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Chancellor Angela Merkel has tasked Germany’s new environment minister to save the green energy transition. But doubts are growing among German policy makers and business leaders if it can succeed at all.

Peter Altmaier, Angela Merkel’s new man at the Federal Environment Ministry, has announced a restart of the green energy transition. “When you are appointed to a new office, you can also start anew,” Altmaier said in an interview with “Welt am Sonntag”. In environmental policy, one could not accept a “stand still”. The change at the head of the ministry could help “to overcome blockades”, he said.

The 53-year-old from the German state of Saarland, who likes to cook, often twitters and enjoys a good reputation with the opposition, will need his optimism. For within the government coalition, doubts are growing about the success of the ecological energy transition. Environmentally harmful energy sources may play a much bigger role in the future than was planned or desired just a year ago – as well as those that will increase Germany’s dependence on other countries.

The plan to increase the share of renewable energies to 40 percent in ten years’ time when the last German nuclear power plants should be phased out was “a very ambitious goal,” says the Rainer Brüderle, the leader of the parliamentary Free Democrats (FDP). “We will have to build a whole range of new gas-and coal-fired power plants – perhaps more than we first thought.”

Brüderle, who was a Minister at the start of the energy revolution, warns the German states against striving “towards a self-sufficient energy supply without regard to climate protection and security of supply.” There are such tendencies, so we must stay the course”, said the FDP parliamentary leader. The energy transition must “actually be a green energy revolution”.

So far, this is just wishful thinking. Germany’s most ambitious project is on the brink. At the weekend, the Chancellor admitted candidly that her big project has been delayed. With regards the large transmission networks, “many projects are in delay,” Merkel said.

In the long run, wind and solar power are the goal, insists Research Minister Annette Schavan (CDU). Along the way, however, there will give stages, “in which gas and coal will have to close the gaps.”

And the vice chairman of the CDU parliamentary group, Michael Fuchs, is already thinking about a delay of the nuclear phase-out. Personally, he will not make the demand for longer life extensions for nuclear power plants – the topic is seen as taboo in the CDU since Fukushima. Instead, Fuchs points to the Green environment minister in Baden-Wurttemberg, Franz Untersteller. The green minister already conceded that “one or two nuclear power plants may have to run longer than planned.”

EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger also harbours serious doubts as to whether the energy revolution will turn out to be an ecological transition. No one can say at present whether “renewable energy could replace nuclear power and whether our power supply would remain safe and affordable”.

Scepticism also prevails among the managers in the energy industry. Werner Wenning, chairman of the board of E.on and future chairman of Bayer, has been criticising policy makers. “The announcement of the green energy revolution is now one year old. And yet there has been no reliable planning for this political project,” he told “Welt am Sonntag”. “This has to change as soon as possible, because the energy transition is the biggest state intervention in the value chain of German industry ever.”

Tuomo Hatakka, CEO of Vattenfall Europe, adds: “For the success of the energy revolution we need sophisticated, market-based approaches rather than short-term new regulation.” And Claudia Kemfert, an energy and climate expert based at the German Institute for Economic Research, complains about the confusion about competences – even at state level.

The German local authorities now openly warn of failure. “So far, communities do not benefit, but only large investors. This must change, otherwise the energy revolution is in danger,” says the chief executive of the Association of German Cities and Municipalities, Gerd Landsberg. For it is the communities, which have to suffer the intervention in the landscape by power lines or wind turbines and which have to justify it to their citizens.

The opposition blames a bitter mid-term situation. “The basic problem of this Federal Government is that it does not believe in the energy revolution,” complains Green Party leader Cem Özdemir. Whether the new Environment Minister Altmaier can really drive the transition of the energy supply would be “decided mainly if he can hold out against the coal and nuclear lobby in the coalition’s own ranks.”

Translation Philipp Mueller

Welt am Sonntag, 27 May 2012