Germany’s energy transition has had a tangible impact on European energy markets. Reactions to the German nuclear exit have varied considerably, reflecting the diversity of EU member states’ energy mix preferences. However, in order to reach a sustainable and durable solution in order to realize the EU’s climate goals, a European energy transition towards an increased share of renewable energy is not just desirable but of vital importance.
The German ‘Energiewende’
Germany’s vision of gradually replacing fossil and nuclear fuels in its energy portfolio with renewables has its roots in the 1970s. Ambitions of an energy transition were further boosted in the 1990s, notably by the united Green party (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen), and started in earnest in 2000 with the Renewable Energy Act (EEG), which marked a consensus with utilities on quitting nuclear power. The highly controversial act regulates the preferential use of electricity generated from renewable sources into the German electricity supply system and guarantees renewable energy producers a fixed feed-in tariff. Germany’s energy landscape has undergone a thorough transformation ever since, from starting as a rather ‘silent’ revolution, witnessing the growing share of German electricity consumption covered by renewable energy from below 10% to 28% in 2014. In 2011, the election of Germany’s first-ever green minister-president (Baden-Württemberg) and the realisation of the ‘Atomausstieg’, the decision to shut down the older half of all nuclear power stations immediately and the rest by 2022, reflected a serious commitment and hopefully a point of no return. Admittedly, events in Fukushima and growing public pressure have facilitated the Energiewende immensely.
‘Alleingang’ & mixed feelings
European reactions to Germany’s energy transition have been mixed, ranging from roaring criticism to benevolent emulation. Having been taken without previous consultation, the decision of a nuclear exist antagonised many European partners, who perceived German state interference promoting green energy as risking disintegration of the European energy market. However, initially, due a low share of renewables in energy generation, the transition had little impact on Germany’s neighbours and was often seen as a ‘German issue’. This has changed radically: Germany’s rising production of fluctuating green energy has meant a surge of exports to EU countries, for example of excess electricity. In times of need, Germany can import from its neighbours without which the German energy transition would not be possible. Europe-wide, falling energy prices and business opportunities constitute the Energiewende’s positive repercussions, despite Brussels’s initial concerns about the compatibility of EU competition law and German feed-in tariffs and industry reliefs.
The European ‘spillover’
Notwithstanding initial concerns, having shifted its approach from a solo effort to cooperation, Germany’s energy transition has brought opportunities, and European partners have gradually adopted similar measures. France has launched its ‘transition énergétique’, aiming at reducing the nuclear share in energy generation from 75% to 50% by 2025 and increasing the renewables share to 40% in 2030. Other countries have traditionally had a high share of renewable energy in their national energy portfolio, with hydropower accounting for more than half of Sweden’s electricity, roughly two thirds of the electricity generated in Austria, and almost 100% of Norway’s electricity sector, which relies almost exclusively on renewable energy. Italy and Spain are experiencing a surge in renewable electricity, notable an extraordinary growth of wind and solar energy accounting for a fast growing share of the total electricity generated. Thus, the German Energiewende is both, a challenge and an inspiration for Europe.
The coal conundrum
In 2014, Germany’s gross electricity production relied on lignite for 25.5%, on hard coal for 17.8%, on renewables for 26.2%, on nuclear generation for 15.8% and on natural gas for 9.5%. Despite its polluting properties, coal has remained an important fuel in the European energy generation. Ecofys Consultancy estimates that past subsidies of the 28 member states amount to 200 billion euros between 1990 and 2007 (and 220 billion for nuclear generation in the same time span), having led to an EU-wide expansion of coal-related infrastructure which is now difficult to replace. Governments’ support has ensured that locally produced coal has stayed competitive, and Germany leads the subsidy race, for example through a 1.2 billion direct government contribution to the hard-coal mining industry. After the 2010 German ‘dash’ for coal, shifts in the energy portfolio related to the energy transition have meant that new coal plants are now becoming unprofitable. However, despite its Energiewende, there are now signs that coal is making a major comeback in Germany.
A shared (parallel) competence
At the EU level, initiatives such as the 2014 Energy Security Strategy and the 2015 Energy Union proposal indicate ambitions towards a European energy transition, notably by boosting renewables, decarbonisation and energy independence. However, due to limits to the EU’s competence in the field of energy, a pan-European consensus regarding a preferred energy mix and supply sources is difficult, with member states deeply divided over fundamental principles, such as the use of coal (backed by Poland and Slovakia) and of nuclear fuel (supported by France and Finland). Although it might be too late for full harmonisation, but a push for Europe-wide convergence seems possible and desirable. Herein, the EU’s energy policy encompassing the 2020 climate and energy package’s three key goals (lowering greenhouse gas emissions by 20%, generating 20% of EU energy from renewables, and cutting energy consumption by 20%) is an important step. However, since only 9 out 28 member states are fully on track, much remains to be done for the realisation of a European Energiewende.