Germany’s Renewable Energy: Powered by the People

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Protests that successfully nullified plans for nuclear plant construction for the first time in the 1970s (Source: http://www.bund-rvso.de).

In 2000, Renewable energy was just 6.3% of Germany’s electricity. By 2015, it increased to 31%. Cloudy Germany became a leading innovator in solar energy. It did so not by subsidizing large power utility companies or expensive R&D but by mobilizing hundreds of thousands into energy cooperatives.[ref]Energy cooperatives grew from 66 in 2001 to 888 in 2013 involving 200,000 people.[/ref] The two legs of this democratic energy transition are Germany’s commitment to phase out nuclear power and its feed-in tariffs (which allowed small renewable energy producers to sell their electricity). Both policies were fruits of the environmental movement. Now, the feed-in tariffs are under attack by the Merkel government who wants to hand over renewable energy to large corporations. 

The anti-nuclear leg of the renewable energy transition came out of protest. It was born out of a struggle against a nuclear power plant begun in the early 1970s. By the time plans for construction were stopped in 1977, the anti-nuclear movement had organized a 10-month occupation by 20,000-30,000 people at the construction site. The victory sparked similar protests across the country. The anti-nuclear movement further consolidated anti-nuclear power sentiment and swelled its ranks with the various nuclear disasters: Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986), and Fukushima (2011). In particular, the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown directly impacted Germans by showering them with nuclear fallout. By 1989, the movement effectively stopped construction of new commercial nuclear power stations. Protests continued focusing on nuclear waste storage sites and the transport of spent nuclear fuel.

When the Green Party (founded by the anti-nuclear movement in 1980) came into power in coalition with the Social Democratic Party in 1998, it passed a law (2002) ending nuclear energy by 2022. Even after losing power in the Bundestag (Germany’s legislative branch) in 2005 to the pro-nuclear Christian Democratic Union Party, the anti-nuclear movement successfully fought off attempts at weakening and neutralizing the nuclear phase out. In the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the anti-nuclear movement achieved electoral victories that forced Merkel to reverse her 2008 rescindment of the nuclear phase out law and 2011 extension in the life of the nuclear reactors. Thus, Germany continues on its 2022 nuclear phase out.

The second pillar, the feed-in tariffs, was a response to the question: “If not nuclear then what?” The answer was the renewable energy movement. The feed-in law of 1990 and 2000 came directly out the movement and its experiments with renewable energy. The 1990 feed-in law came out of the various “independent think tanks” established by the anti-nuclear movement that was now forming the renewable energy movement. The feed-in law allowed renewable energy producers to sell excess electricity to the grid at a percentage of the retail price. It directly challenged the power utilities by displacing electricity produced by their nuclear and coal-fired plants with renewable energy.[ref]Electricity from these renewable energy producers displaced the electricity produced by the nuclear and coal fired power plants. The law managed to pass without much opposition from the big utility companies due to their distraction with the reunification with East Germany.[/ref] As Craig Morris (of the Energiewende Blog) states, “Innovation doesn’t come from those with established assets,” because they have little incentive to undermine their assets at hand (i.e. conventional coal and nuclear power plants) by investing in competing innovative technologies. Change must come from outside.

The real breakthrough in feed-in tariffs with the Green Party’s ruling coalition. In addition to providing fixed-low interest rate loans for renewable technology investment, it further empowered the renewable energy movement by setting a fixed 20 year feed-in price (in 2000) for renewable energy based not on a portion of the retail price but on the higher cost of investment. It was a direct lesson from the early renewable energy installations: increase demand by decreasing risk with a steady source of income, and lower the price of renewable technology (especially solar) by exploiting economies of scale from greater demand.[ref]Interview with Armin Bobsien[/ref]

Yet, to view the feed-in tariffs as the drivers of Germany’s renewable energy transition is to ignore the movement which created it and put it into practice. Even before it was profitable, the renewable energy movement was building policy and technical expertise through its independent institutes, organizing energy cooperatives to crowdfund renewable energy projects. The Green Party’s feed-in tariffs were implemented so successfully because grassroots organizations such as FESA (Association for the Promotion of Energy and Solar) existed to help villages and communities invest in renewable projects and navigate the permitting and construction process. 

The great success of the renewable energy movement threatens the big power utility companies that are based on nuclear and coal-fired power plants. So, the Merkel government is transitioning from feed-in tariffs which allowed everyone to be an energy producer to a quota-based auction system that advantages large scale renewable energy projects. This allows the power utility companies to enter a renewable energy market they long neglected to protect their conventional power plants. With the quota based auction system, producing renewable energy means investing in a risky and expensive bidding process. Talking with Craig Morris and Armin Bobsien, it is clear that to wrest renewable energy from the hands of the power companies and return it to the hands of people will involve a fight with the Merkel government. Ultimately, energy democracy, like all democracy, cannot be given by vested interests in power, it must be fought for and won, as Germany’s environmental movements have been doing.

written by Dae-Han Song (Chief Editor, World Current Report)

Special thanks to Armin Bobsien of FESA and Craig Morris of Welcome to Energiewende Blog for your knowledge, time, and insights.

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