Merkel’s rush to renewables

I’ve become wary of politicians’ commitments to clean energy, having been disappointed by the rapidity with which the rhetoric of leaders like Obama or Rudd loses substance when the political going gets tough. But it was hard not to pay attention to a striking article in Yale Environment 360 this week in which Der Spiegel journalist Christian Schwägerl wrote of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s new energy policy. In March, following the Fukushima disaster in Japan, she announced an accelerated phasing out of all 17 German nuclear reactors by 2022 at the latest.

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

This is a radical turnaround for Merkel, who previously favoured nuclear power continuing as an important segment in Germany’s electricity sources. Schwägerl explains:

“Merkel’s scientific sense of probability and rationality was shaken to the core [by Fukushima]. 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.”

This doesn’t mean giving up on the commitments to CO2 reduction. Merkel vows Germany will have cut CO2 emissions (compared to 1990 levels) by 40 per cent in 2020, by 55 per cent in 2030, and by more than 80 per cent in 2050. What the “energy turn”, as Merkel describes it, means is that renewable energy is going to have to move from currently supplying 17 per cent of Germany’s energy to supplying 35 per cent by 2020, 50 per cent by 2030, 65 per cent by 2040 and more than 80 per cent by 2050.

Offshore wind energy will play a major part in the transition, and Schwägerl notes several offshore wind farms are now under construction. He sees Merkel betting that environmental technology will be one of Germany’s most important sources of income, providing the job creation and economic growth vital to her party and government. The environment minister Norbert Röttgen says that renewable energy has generated 300,000 `green collar’ new jobs in the past decade.  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.

The change will not be without cost. Already consumers in Germany pay a surcharge to finance the feed-in tariffs which enable the selling of renewable energy to the grid at favourable rates. An average family of four is paying around US$220 a year, and a growing surcharge is likely to meet future investment needs. However Röttgen expects mass deployment of renewable energy to drive costs down and points out that the money now spent on imported energy will be able to go instead to green-tech engineers and local craftsmen.

New grid arrangements will be necessary, and storage questions will need to be addressed. Public opposition to changes to the landscape can be strong. Problems and pitfalls lie ahead, but Schwägerl reports that the new course is already attracting admiration from abroad. He quotes William Reilly, the former administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, on a recent visit to Germany: “It was breathtaking to see this huge change by a conservative government.”  He also report officials in the Japanese embassy in Berlin already wondering aloud how their government will justify sticking with nuclear energy when a country like Germany is taking bold steps to thrive without it.  I see  that the Japanese Prime Minister has now announced the abandonment of plans to build new nuclear reactors, saying his country needed to “start from scratch” in creating a new energy policy. It appears they’ll be looking to renewable energy and conservation as new pillars of energy policy.

Schwägerl comments that Merkel’s intentions make 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… 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.”

Meanwhile in the UK there is less determination than we were led to expect from the coalition government. Jonathon Porritt, former chair of the recently scrapped Sustainable Development Commission, has written a substantial report for Friends of the Earth which concludes that the government is failing to deliver on most of its key green pledges. In recent days there has been a public division of opinion within the government ranks over whether they are going to follow the recommendation of the independent Climate Change Committee that a 60 per cent carbon reduction target be set for 2030. Business secretary Vince Cable and others believe the target would harm prospects for jobs and growth. Energy secretary Chris Huhne and foreign secretary William Hague want the target respected, as might be expected from their stances reported here and here on Hot Topic. Cameron’s “greenest government ever” boast is under suspicion of bombast and Friends of the Earth has urged Chris Huhne to resign if the government fails to honour the recommendation of the Climate Change Committee. Merkel’s conservative government in Germany looks a model of clarity and purpose by contrast. Unless, of course, her “energy turn” offers more in words than it will deliver in action.

Somewhere, sometime there must surely be a major government which will start to act with the decisiveness and firm purpose the climate crisis demands. Maybe Germany really is stepping up to the plate. The Yale Environment heading describes Merkel as the “unlikely champion” of a radical green energy path, presumably because she is a pro-business conservative. But she is also, according to Schwägerl, a self-described rationalist. Rationalism is all that is needed to discern the reality of what climate change threatens and to act appropriately to lessen it. The colour of one’s politics is a minor matter by comparison.

29 thoughts on “Merkel’s rush to renewables”

  1. Merkel was hailed as “climate chancellor” around 2007. for sure, that was because of her nice talks, not because of her deeds; just to cite a small, revealing example, as soon as she became chancellor, she canceled the contract with the green energy company that powered the chancellor’s building, which now runs on coal+nuclear power. yes, Germany did lower its CO2 output on paper, but that was because so much obsolete heavy industry was closed down after the GDR ceased to be. Now that she tries to get away from nuclear power, she’s ramping up coal to fill the gap. She is failing our country, and the world, with her lack of conviction and leadership, producing hot air at best.

  2. Merkel is a rationalist, but from what I can see, a political rationalist. Her party got savaged in recent state elections (victory going to the Greens), with nuclear being a major issue (some huge anti-nuke rallies were held in the days after the Japanese earthquake), and so dumping nuclear is not necessarily because she has seen the (green) light, but may well be simply a calculated political move to save her skin.

    I could be wrong, and I’ll take support for renewables wherever I can get it (ok, maybe not wherever; eco-fascism is a no-go), but I’m not waiting with baited breath for Merkel to become messiah.

  3. My guess is Merkel is riding the reactionary anti-nuke bandwagon – she’s a politician after all.

    The reaction of liberals against Nuclear energy generation is a great example of ‘cultural cognition’ – re. Dan Kahan’s theory previously discussed on this blog. While conservatives are inclined to dismiss climate change as a problem due to a tendency to be dismissive of societal risks, liberals’ keen sense of societal risk creates a tendency to be biased against nuclear energy.

    George Monbiot has been looking at this issue in some of his recent posts (Links follow). In a nutshell, the risks of coal, and of coal picking up the slack of nuclear, far outweigh the risks of nuclear, even given the very salient accidents of Chernobyl and Fukushima. We need to critically assess and differentiate between the risks posed by fossil fuel energy and those posed by nuclear energy, and when we do nuclear comes out trumps. And that’s just nasty cold-war era uranium based nuclear energy. Thorium looks to be a much more civilian friendly nuclear technology.

    But what about renewables and energy efficiency? Yes we need these, and we need all our alternative resources to stop the yeast people digging up coal, and developing shale, tar sands, lignite and methane hydrates and putting all this carbon into the atmosphere.

    Primarily we need to make sure we do not get tripped up by our own cognitive biases – and we expect the same of ‘skeptics’.

    1. Fukushima isn’t over yet. 2 months down the track and they still have no control of the plant – astonishing!

      As Joe Romm has repeatedly pointed out, nuclear was going nowhere anyway, mostly because it’s not economically viable and so can’t gain investors. The NIMBY effect will now more-or-less finish any putative expansion in the West. We’ll most likely be relying on our authoritarian friends in China to test any – supposedly – ‘safe’ nuclear facilities.

      Calling people ‘reactionaries,’ cod-psychology, and maintaining that only others have cognitive biases won’t help.

      To my mind, Monbiot has recently displayed the same poor judgment that caused him to leap into the ‘Climategate’ fiasco on the wrong side without – as now – bothering to wait for all the facts to come in.

      Remember Monbiot’s book on setting up a World Government? I have a copy – well, I did until I decided that perhaps someone at my local library might get something out of it. Much as I admire the man the book is a waste of paper. I confess to not understanding this perverse desire to fight the tide of the inevitable and to adopt these ‘heroically’ Quixotic positions.

      The ‘Nuclear Renaissance’ is dead. It’s time to move on.

      1. With any luck thorium will replace uranium, but as I’ve stated, the risks from burning more fossil fuels far outweigh Fukushima and Chernobyl and we must make a critical assessment and not be led by our cognitive shortcomings. The NIMBY effect is as much an issue for renewables.

        Strawmen won’t help, and neither will dismissing legitimate analyses or perspectives when they create dissonance. That is classic denialism.

        I note Hansen sees nuclear as part of the picture too –

        Got any dirt on him?

        1. the risks from burning more fossil fuels far outweigh Fukushima and Chernobyl

          The folks in the evacuation zone would hardly be likely to agree. And nobody is likely to want to run the risk of being one of the people in an evacuation zone.

          Whereas the NIMBY stuff surrounding windfarms is mostly dissatisfaction with their aesthetics over-amplified by many of the same people who deny the existence of AGW (with some interesting overtones of mass-hysteria re the ‘noise’ and the ‘dangers’). And it’s a newly emerging industry that hasn’t had time to fade into the ‘background’ yet. It’s a completely different order of concern.

          As I’ve said before, my cat could currently win debates against any expansion of the nuclear industry in the democracies. If we pick an example from a bit ‘higher’ up the mammalian order Ian Lowe, of the ACF, is a hell of a lot more articulate than – and perhaps nearly as persuasive as – my cat (sorry, Basil!)

          Merkel’s doing this because the Nuke industry simply isn’t popular. Never has been. Most likely never will be. After all, it’s never made it into the ‘background’ in all these years. It’s had the best part of half a century to be seen as such an ordinary part of our lives that it’s consequences – like the tens of thousands of deaths due to traffic accidents and the appalling social toll of alcohol – are just accepted as ‘part of life’ by the majority. This never happened.

          And I suspect Merkel – along with many of those who may have viewed nukes favourably because they’d accepted constant assurances that a Fukushima simply couldn’t happen – received a genuine shock. As Bryan’s article clearly states.

          In the democracies playing the technocratic ‘we’re still going to persist with this because we know better’ card only sort-of-works when nothing goes wrong – Fukushima has burst that bubble.

          Did you know that the first thing the Australian PM did in response it was announce that we were not even going to consider a nuclear program in Australia? Did you notice any public outcry?

          I suggest that labelling allies as ‘deniers’ or ‘reactionaries’ is an extremely foolish tactic consistent with ‘just not getting’ how campaign politics actually works.

          This is a discussion re renewables versus nukes, is it not? So, surely, playing the ‘it’s either nukes or FF and AGW’ gambit is the strawman here?

          1. @ Bill – Yes a nuclear incident is terrible, but far less so than the heatwaves, floods, droughts, famines and hurricanes, coal mine disasters, deaths from air pollution, ocean acidification, megafires….

            I have not outlined a nuke vs renewables arguement; I am advocating renewables + energy efficiency + nukes.

            We need to use everything, or the yeast people will surely have their way.

            I suggest we expect rigorous debate, the stakes are high and so should be the level of analysis. If we write off nuclear we make the task harder, and in the medium term more uranium plants will be required.

            Yes my preference is for renewables and energy efficiency, but I would much rather a uranium nuke plant were built than another coal plant. Unfortunately the political fallout from Fukushima is inconsistent with the comparative risk and damage from burning fossil fuels.

            Surely now is a great time to highlight this comparison?

            1. I agree with your take on the nuke debate in principle. But I also agree with Bill that no matter what the rational balance of the argument might come down to, currently it is highly unlikely that we will see a revival or further increase of nuclear power due to the Fukushima disaster.
              Perhaps in hindsight this is a good thing. Ultimately the pressure is on now from all sides to massively increase investment into “green” alternatives, solar, wind, geothermal and tidal.
              In the end these will be the only truly sustainable streams of energy and humanity must eventually rely on only these or bust.
              We must learn to wean ourselves of the digging it from the ground paradigm and move on to become a harvesting – not a mining enterprise. And this includes mining for Thorium in the end. Admittedly though, Thorium would pose a temptation with its multi-millennial depletion horizon.

  4. “My guess is Merkel is riding the reactionary anti-nuke bandwagon – she’s a politician after all.”

    a big problem here is that she’s a politician *only*. she is also hugely supportive of big company concerns, going so far to destroy the nuclear exit consensus the former government had struggled from the energy giants, working against the strong will of a vast majority of “her” populace, thus giving out billions to the nuclear corporations, and stopping the development of renewables in its tracks. her policy in this regard is an untenable disaster, and to this day i fail to grasp what might motivate her to go down this path. i don’t think she’s corrupt, maybe she’s listening to the wrong people; and she has absolutely no vision except to stay in power, which is exactly what we don’t need at the historic crossroads we’re at.

    peter hartmann, germany

  5. Here’s my memory of events:

    ~2000 – SPD(Kinda like NZ’s Labour party)/Greens legislate nuclear phase out by 2020.

    Late 2010 – Merkel of CDU (Kinda like NZ’s National party) makes compromise to push out the phase out date ~10 years, but at the same time pushes through an aggressive energy efficiency programme.

    The programme even makes building owners responsible for retro-fitting existing housing. Could you ever imagine any party having the balls to do this in NZ? We just change the building code for new build and large alterations.

    After Fukushima – Merkel scraps phase-out extension.

    My gut feel is that in CO2 reduction terms, the energy efficiency programme is likely much more significant than the phase out. But efficiency isn’t a sexy topic like nuclear and coal, so it is often overlooked.

    I’d like to see more details about this new efficiency legislation before making up my mind on Merkel’s climate credentials.

    1. Found an article that discusses last year’s nuclear compromise.

      Summary: If power companies put 60-70 billion euros into a fund for renewables and efficiency, then they can extend the running time of their existing nuclear plants by 12 years.

      So it sounds like that deal is off now.

      “During the campaign, some conservative politicians coupled support for lengthened reactor lifetimes with the demand that utilities contribute as much as one-half of the windfall profits that longer-running reactors would generate into a fund aimed at further developing renewable energy, which now provides 15 percent of German electricity. (An eight-year extension for all 17 reactors could lead to as much as $66 billion in profits depending on factors including the price of electricity, according to the Ecological Institute [in German].) Volker Kauder, the chairman of the Christian Democrats, reiterated that demand after the election by calling for the industry to finance a roughly $60 billion-$70 billion renewable energy fund. Dieter Rucht, an analyst at the Social Science Research Center Berlin, suggested that citizens liked the idea of nuclear power operations funding more renewable energy. He told Süddeutsche Zeitung that the majority of German voters saw “no qualitative difference” between sticking to the 2022 phaseout goal and extending nuclear operations for a few more years if such an extension meant more money for renewable energy.”

  6. McTaptik

    From what little I admittedly know about nuclear energy technology, thorium does sound much safer. If that is the case, then I would rather wait for it to go through it’s pilot plant stage etc, while building renewables as fast as we can. It would likely be 15 years before any serious commercial plant consruction gets started. In other words, hold off on building other nuclear plants and just build thorium when it’s ready. If nuclear is to be pursued, do it right, with the safest available technology.

    Solar thermal can play a big part in clean energy.
    It’s been calculated that an aread of our U.S. southwest of premium solar resources 42 miles by 42 miles, filled with solar thermal power plants with molten salt heat storage could produce as many megawatt hours as all the coal plants in the U.S.

    I think that’s about twice the area now evacuated around the Fukishima nuclear plant in Japan.

  7. But why cant we start immediately with efficiency? For example, look at what the Japanese nuclear reactors have been powering:

    “Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara has joined criticism of the country’s 5.5m vending machines, which use several nuclear reactors’ worth of electricity to keep soft drinks refrigerated and coffee hot twenty-four hours a day.”

  8. the main problem with nuclear energy is that it stops the development of renewables, because they can’t compete against dirt-cheap (because coming from old, subsidized reactors) nuke power. it’s a bit complicated, but it would not have been only 10 more years, but up to 40 or more, because once they would have turned off one station, the remaining lifetime would have been added to the others that still run. the 2010 legislation was not a compromise; the 2000 legislation was. the 2010 was a horrendous gift to the power giants. many people were devastated by this, with a 200k demonstration in berlin, what they saw as a total sellout to these corporations, and to a technology that has to make way for the future of renewables. why give them a huge amount of money, then require them to re-pay a small amount into renewables? there sure are better ways to do this. why don’t we have a carbon tax yet for example?


    1. Why shut down nuclear plants, which produce carbon free power about 90% of the time, to make way for solar and wind, which work less than thirty percent of the time, undependably, and so require gas backup? If your goal is to reduce CO2, better to require the nuclear plant owners to build more nukes. Germany’s planned 24 coal burning plants give the lie to any green pretensions from it’s solar and wind buildout. The nuclear plants were producing about a third of their electricity supply ( at least before the latest closures ), whereas solar was about one percent, far less in winter, none at night or in cloudy weather. At all those times, the utilities are burning more gas until they can increase their coal baseload

  9. as i mentioned earlier, in my view the main problem with nuclear power is not that it’s insecure (and couldn’t be established on the free market, with damages up to 6 trillion euro in case of a german worst case accident impossible to insure, according to a recent study), but that it’s incompatible with renewables. what’s needed as a bridge technology is something that can be adjusted quickly, to counteract the fluctuations in sun/wind. coal and nuke can’t do that, thwarting the development of renewables. our local biggest eco-power corporation Lichtblick is trying to establish a decentralized web of gas heaters, which can quickly be turned on to feed energy into the grid if needed. why is merkel not subsidizing developments like these, instead feeding obsolete and progress-choking technologies?

    here’s a link to the Lichtblick project:

    no, it does not make any sense to put it into the forest 😉


  10. For those who didn’t notice, “energy turn” is “Energiewende” in German, a direct reference to “die Wende”, when the Wall came down. Emotionally strong naming, and framing, by Ms. Merkel.

    I think those that characterize this as a political move by a political animal, are right. The point is that the time for technical, economical, environmental etc., “rational” arguments is over. People don’t want nukes. If that means paying more for renewables, they’ll pay, damn rationality.

    I suspect that Ms. Merkel also has mercantile instincts, and she recognizes when she’s holding an unsellable product.

  11. it was unsellable even before fukushima, with more than 2/3 against it. nevertheless she canceled the exit strategy.

    interesting point about “energiewende”, i’m not sure that’s the intended connotation. could be, but it never occurred to me. the term itself is older, stemming from 1980:

    btw, what merkel is doing at the moment is sometimes sarcastically called the “pullout from the pullout from the pullout” (or something like that in english, “der ausstieg aus dem ausstieg aus dem ausstieg”).


  12. from the “told you so”-department:

    »Meanwhile, the government aims to phase out atomic power not in spite of the planned accelerated development of renewable energies in Germany. This is clear from the draft of the Renewable Energies Act (EEG) before. It is in the course of nuclear phase and energy systems must be reformed.

    Accordingly, the government set the goal to win by 2020 some 35 percent of its electricity from solar, hydro and wind power or biomass. This goal was established even before the extension of the nuclear terms. By 2050, the proportion gradually increased to 80 percent, says the paper.» (sorry about the bad google transl.)

    do not trust merkel regarding energy reform.


    1. there’s a better article here:

      in short, the merkel government can’t do anything to reform the energy sector that will cost “the consumer” more than 4 billion € over the course of 20 years (if i read that correctly).

      meanwhile, up to 80% of germans say in surveys that they are willing to pay more for renewable energy, but only 5% have switched to renewable energy providers.

      i could cry.


      1. Yup – conservatives will be conservatives. I’m sure a red/green coalition would push for a more aggressive renewables programme.

        But – If you look at it through the eyes of a NZer. It seems pretty incredible that the German conservatives have left the previous red/green government’s renewable energy programme almost entirely intact.

        Meanwhile our conservative government has been busy cutting back on the last government’s modest plans – and is supporting a rush to roads, oil and lignite.

        Btw – I think we agree – I don’t understand why Merkel has been getting so much credit internationally. The credit really belongs to those who pushed through the original legislation 10/20 years ago.

        But at the same time Merkel does deserve credit for continuing to support the legislation – and not gutting it. I’m sure many in her camp have been pushing for that.

    1. Bryan I’ve just returned from WA , and they (well a good proportion of the population) take Climate Change seriously there. After all, they are in a 7 year drought. There have been two dramatic step changes downwards, in the rainfall for Perth in the past 50 years. Unlike the Eastern seaboard no flooding for them this year. I was also struck by the numbers of Solar water heaters (it is the home of 2 solar water heating Co’s selling here), and PV arrays. $750 for a 5kw installation and good Govt incentives. So I guess the response from there was “wow!”
      Particularly the last paragraph:
      ‘While not without its difficulties, the German renewables story just keeps getting better. But perhaps most impressive is to think that within four decades, the world’s fourth largest economy will be powered almost entirely by wind, solar, biomass, hydro, and geothermal power.”

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