The so-called Energiewende, the shift away from nuclear in favor of renewables, the greatest political project undertaken here since Germany’s reunification, is facing failure.
The vision of the fantastic new world of the future was born eight years ago, on March 11, 2011, the day an earthquake-triggered tsunami damaged the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan. The disaster led Chancellor Angela Merkel and her cabinet to resolve to phase out nuclear power in Germany. It was an historic event and an historic decision.
But the sweeping idea has become bogged down in the details of German reality. The so-called Energiewende, the shift away from nuclear in favor of renewables, the greatest political project undertaken here since Germany’s reunification, is facing failure. In the eight years since Fukushima, none of Germany’s leaders in Berlin have fully thrown themselves into the project, not least the chancellor. Lawmakers have introduced laws, decrees and guidelines, but there is nobody to coordinate the Energiewende, much less speed it up. And all of them are terrified of resistancefrom the voters, whenever a wind turbine needs to be erected or a new high-voltage transmission line needs to be laid out.
Analysts from McKinsey have been following the Energiewende since 2012, and their latest report is damning. Germany, it says, “is far from meeting the targets it set for itself.”
Germany’s Federal Court of Auditors is even more forthright about the failures. The shift to renewables, the federal auditors say, has cost at least 160 billion euros in the last five years. Meanwhile, the expenditures “are in extreme disproportion to the results,” Federal Court of Auditors President Kay Scheller said last fall, although his assessment went largely unheard in the political arena. Scheller is even concerned that voters could soon lose all faith in the government because of this massive failure.
Surveys document the transformation of this grand idea into an even grander frustration. Despite being hugely accepting initially, Germans now see it as being too expensive, too chaotic and too unfair. […]
Why Germany’s Energiewende Might Fail
The German government made a key mistake when it announced the end of the nuclear era in Germany eight years ago: It announced it was turning away from nuclear power, without simultaneously initiating the end of coal.
Wind turbines and solar panels were installed across the country — but the coal-fired power plants kept operating. The government set up a clean energy system alongside the dirty one. But why? Because Berlin was afraid of do anything that might harm a single company or voter.
Germany has never come up with a clear strategy for the shift to renewables, fully thought out from the beginning to end. There have always been two competing concepts of the Energiewende, even before Merkel.
Politicians like former Environment Minister Jürgen Trittin, a Green Party politician who was part of the cabinet of the center-left Social Democratic (SPD) Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, were in favor of a radical shift, no matter what the cost. Others, like the SPD Economics Minister Sigmar Gabriel and his successor Peter Altmaier, from Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), were more concerned about German industry and job numbers. Neither side trusted the other and a stalemate ensued. Progress halted.
This helps explain why the government never dared set up an Energy Ministry that might have had the ability to move things forward, and instead divided up the project among the Chancellery, the Environment Ministry and the Economics Ministry. It is an unholy trinity that has continually followed the same pattern: The Environment Ministry surges ahead, the Economics Ministry warns of dramatic job losses and the Chancellery avoids making a decision.
The expansion of Germany’s electrical grid has suffered the most from this lack of political impetus. More than a decade ago, the German government passed a resolution to quickly build the necessary high-voltage transmission lines, with experts today saying there is a need for 7,700 kilometers (4,800 miles) of such lines. But only 950 have been built. And in 2017, only 30 kilometers of lines were built across the whole country.