Energiewende, the German energy transformation, is being advertised as the modern path. Motivated by concern about climate, it shall be leading to clean energy, economic eco-neutrality and ending the fossil fuel era, both in Germany and other European countries. Meanwhile, this project is, in fact, Berlin’s cynical game designed to strengthen its political and economic position on the continent, at the expense of the climate, the European solidarity and the interests of the weaker states.
The fact that energy resources are a political weapon has been known for a long time. It was proved, e.g. by the oil crisis of 1973, during which members of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) imposed an embargo on oil supplies to the countries supporting Israel in the Yom Kippur war. Due to a purely political decision, prices of this resource skyrocketed by several hundred percents, triggering a global crisis and hitting the US economy in particular. IT is what the OAPEC countries were after.
However, can an energy transformation have an equally powerful, political aspect? Can remodelling a given country’s energy sector strengthen its real influence on neighbouring countries? Is it possible to hide calculated activities under the guise of a green revolution, only to strengthen a state’s economic and political position, in isolation from any ecology?
The German Energiewende shows that it certainly is.
The foundations for the German energy transformation were forged at the beginning of the 21st century by the Chancellor Schröder’s team. They adopted a plan to withdraw Germany from using nuclear power (which resulted in shutting down the first such block in 2003), passed the renewable energy law (Erneuerbare-Energien-Gesetz, EEG), and also implemented policies focusing on energy efficiency. It was, in fact, a preparation for supporting the development of renewable energy technologies, which is one of the foundations of Energiewende.
After Schröder, the power was taken over by the Christian Democrat Chancellor, Angela Merkel. Energy transformation was one of the pillars of the political program of all her governments, and she was hailed as KlimaKanzlerin – the Climate Chancellor. During her reign, a decision was made to support Nord Stream II in order withdraw from nuclear energy entirely, and a date for complete decarbonisation was set to 2038.
The primary components of Energiewende include abandoning coal combustion, shutting down nuclear power plants and making the energy mix rely on renewable energy sources supported by natural gas. To understand why the German energy transformation is not what it seems at a first glance, it is best to take a closer look at each of these elements one by one.
German coal, or a long farewell
Although in theory, Germany should withdraw from coal within the next 18 years, this schedule can be extended. It is mainly because this resource still has a significant share in the German energy mix. In 2018, Germany generated about the same amount of electricity more using both types of coal than using all renewable sources combined (even though it was a record year for the RES). The government in Berlin is particularly troubled by the enormous consumption of brown coal, a very emission-intensive fuel (Germany is its largest consumer in the world, consuming about three times more of this resource annually than Poland). The protests against the expansion of German open pit mines have gained international notoriety. The struggle in defence of the Hambach forest, referred to by ecologists as „ancient” as it has been growing for 12,000 years – was particularly intense. The forest once occupied an area of thousands hectares; nowadays – due to the exploitation of coal deposits – it has shrunk to just five hundred hectares. Activists were able to gather quite significant forces to defend the forest.
But not only forests suffer due to the development of coal mines. Expropriations are continuing in Germany all the time, with the same goal as logging – to open up new lands for open-pit mining. One of the best-known examples of such expropriation is the story of demolishing settlements to expand the Garzweiler mine. Twelve settlements, inhabited by almost 8,000 people, have been moved to give the mine room to grow.
The media cover-up of these uncomfortable coal facts, which heavily soiled Germany’s „green” reputation, was to be ensured by the so-called coal shut-down commission, i.e. the Commission on Growth, Structural Change and Employment, launched in 2018. Eventually, the Commission’s work ended on January 26, 2019. Then, after 20 hours of discussions, the final wording of the report was agreed. The document assumes that the complete decarbonisation of Germany will take place in 2038, indicating that, in case of extraordinary progress, this process may already be completed in 2035.
Such a scenario, however, is not very probable. Why? Primarily because Energiewende practically cannot cope with decarbonising the country. The share of coal in the mix is decreasing, mostly because Germany would largely cover its increasing energy demand with renewable sources and gas. It can, therefore, be said that the German energy sector does not withdraw from coal effectively, which can be seen on the example of brown coal in particular. After all, the amount of electricity drawn from this resource is the same as in 1992. Besides, Germany will need coal – especially brown coal – as an auxiliary fuel after phasing out nuclear energy (which is scheduled for 2022). Germany needs to continue to draw energy from this resource.
In the meantime, Great Britain has undergone a significant decarbonisation, outclassing Germany’s efforts in this regard. It proves that such a process is possible, but it is merely not being pursued in Germany. Berlin is pushing for the decarbonisation of Europe, but it does not make too spectacular steps in this regard itself.
Taking the UK example into consideration, it must be stated that something must increase after 2022: either the German emissions, or energy imports, or the decarbonisation schedule. After all, shutting down nuclear power plants will severely damage the structure of the German energy sector.
But why does Germany want to withdraw from nuclear power at all?
After careful thought, it seems that Berlin’s shut-down of all German nuclear power plants is one of the most controversial, cynical and science-inconsistent development directions of the German energy transformation. It is also a way to reinforce Germany’s economic and business position on the European continent.
The first detailed plans for Germany’s withdrawal from nuclear power appeared in the times of Gerhard Schröder, but Angela Merkel decided the end date of this process. The current German Chancellor justified her decision with the fear caused by the disaster at the Japanese Fukushima Dai-Ichi power plant, which took place in 2011. Shortly after the events in Japan, the German government decided to temporarily shut down 8 out of 17 reactors operating in Germany. Several months later, Berlin decided to phase out nuclear power by 2022, and the companies there (e.g. Siemens) started the process of withdrawal from the nuclear sector.
At first glance, this decision seems irrational. First of all, the Fukushima Dai-Ichi disaster did not cause tragic consequences, e.g. in the form of fatalities due to radiation. Compared to the tragic outcome of the earthquake and tsunami, events in the Japanese power plant are virtually irrelevant. It is also worth noting that even the contamination that resulted from the water leakage from the power plant has no noticeable effects on people’s health and lives. Second, it is difficult to explain the phase-out of nuclear power plants in Germany after the incident in Fukushima. A simple glance at the map would be enough to see that the threats that led to the incident in Japan have no chance of causing the same situation in Germany. After all, Germany is threatened by neither earthquakes nor tsunamis!
It is also hard to understand the decision to shut down nuclear blocks temporarily. After all, what impact does an accident in one such power plant have on the operation of others? Did the Germans believe that nuclear menace is hanging over the world and that the catastrophe in Japan will soon lead to a similar event in Germany?
Nuclear power is a safe and necessary technology in a much broader, global context, important for all of humanity – it is an indispensable way to slow down the increasing climate change. According to the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), nuclear power is necessary to implement scenarios assuming real and effective countermeasures to the rising global temperatures.
However, Germany not only wants to shut down its nuclear power plants but also to prevent the construction of similar blocks in all of Europe. The coalition agreement between CDU/CSU and SPD outright assumes the government’s commitment to fighting for the ban on the use of EU and state financial support in nuclear projects across the European Union.
This information sheds brand new light on Berlin’s activities in the nuclear energy sector. As it turns out, Germany managed to use the objections of some of their society to implement… business-political plans on a European scale, to support the German economy and strengthen the country’s political influence in neighbouring countries.
The Germans openly show that their anti-nuclear policy aims to build its economic power (by stimulating the growth of the labour market and increasing export opportunities), and thus – strengthen Germany’s political position.
It is worth noting that Energiewende also includes two attributes whose force Berlin wants to increase. Phasing out nuclear power will prompt individual states to invest in renewable energy sources, and above all: in wind farms and solar farms. This may bring benefits to German companies, specialising in this segment thanks to decades of intense German investments in renewable energy. As for exports, in the context of the struggle against the atom, it is worth noting that blocking investments in this type of energy sources in neighbouring countries (e.g. Poland) may in some perspective force these countries to buy energy from the German market during demand peaks. Such countries will simply lack the large, stable and low-emission power sources of their own (assuming that Europe will continue to follow Berlin’s decarbonisation policy).
Furthermore, the countries withdrawing coal and nuclear power and building up high RES capacities will need one more thing for the proper functioning of their energy systems. That thing is gas, needed to stabilise renewable energy sources (as seen for example in the Lithuanian energy mix following the phase-out of the nuclear power plant there). Also, Germany will have an abundance of blue fuel, thanks to its two Baltic gas pipelines running towards the Russian deposits. What we’re referring to, of course, is the existing Nord Stream and the Nord Stream 2, currently under construction.
The circumstances of the creation of Nord Stream and Nord Stream 2 have already been discussed so much that probably no one has any doubts regarding the nature of these projects. Two Baltic pipelines, which jointly allow for the transfer of 110 billion cubic meters of gas from Russia to Germany, were born in an atmosphere of shameful scandals. The foundations for these investments were laid by Gerhard Schröder, who became a Russian lobbyist upon ending his public career. Implementation was watched over by Matthias Warnig, a former Stasi agent. Thanks to the German political umbrella, the construction was not prevented by such events as the Russian war in eastern Ukraine, Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, the downing of flight MH17, or the incident near the Kerch Strait. The opposition of some EU states (including Poland, Romania or Denmark) did not change the situation; neither did the US protest and threat of sanctions (nor the actions by the American ambassador in Berlin, Richard Grenell). Even warnings regarding Ukraine’s security (which had so far been a transit country for gas from Russia) or an amendment to the so-called European gas directive (which has been neutralised in the EU forum) did not change the course of events.
Germans and their partners have gotten their way. Soon, the second Nord Stream pipeline will be completed, opening a vast thoroughfare. However, the blue fuel pumped here will not be consumed by the Germans. The gas from Nord Streams is to flow further into Europe, making states wanting to replicate Energiewende solutions dependent on Russia and its German intermediary.
Germany is already importing more gas than it consumes itself. In 2016, German gas consumption reached 95 billion cubic meters, while total imports to this country reached almost 120 billion cubic meters. It means that there was a surplus of 25 billion m3 on the German gas market that could have been sold to neighbouring countries.
Germany’s central location on the European map predestines this country to the role of a central distribution hub. This position is reinforced by the well-developed German transmission infrastructure, i.e. above all, efficient interconnectors. All this allows Germany to harness Russian gas to build its own political and economic position – after all, the resource goes to them without middle men, and in large quantities. Moreover, good relations with Russia allow Berlin to pay a handsome price for the blue fuel (lower than, for example, Poland, which is geographically closer to Russia). Therefore, Germany has its hand on the gas supply; it has an impact on its prices and can make money on it. Furthermore, as mentioned above, Germany is already one of the leading gas exporters within the European Union.
Therefore, this can explain the persistent pushing of the German energy transformation model, which assumes relying on gas sources and resistance against new investments in nuclear blocks.
Development of nuclear programs would distort the direction set by the original German Energiewende and would thus deprive Berlin of revenue from the sale of gas since gas blocks would not be built then, their role taken over by nuclear power plants. Moreover, Germany wants the European countries to transform their energy sectors using gas – gas bought from Germany.
The climate-related values of nuclear power, which place it on a much better position than the one occupied by gas sources, are entirely irrelevant in this regard. The gas cooperation with Russia and plans for expansion also explain why Germany is sceptical about the construction of LNG terminals on the Old Continent. Germany does not have one such unit.
The true face of Energiewende
The German energy transformation, in theory intended to counteract climate change, is working against climate. Not only does it not work towards decarbonisation, but it is also a failure in the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. In the years 2008-2017, Germany virtually hasn’t reduced its emissions at all, noting intense peaks in 2009 and 2013.
The Germans have given up on the only large, scalable and stable energy sources, i.e. nuclear power plants. They did so consciously and deliberately, guided by the desire for political and economic gain, pursued at the expense of others.
The German-Russian gas cooperation, focused on the particular profit of Berlin and its several partners, violated not only the European Union’s security but also undermined confidence in this institution in the many Member States.
Were it not for Germany’s attitude towards Nord Stream 1 and 2, we could say that Gazprom’s aggressive policy, which includes, e.g. shutting off Europe’s gas supply (as it did in 2009) or breaking EU competition law (the Russian company admitted it in the course of anti-monopoly proceedings conducted by the European Commission) was met with strong opposition from the West – after all, it is this Gazprom’s behaviour that prompted Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania to take extensive efforts to become independent of Russian supply, which resulted in the LNG Terminal in Świnoujście, the FSRU unit in Klaipeda and plans for the construction of the Baltic Pipe gas pipeline.
Considering it all, it can be stated that Energiewende is a work of a comprehensive institutional system, which – guided solely by its precisely defined interest – was able to mould the clay of social conflicts, economic ties and political influences into its golem, guard and warrior all in one. Only this one system, which stands behind the entire machinery, pulling all the strings, drawing directions and setting the pace, will make full use of this model of energy transformation. That system is, of course, the Federal Republic of Germany.
The article was based on selected excerpts from the book by Jakub Wiech entitled “Energiewende. Nowe niemieckie imperium” (“Energiewende. The New German Empire”), which will soon be available for sale.
Polish version is available here.
Publication (excluding figures and illustrations) is available under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International. Any use of the work is allowed, provided that the licensing information, about rights holders and about the contest "Public Diplomacy 2019" (below) is mentioned.
The publication co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland as part of the public project "Public Diplomacy 2019" („Dyplomacja Publiczna 2019”). This publication reflects the views of the author and is not an official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.