Europe Germany's energy transformation
German plans to cut carbon emissions with renewable energy are ambitious, but they are also risky
“The quieter the evening, the more you hear it,” says Wilfried Bockholt, mayor of Niebull in North Friesland. He mimics the sound of a 55-metre-long rotor whirling round a windmill’s mast. He is a driving force behind the “citizens’ wind park”, but he has mixed feelings. A region famed for broad horizons is now jagged with white spires. “They alter the landscape completely,” he laments.
North Friesland’s wind boom is part of Germany’s Energiewende (energy transformation), a plan to shift from nuclear and fossil fuels to renewables. It was dreamed up in the 1980s, became policy in 2000 and sped up after the Fukushima disaster in March 2011. That led Angela Merkel, the chancellor, to scrap her extension of nuclear power (rather than phasing it out by 2022, as previous governments had planned). She ordered the immediate closure of seven reactors. Germany reaffirmed its clean-energy goals—greenhouse-gas emissions are to be cut from 1990 levels by 40% by 2020 and by 80% by 2050—but it must now meet those targets without nuclear power.
The rest of the world watches with wonder, annoyance—and anticipatory Schadenfreude. Rather than stabilising Europe’s electricity, Germany plagues neighbours by dumping unpredictable surges of wind and solar power. To many theEnergiewende is a lunatic gamble with the country’s manufacturing prowess. But if it pays off Germany will have created yet another world-beating industry, say the gamblers. Alone among rich countries Germany has “the means and will to achieve a staggering transformation of the energy infrastructure”, says Mark Lewis, an analyst at Deutsche Bank.
Much could go wrong. Wholesale electricity prices will be 70% higher by 2025, predicts the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. Germany must build or upgrade 8,300km (5,157 miles) of transmission lines (not including connections to offshore wind farms). Intermittent wind and sun power creates a need for backup generators, while playing havoc with business models that justify investing in them. Hans-Peter Keitel, president of the Federation of German Industry, likens theEnergiewende to “open-heart surgery”.
In May Mrs Merkel sacked the environment minister, Norbert Rottgen, after he led her Christian Democrats to a disastrous defeat in a regional election. His successor is Peter Altmaier, a canny parliamentarian who will share responsibility with the economy minister, Philipp Rosler. In fact Mrs Merkel has taken charge herself. She convenes energy summits with leaders of the 16 states, and promises to incorporate grid operators’ plans into federal law by the end of the year. But even she admits the Energiewende is a “Herculean task”.