09 May 2011: Report

Germany’s Unlikely Champion
Of a Radical Green Energy Path

The disaster at the Fukushima plant in Japan convinced German Chancellor Angela Merkel that nuclear power would never again be a viable option for her country. Now Merkel has embarked on the world’s most ambitious plan to power an industrial economy on renewable sources of energy.

by christian schwägerl

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is anything but a left-wing greenie. The party she leads, the Christian Democratic Union, is the political equivalent of the Republicans in the U.S. Her coalition government is decidedly pro-business. Often described as Europe’s most powerful politician, Merkel’s top priority is job creation and economic growth.

Yet if the chancellor succeeds with her new energy policy, she will become the first leader to transform an industrialized nation from nuclear and fossil fuel energy to renewable power.

In mid-March, Merkel stunned the German public and other governments by announcing an accelerated phasing out of all 17 German nuclear reactors as an immediate reaction to the Fukushima disaster in Japan. The chancellor now says she wants to slash the use of coal, speed up approvals for renewable energy investments, and reduce CO2 emissions drastically. That means that the 81 million Germans living between the North Sea and the Alps are supposed to cover their huge energy needs from wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass within a few decades. Indeed, by 2030 green electricity could be the dominant source of power for German factories and households.

“We want to end the use of nuclear energy and reach the age of renewable energy as fast as possible,” Merkel said.

After the chancellor’s surprising announcement, opposition parties from the left decried it as a political stunt, an act of opportunism, and even panic, ahead of key regional elections in Southern Germany. But after these elections were lost by her party, Merkel soldiered on. In the past weeks, government officials have already offered details of the “energy turn,” as Merkel calls the change.

The numbers that circulate in Berlin’s government district at the moment are staggering. Merkel’s administration plans to shut down the nuclear
The plan makes Germany the world’s most important laboratory of ‘green growth.’
reactors — which in recent years reliably provided up to a quarter of Germany’s huge needs as baseload electricity — by 2022 at the latest. It wants to double the share of renewable energy to 35 percent of consumption in 2020, 50 percent in 2030, 65 percent in 2040, and more than 80 percent in 2050. At the same time, the chancellor vows to cut CO2 emissions (compared to 1990 levels) by 40 percent in 2020, by 55 percent in 2030, and by more than 80 percent in 2050.

That makes Germany the world’s most important laboratory of “green growth.” No other country belonging to the G20 club of economic powers has a comparable agenda. In the U.S., President Obama is expanding state-backed loan guarantees for the nuclear industry to build more reactors, and Republicans are blocking measures to reduce CO2 emissions. Germany is Europe’s largest economy. Making such a country a renewable powerhouse would transform it into the undisputed mecca for everyone on the planet concerned with the environment and green-tech business.

But why would Merkel have Germany do what other big nations deem too risky and too expensive? Is she prepared to sacrifice Germany’s economic viability, which stems from manufacturing and technology export to a great extent?

Clearly, Angela Merkel has reacted to the Fukushima disaster completely differently from Barack Obama and other world leaders. In the past, Merkel too has been pro-nuclear. She was convinced that nuclear power was safe and clean, and that the Chernobyl accident was a result of Soviet inefficiency, not of the technology itself. Only last year, she fought to extend the operation time of Germany’s reactors by 12 years on average, against fierce opposition from the left and environmental groups.

Angela Merkel
Getty Images
Chancellor Angela Merkel said the Fukushima disaster “has forever changed the way we define risk in Germany.”
In my view, the key to the chancellor’s radical turnaround lies deep in her past. In the 1980s, well before she became a politician, Merkel worked in the former East Germany as a researcher in quantum chemistry, examining the probability of events in the subatomic domain. Her years of research instilled in her the conviction that she has a very good sense of how likely events are, not only in physics but also in politics. Opponents of nuclear energy were “bad at assessing risks,” she told me in the 1990s.

Then came the March disaster at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant, which made the chancellor realize that she had been terribly wrong about the probability of a nuclear catastrophe in a highly advanced nation. Merkel’s scientific sense of probability and rationality was shaken to the core. If this was possible, she reasoned, something similar might happen in Germany — not a tsunami, of course, but something equally unexpected. In her view, the field trial of nuclear energy had failed. As a self-described rationalist, she felt compelled to act.

”It’s over,” she told one of her advisers immediately after watching on TV as the roof of a Fukushima reactor blew off. “Fukushima has forever changed the way we define risk in Germany.”

Merkel’s conservative environment minister, Norbert Röttgen, recently echoed this line of thinking when he said that the Fukushima disaster “has swapped a mathematical definition of nuclear energy’s residual risk with a terrible real-life experience.” He added: “We can no longer put forward the argument of a tiny risk of ten to the power of minus seven, as we have seen that it can get real in a high-tech society like Japan.”

The new course is a huge challenge in terms of cost and feasibility. Of the current 82 gigawatts of peak demand, about half comes from coal, 23 percent from nuclear, 10 percent from natural gas, and 17 percent from renewables. That means three quarters of Germany’s electricity sources will have to be replaced by green technology within just a few decades, if the nuclear phase-out and the CO2 goals are to be accomplished.

Germany is in a good starting position, though. Since the 1990s, the Renewable Energy Sources Act has paved the way for billions of Euros flowing to consumers and investors for green power projects. The law guarantees that
Chancellor Merkel’s big hope for her ‘energy turn’ is offshore wind energy.
each kilowatt hour of green electricity is fed into the grid and bought at a favorable statutory rate by operators. The rate varies between green energy sources, but is considerably higher than normal electricity prices. It is guaranteed for a 20-year period. This makes investment in renewable energy projects very attractive; witness Google recently pumping money into a German solar park.

As a result, the share of renewable electricity in Germany has jumped from 5 percent in the 1990s to 17 percent today. Traveling through the country, it is easy to see signs of this change. In the north, wind farms are now characteristic of many regions, particularly along the coastlines of the North and Baltic seas. In the south, which is richer in sunlight, photovoltaic cells cover the roofs of whole villages. The bright yellow of rapeseed is prevalent in many regions, as the plant is widely used for producing biodiesel. More and more farms are equipped with big tanks holding “biomethane” derived from maize or agricultural residues.

Merkel’s big hope for her “energy turn” is offshore wind energy. After a sluggish start, several new commercial projects are under construction. On May 2, Merkel proudly pressed a button at a ceremony on the Baltic Sea coast, setting in motion 21 huge offshore wind turbines 16 kilometers away at sea. Taken together, they can provide 50,000 households with renewable energy.

“Baltic 1” is Germany’s first commercial offshore windpark. The turbines have been constructed by Siemens, a company that until recently earned most of its money in the energy sector by building nuclear and fossil-fuel power plants. The wind farm is run by EnBW, a German utility that has so far produced most of its electricity with nuclear power plants. Nothing could symbolize the new policy better than this offshore wind farm.

Merkel’s big bet is that environmental technology will be one of Germany’s most important sources of income. Already, the country’s share in the green-tech world market is 16 percent, which means billions of Euros in business. Renewable energy has generated 300,000 `green collar’ new jobs in the past decade, Röttgen says. Big companies like Siemens and Bosch are determined to become “green multinationals.” Thousands of small- and medium-sized technology companies see green technology as an important part of their business and investment strategy.

Experts agree that the transition will be costly and carry economic risks. Already, consumers in Germany pay about 5 U.S. cents per kilowatt hour as
Experts agree that the transition will be costly and carry economic risks for Germany.
a surcharge to finance the feed-in tariffs, which enable owners of wind turbines or geothermal installations to sell renewably generated electricity back to the grid at favorable rates. For an average family of four, this amounts to 220 U.S. dollars per year. And with investment needs in the hundreds of billions of Euros, consumers can expect a growing surcharge on their monthly bill. This will surely test Germans’ willingness to support Merkel’s plan.

But Röttgen, the environmental minister, points out that mass deployment of renewable energy technology will drive down costs. “When more people consume oil and coal, the price will go up, but when more people consume renewable energy, the price of it will go down“, he says. Röttgen argues that instead of sending billions of Euros to Russia and other sources of imported energy, Germany will now be able “to give that money to our green-tech engineers and local craftsmen.” Still, keeping the cost of the transition low and stopping energy-intensive companies from relocating to Romania or China will be very difficult.

In addition to the challenge of huge costs, a complete overhaul of the energy infrastructure is necessary. It is not enough to install wind turbines and solar panels. A new grid is needed, as are ways to store green electricity. As wind and sunshine are highly variable, electricity will increasingly flow intermittently. Power will have to flow from offshore wind farms in the north of the country over many hundred kilometers to the industrial centers in the west and the south.

Experts estimate that more than 4,000 kilometers of new “eco-electricity highways” are necessary to connect renewable power plants to consumers and avoid power outages. Storing green electricity when the wind is blowing strongly or when there is ample sunlight is an unsolved challenge.

But even if all technological problems are solved, it is not easy to roll them out nationwide. Many Germans don’t like the sight of wind turbines, which are called “asparagus.” New hydro plants and some wind power installations face fierce opposition. So do those “eco-electricity highways,” which still look like ordinary power lines to their neighbors. Local residents have yet to be convinced that they have to sacrifice undisturbed horizons for the greater good.


Along Scar from Iron Curtain,
A Green Belt Rises in Germany

Along Scar from Iron Curtain, A Green Belt Rises in Germany
A forbidding, 870-mile network of fences and guard towers once ran the length of Germany, separating East and West. Now, as journalist Christian Schwägerl reports, one of the world’s most unique nature reserves is being created along the old “Death Strip.”
To the surprise of many, supplying an industrial nation with renewable energy also raises environmental concerns. The construction of offshore wind parks has been found to harm the ears of the harbor porpoise, a small whale species that is protected by law in Europe. Toxicologists are worried about dangerous level of cadmium, a heavy metal, in photovoltaic cells that might poison firefighters and create disposal problems in the future. And environmentalists are worried that the expansion of cornfields will dry out peaty soils, leading to greenhouse gas emissions, and be harmful for biological diversity. Germany would also have to rely more on natural gas, a fossil fuel, in the intermediate term if nuclear power will be phased out.

Despite the many problems and pitfalls, the chancellor’s new course is already attracting admiration from abroad. William Reilly, the former administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said on a recent visit to Germany that he was impressed by Merkel’s energy turn and the example it sets for the rest of the industrialized world. “It was breathtaking to see this huge change by a conservative government,” he told me for a report in Der Spiegel magazine after meeting German politicians, NGOs, and business representatives.

The Japanese are certainly watching. While Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan on May 8 reiterated his support for nuclear power, officials in the Japanese embassy in Berlin already wonder aloud how their government will justify sticking with nuclear energy when a country like Germany is taking bold steps to thrive without.

POSTED ON 09 May 2011 IN Biodiversity Business & Innovation Energy Oceans Europe Europe 


Very good post Christian Schwägerl. It is Germany, with Feed in tariffs gave a big boost to Wind Energy. Also the country had many solar installations. With rapid advances in Renewables and with renewed emphasis on offshore wind farms backed by political will of Chancellor Angela Merkel, future of Renewables in Germany is great.

Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore (AP), India

Posted by Dr.A.Jagadeesh on 09 May 2011

Chancellor Angela Merkel seems to be honest and wise enough to discard failing energy concepts of the past century as conditions change and perceptions of damage and risk increase. While cautioning against over concentration on supply rather than demand, I wish her and the people of Germany great success in this magnificent goal.

Meanwhile in the United States of Corporate Corruption we are still pondering whether climate contamination is real (and how many more decades to subsidize atomic fission) even as the weather goes to hell and high waters. Perhaps we must keep the military-fossil paradigm going based on the fuels of war (uranium and petroleum fluids) even as our wealth is being squandered without real sustainable investment.

Thank you to the Chancellor for honest, wise leadership.

Posted by James Newberry on 09 May 2011

Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel has set in motion an effort of becoming less dependent upon the dirty energy industry.

That's very noble and wise, since in the coming years ahead, the cost of petroleum will increase causing society a double cost, in terms of both the depleting dwindling resource scarcity and the clean up of the environment damage doing harm. Which doesn't even take into account the additional oversight of medical care, dying oceans and the loss of vegetation by the pollutants or the loss of productivity due to insufficient farming practices by the use of petroleum based fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and on and on...

What the world needs is a clean energy economy, good for both the environment and our health.

The first step is to build a smart network, capable of distributing and sharing renewable energy on all scales. Then everyone can contribute back in their own ways.

Superconductivity would insure higher efficiency (2-3% loss) no matter the distance! In addition, this type of cable isn't strand in the air, on transmission lines, it's buried in the ground, reducing sore sights and insuring electromagnetic pulse weapon don't effect it.

In addition, it cheaper to build, faster to deploy and doesn't produce electromagnetic fields like 765KV overhead power lines do.

I have a prediction, it's going to be Germany that will become a superpower in the future, because they will have both an industry and the means to power it.

While that along might not sound impressive, think in terms of what other countries will contend with, higher inflation, dependency upon dirty energy suppliers and as China knows, a growing difficulty to insure stability.

So in essence, dirty energy equals instability, while clean energy certainly is all about sustainability. Germany has already proven twice before it can rise to meet the challenge!

Imagine a global clean energy network. Then comes magma energy, gravity energy using ocean currents and you got a free sustainable energy model for the world 365 days a year.

All out of sight, doesn't consume farm land, and it's lasting type of energy.

The next step would be in creating energy cubes, a method of containing pure energy, not chemical, but on an quantum level.

Hopefully, by then humanity will had advance beyond it's progress of today, with the wisdom needed to insure the responsibility of our future?

Posted by Principe Rospo on 09 May 2011

Thanks for post Christian Schwägerl. It is the time to people aware of nuclear power. We should think about Today's lifestyle change can lead to tomorrow's better planet.

greenit team,

Posted by james steve on 10 May 2011

Excellent article, but I'm surprised that there is no mention of energy efficiency and demand response. Energy efficiency is far less expensive than renewable energy and in most cases doesn't have the environmental risks Schwägerl listed for environmental. Yes, I know there is mercury in CFLs and there are probably other risks associated with the production, use and disposal of energy efficiency technologies, but they should be less than the risks of generating electricity.

Posted by Daniel Rosenblum on 11 May 2011

To observers in Germany, Merkel's 180°-turn on nuclear policy DOES seem like a political stunt - a bid to regain public favour after great losses public opinion polls in the months before (especially for the coalition partner FDP).

It has to be mentioned that the German public massively oppose nuclear energy generation. There are regular protests, and awareness for the problems (such as a lack of final disposal solutions for nuclear waste) is high.

Merkel's plan to extend the operation time of nuclear plants (against all pre-election promises and the groundwork laid by the previous government) was a hugely unpopular move that cost her government dearly. It is widely thought that Merkel and her advisors "jumped aboard" the Fukushima-Daiichi crisis because it represented an opportunity to undo the harm.

Nonetheless, even the cynical observer has to applaud the move, regardless of its reasons. I'm no Merkel fan, but I'm very glad that Germany is the first major industrial country to pledge such large-scale changes.

Posted by aw on 12 May 2011

Hoping for nothing but success for the Chancellor and for Germany.

Posted by ClimateTF on 12 May 2011

Let's hope that Chancellor Merkel's geopolitical influence will persuade other nations like the U.S. to follow her lead.

Let's also hope that nations such as ours will only be scared enough to know we cannot continue to compete globally with a fossil fuel-nuclear based economy that is not sustainable in both a social and environmental sense. I can only hope that leadership in this country, particularly Republican members of congress, will see the folly of continuing to give the fossil fuel industry a green light with subsidies, etc.

Posted by Christopher Miller on 12 May 2011

It is a sad fact that all the desireable renewable sources for electricity are intermittent. They are depending on wind, sunshine, and so on. Electricity is expected to be available on demand - not on supply. So far there is no feasable ways to store electricity in large scale.
So these great plans to rule out nuclear and coal needs support not only financially, but also with other sources stand by, ready to stabilize the grid due to the variation in supply from the renewables. Some trust there will be hydropower from the north to support this. As for Sweden there is not even enough to support our own plan for wind power expansion. It seems that Chansellor Merkel turn the blind eye to this problem, as the Swedish politicians do.

Posted by Evert Andersson on 13 May 2011

"Merkel’s scientific sense of probability and rationality was shaken to the core. If this was possible, she reasoned, something similar might happen in Germany — not a tsunami, of course, but something equally unexpected. In her view, the field trial of nuclear energy had failed. As a self-described rationalist, she felt compelled to act."

Rationality would demand that the "something equally unexpected" mentioned be at least fleshed out before actions being taken. There seems to have been no sign of this, and thus Merkel appears to be nothing but a political opportunist.

As for the "field trial" of nuclear energy failing - Fukushima Daiichi survived a Magnitude 9.0 earthquake, only to be damaged by a 16-metre tsunami that no-one in Japan expected. More a case of 'lessons to be learned' than a failure.

Posted by Eamon Watters on 13 May 2011

The CDU is not closest to the Republicans:

"Germans usually think of the Democratic Party in the US as the American version of the SPD and the Republican Party as the CDU. I always say that the Democratic Party in the US is closest to Germany's FDP, and that the Republican Party in the US is also closest to Germany's FDP."


Yes, we have no political breadth in the US: http://notesfromotherside.blogspot.com/search?

Posted by Craig Morris on 14 May 2011

I have to say.WAY TO GO GERMANY.At last a country changing from nuclear energy to clean renewable solar energy sources.Other countries should follow in your footsteps.Japan's disaster should be a lesson learned by all nations using nuclear energy.Going green most certainly should be considered as a "save way to produce our electricity" my hat's off to you Chancellor Merkel.

Posted by HARRY on 15 May 2011

I frequently hear people say the Fukushima nuclear disaster is only due to tsunami damages. The question of whether it survived the earthquake seems to be no, as cracks in containment pools are causing the loss of coolant water and created the overheating that resulted in the hydrogen explosions. Damages to underground piping are evident, further damaging the cooling water system. The generator room was flooded, but in the US, many reactors only hold 12 hours worth of diesel fuel. Batteries for backup power that supplies instruments and control panels are as few as 4 hours capacity at some US reactors.

The loss of power was the greatest problem, along with the damages to roads and electrical grid damage from the earthquake. The nuclear industry runs on the assumption that power will be restored within a day. This assumption does not account for surrounding damage to power supplies that can result from earthquakes, tornadoes, or floods. Then we should talk about the inability to stop the reactions in the fuel. No one can enter the building, so the fuel cannot be removed and separated to stop the heat buildup. In the case of Fukushima, the buildings are filled with highly radioactive water to the extent that building collapse is possible, considering additional quakes are occurring.

Inspections revealed that in several locations in the US, backup generators had been allowed to fall into disrepair with some not even capable of operating. The chance of more accidents is greater than they would like to admit.

Consider the response to the nuclear disaster. The warnings are always delayed, as plant operators expect to regain control, and the fear of inducing panic in the population from governments is much greater than any actual panic that occurs. So people are not warned in time and then, all they can do is get out of there. Where are people supposed to go? How can we be expected to live, go to work, go to school, with no home? The Japanese government has announced the initiation of a $62 billion dollar fund to compensate those forced to leave the 20 miles radius around Fukushima. How would we like to just walk away from our homes and jobs on a moment notice, and not even be able to get our stuff out? Consider evacuating New York city, or any large city, where roads are already filled to the max on regular days. The contingency plans for nuclear disaster are based on wishful thinking.

Posted by aligatorhardt on 16 May 2011

Dear Christopher Miller, thanks for your comment which raises the question of how to store eco-electricity, as the sun doesn't always shine and the wind doesn't always blow. Fortunately the German governemnt does not turn a blind eye to this problem. The development of a smart grid - which balances out suplly and demand in a highly volatile electricity environment - is of huge priority to the government. Just today, 200 million Euros in extra R&D money were allocated for theis problem. Solutions include new pump water hydro plants, including ones being built in the many disused mines underground; turning extra eco-electricity into hydrogen or methane for storage (Sabatier reaction); building underground chambers with pressurized air; building up more grid links with Scandinavian hydro plants; and finally large-scale battery systems. Preparations are under way and Siemens as the leading German electrical company sees its future business in smart grid solutions. I think the volatility of eco-electricity is an important problem whoch needs urgent action, but it is solvable. Nuclear plants don't produce electricity 24/7/265 either, they have to be shut down for reglar inspections and fail in hot summers when there is a lack of cooling water in rivers.

Best, Christian Schwägerl

Posted by Christian Schwägerl on 18 May 2011

It is very clear Germany faces many hurdles by pulling away from dirty power sources. It is commendable this country has taken the courageous step to begin going green. When you consider the alternatives to this means of power, it is logical to go green no matter what the cost. It is very clear the status quo is going to get a lot more expensive, and getting the lead on green technology is the way to go. It is safe to say within twinty years or less Germany will be the leading country in this field. There is no substitute for courageous leadership. Germany clearly has that in this bold, but logical move. The rest of the world will ignore this at their peril.

Posted by James G. Learning on 20 May 2011

Best news I've heard since i was born 48 years ago. We should all be dancing in the streets, nuclear power is absolute poison to mankind. This is what should have happened after Chernoble in 1986!! How can anyone criticise, for whatever reason, such a monumentally positive decision to guarantee the future of mankind and the planet. Thank God for Merkel, thank god for the Germans.

Posted by karl julius petermann on 24 May 2011

An interesting post Christian, but Germany still has to build the electricity super-highway to link the south with the north - so as to transport the wind-generated electricity where it is needed.

As for the storage solutions - the reservoir storage systems are expensive and use a lot of cement and concrete, batteries may or may not deliver on promises, pressurised air storage is untested on a large scale, hydrogen and methane generation will need large-scale infrastructure - and methane burned produces greenhouse gasses. Using Scandanavian Hydro is just importing electricity - like Germany does from France and the Czech Republic. Some may prove feasible - but most - doubtful.

The fact is Germany could be decommissioning all its Coal Plants, pushing ahead with a reasonable renewables and nuclear programme and really contribute to the fight against Climate Change - sadly all it's likely to do now is be a darling in the Green limelight for a few years and be remembered as one of those nations that sent us down the road to Climate Change hell in a hundred year's time.

Posted by Eamon on 01 Jun 2011

Green energy is what we need for safe world. It is good for economic and environment.

Thank you

Posted by Eden Benet on 01 Sep 2011

Serbia for three month negotiating with some companies to build the largest solar park that has an output of 1,000 megawatts. The value of this investment should be about 3 billion dollars.
The intesity of solar radiation in Serbia is among the largest in Europa. Compared with Germany Serbia has potential for more than 40 percent...

Posted by solar park on 20 Dec 2011

Comments have been closed on this feature.
christian schwägerlABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christian Schwägerl, who works for the German news weekly, Der Spiegel, is an environmental journalist who has reported on science and public policy for two decades and is author of the book The Age of Men, published in German under the title Menschenzeit by Riemann/Random House. In a previous article for Yale Environment 360, Schwägerl wrote about a unique nature reserve being created along the spine of Germany’s former Iron Curtain.



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