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Norbert Röttgen, Angela Merkel’s Environment Minister, was – until a few hours ago – the face of Germany’s green energy transition. He aligned himself with a goal which can be stated politically, but which cannot be reached technically. His sacking was therefore inevitable. He is the first political victim of the green energy transition – he will almost certainly not be the last.

Norbert Röttgen is a lawyer. That is not without advantages, especially if one is engaged as a politician in matters of legislation. To have no technical knowledge, however, is a disadvantage if political intentions cast as legislation do not take physical conditions into account. And when it comes to technology, our politicians fail regularly over these conditions. This has been proven again today. Röttgen was – until a few hours ago – the face of Germany’s green energy transition. He aligned himself with a goal, which can be stated politically, but which cannot be reached technically. His sacking was therefore inevitable. He is the first political victim of the green energy transition – he will almost certainly not be the last.

Das war's: Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel entlässt Umweltminister Norbert Röttgen. (Foto: dpa)

Norbert Röttgen and Angela Merkel

The poll disaster of the election in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) was not, as mainstream media think, the underlying reason of his dismissal; neither was it his strategy to turn the Christian Democrats (CDU) into a better Green party. This only drove Christian Democratic core voters in droves either to the Free Democrats (FDP) or completely away from the polls. These are nothing but the straws that broke the camel’s back. The cause for his sacking is the looming failure of the green energy transition. Angela Merkel’s statement is quite clear if one is able to translate political language. She said:

“The energy transition is a central project of this legislative period. The foundations have been laid but we still have quite bit of work ahead of us. […] It is obvious that the implementation of energy policy still requires great efforts.”

In other words, we have achieved nothing and it is unclear how we can achieve anything.

For the Chancellor, the green energy transition is probably not something that she does out of conviction. She has just – as so often –adopted a policy in order to neutralize it, to give her opponents no point of attack, no room for distinction and no potential for mobilization. As part of this political tactic, she initially scheduled the nuclear phase-out for 2040, far enough into the future in order not to do anything significant today. After Fukushima, however, she brought the date forward by 18 years, not for technical reasons, but solely in order to maintain power. So she closed down a couple of old, inefficient plants so that folks did not start demonstrating and voting for the Green Party. What she needed was a minister who followed this plan in a way that was politically communicable but would not lead to major upheavals in practice.

What she got was a man of conviction. No mechanic of power. She got someone who was apparently deeply convinced not only of the need but also of the possibility of a switch to renewable energy sources combined with significant energy savings. Someone who actually thought this would be good for the industrialized nation Germany. Someone who actually actively tried to push the green energy revolution instead of just sitting it out and remove it from the headlines. And then when it mattered, someone who failed to bridge the gap between his own convictions and the will to power. Someone who, as environment minister, fell prey to populism and wanted to increase the commuter subsidy and cut the solar subsidies. Which destroyed his authenticity and enabled the enemy to go for new attacks.

Angela Merkel makes a lot of mistakes. What distinguishes her is her ability to correct them quickly and radically when it matters. It is exactly this capability she demonstrated once again today. On Monday, the government said, Röttgen was a good Environment Minister and would stay in office. Since then crucial things have changed obviously. One can only speculate, but perhaps direct talks revealed to the Chancellor her mistake.

Röttgen did not fail as a result of the election result in NRW but due to himself. He imagined he could ignore rising energy costs, dwindling security of supply and the deterioration of the framework for investment in newer and better energy infrastructure. He might even knowingly have accepted the immediate impacts of his policies in order to follow his ideology. But Merkel knows: you cannot put voters into such difficulties if you want to stay in power.

Consequently, she has now appointed Peter Altmair. He is also a lawyer; just as Röttgen. He is also someone who does not know terms like power line frequency or voltage stability; someone who may think that because a torch works with batteries, this must also apply for an aluminium smelter. Nevertheless, he is a politician of her stable, a confidant, a mechanic of power, just as she is. Someone who understands Merkel’s tactics because he has partly designed them himself. Someone who is quoted with the following words today:

“The energy revolution is a societal challenge.”

It’s a challenge, not a necessity. This quote can also be read as “If it does not work, we all are guilty; not just me.” The wise man makes preparations. Let us see if Altmaier keeps that strategy. If he descends, like Norbert Röttgen into activism, then he will probably not survive very long in his new office. This will be ensured again by the laws of physics, which not even lawyers can regulate out of existence.

Translation Philipp Mueller

Wissenschaft kritisch hinterfragt, 16 May 2012


Röttgen Goes, Altmaier Comes: Is The Green Energy Transition On The Brink?

Energie Experten, 16 May 2012

Federal Environment Minister Röttgen was sacked by Chancellor Angela Merkel today. Even his political opponents will have been surprised by this decision, which lacks precedent. At the same time, Peter Altmaier was announced as new Federal Environment Minister. While the green energy transition progressed rather slowly under Röttgen and Rösler, many observers now realize that with Peter Altmaier somebody is taking over who could put the green energy transition not only in question but also in danger.

Norbert Röttgen, together with the Chancellor, has driven the Government’s green energy transformation in the aftermath of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima. This is a clear merit of the ousted minister. Recently, however, major projects in the Federal Environment Ministry increasingly came to a halt. Thus, the green energy transition in the heating sector has been politically blocked, the energy efficiency directives of the EU have been implemented only reluctantly, at the crucial UN climate summits the Government acted only tentatively and exceptions for the industry, such as exemption from the green electricity levy, were granted again and again. A startling consequence of Government policies most recently was the drastic reduction in solar subsidies, which cost several thousand jobs in small and middle-sized enterprises. Undoubtedly, the sacking of Röttgen is one of the worst goodbyes from the Ministry of Environment.

The designated successor, Peter Altmaier, however, does not necessarily promise to be an improvement. While Röttgen, although often too hesitantly, promoted renewable energy and the nuclear phase-out, the political career of Peter Altmaier speaks for a different language. According to the website MPs Watch (, Peter Altmaier has clearly positioned himself in the green energy transition:

• Life extension of nuclear power plants: Yes
• Levy on profits from nuclear plant life extension: yes
• Faster reduction of the green feed-in subsidy: Yes
• Reductions in solar subsidies: Yes
• Immediate shutdown of old nuclear power plants: No

One can only hope that Peter Altmaier becomes aware of the importance of his office of and will wield his political power in the interest of all citizens and the green energy transformation.

Translation Philipp Mueller