German Energy Transition. He directs Petite Planète and writes every workday for Renewables International. Along with his co-author Arne Jungjohann, he is currently completing a history of the Energiewende to be published in 2016.

These first protesters demanded what has since become known as “energy democracy”: the civil right to make your own energy. When asked what they wanted instead of nuclear, the protesters said, “renewable energy” – and were laughed at. “That doesn’t exist,” they were told.

So the protesters set out to invent it. Photovoltaics was a technology for outer space around 1980, not rooftops. People initially tinkered with solar thermal and wind power generators. Most such generators at the time had an output of less than 50 kilowatts, a size utilities couldn’t take seriously. R&D experts suspected wind turbines probably had something to do with aerospace, so governments from the US to Europe threw money at Boeing, NASA, etc. to develop a megawatt-size wind turbine. All of these early projects failed.

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German tinkerers followed the Danish lead; the Danes, who had no aerospace sector to distract them, had built the Tvind turbine as a school project. With a capacity of one megawatt, it is still in operation today – 40 years later.

R&D experts suspected wind turbines probably had something to do with aerospace

It turns out that we should have entrusted wind turbine development to John Deere, not Boeing. Vestas, the big Danish turbine manufacturer, started off as a maker of farming equipment. Germany’s biggest engineering firms were of no help in the development of renewable energy. Siemens did not even join the wind sector until 2004, when it took over Denmark’s Bonus. Conventional energy experts simply did not believe in renewables. German tinkerers created Enercon, now the German market leader.

The PV sector came later but was no different. Shell and BP were two of the biggest names in photovoltaics around 2000. Shell left the solar sector in 2006, selling to SolarWorld – right when PV was about to take off. Anyone remember BP’s announcement in 2000 that its acronym now stood for Beyond Petroleum? It stepped away from solar altogether in 2011. The drivers behind the German solar movement in the 1990s were different companies anyway – firms like Phoenix Solar, which came out of a nationwide do-it-yourself campaign for rooftop solar. The football stadium in Freiburg, Germany, got a solar roof from the firm in the mid-1990s as part of a fan campaign; solar roof donors were offered season tickets first.

The Germans told their utilities to play along or get out of the way

By 2012, Germany had more than 70 gigawatts of renewable generation capacity, but utilities only accounted for 5.5 percent of those investments. Yet, that year a backlash against the allegedly high cost of the energy transition began. Interestingly, it was driven by an initiative representing employers in the metal and electronics industry – not exactly an organization that represents the poor. In contrast, German charity organization Caritas praises the Energiewende, as does the left-wing Rosa Luxemburg Foundation; both organizations realize that renewable energy is liberating. It allows economically struggling communities to take their energy supply in their own hands. It gives small investors an alternative – community renewable energy projects – to shares in energy corporations.

There will be winners and losers in the energy transition. The losers – nuclear and fossil fuels – cannot be expected to play along. Unfortunately, most countries do not think of “energy democracy” when they talk about the energy transition; they expect their utilities to handle the transition for the public. For instance, in my home country of the United States, we ask our utilities to give us, say, 30 percent renewable electricity by 2030. The Germans told their utilities to play along or get out of the way.

Deltakere på demonstrasjon for Energiewende i Berlin 30. november 2013. "Skap arbeidsplasser! Beskytt klimaet! Bygg ut fornybar energi!", står det på plakaten til høyre.
Participants at a demonstration for the Energiewende in Berlin November 30, 2013.

When we understand the Energiewende as a grassroots movement, “why do they accept the cost?” becomes a silly question. People are citizens, not just ratepayers. The Germans are willing to pay more when it goes back into their communities, not into the coffers of multinationals that want to go on an M&A spree globally. The Germans like energy democracy because it gives the public more input in infrastructure projects that affect them. It forces experts to speak eye to eye with the public. In return, the public has had to educate itself in order to join the conversation. “Where else but Germany can you talk about renewables with taxi drivers?” Austrian Christine Lins, head of renewables organization REN21, once asked rhetorically.

Customers are becoming competitors. A scary thought for some

The German grassroots movement has repeatedly proved the experts wrong. Many thought the goal from 2004 – 20 percent renewable electricity by 2020 – was fanciful, but we had 33 percent in the first half of 2015. The nuclear phaseout was to lead to blackouts, but German power reliability is unsurpassed in Europe and even fell to 12 minutes of downtime in 2014. Some experts said the phaseout would make Germany reliant on foreign nuclear power (an impossibility, incidentally), but instead German net power exports have skyrocketed to record levels.

Despite these successes, the Energiewende has attracted vociferous critics. No one is as worried about the German economy as the nuclear and fossil fuel sector pretends to be. These doomsayers have every reason to be concerned; the Energiewende just might prove that a transition to wind, solar, and efficiency will work without nuclear or fossil. Customers are becoming competitors. A scary thought for some.