Political Gains & Nuclear Power In Germany
Despite some initial criticism, chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to phase out nuclear power in Germany proved to be a tactical masterpiece.
Within the industrialised world, Germany’s energy policy is the odd one out. While many industrialised countries are extending their nuclear programmes, Germany has not only decided to stick to its original decision to put an end to nuclear energy, but last year it even opted to accelerate this process. The decision sparked some initial criticism in Germany, but now a broad consensus has been reached.
At the heart of the decision to do away with nuclear energy at an even earlier date than originally planned, was a successful tactic by Chancellor Angela Merkel to snatch the topic away from the Greens. Going against public opinion, Merkel’s conservative-liberal coalition had extended the lifetime of Germany’s nuclear reactors by up to 14 years in late 2010, thereby watering down an earlier decision to phase out nuclear power by the Schröder government.
With the Fukushima nuclear accident in March 2011, Merkel faced a massive media backlash and outpouring of popular sentiment. She quickly declared a moratorium during which the oldest nuclear reactors were switched off. Within the following three months, the government decided to decommission all German nuclear plants by 2022.
It is inconceivable that any German government would go back on the accelerated phase-out decision. Even if there were a significant shortfall in the energy supply, the government would consider other options first (imports, fossil energy) before considering even a modest extension of the lifetime of the last remaining German reactors.
A Challenging Road Ahead
In addition to the decision to accelerate the phasing-out of nuclear power, the government decided to implement a very ambitious programme designed to transform Germany’s energy system, commonly known in Germany as the “Energy Shift” (“Energiewende”). The programme entails a substantial increase in renewable energy, improving energy efficiency and, most importantly, a considerable extension of the energy grid. As it stands, the “Energy Shift” suffers from a number of weaknesses which could endanger its chances for success.
The Institutional Challenge: Uncertainty in the Political Process
Since Germany has still no energy ministry, competences and responsibilities between the two ministries in charge (economics and environment) are not clear, leading to uncertainties and delays in the planning process. There is considerable wrangling between the liberal economics minister, Philipp Rösler (FDP), and the “greener” and more progressive environment minister, Norbert Röttgen (CDU).
Once citizens themselves have taken a democratic decision, it will be far more difficult for them to go back on it.
The Logistical Challenge: Huge Investments vs. Long Distances and Citizen Protests
The proposed shift to renewable energy relies heavily on offshore wind power. The building of wind parks in the North Sea and the Baltic Sea will be very expensive and requires enormous capital expenditure by investors.
The energy produced there will also need to be transported to Germany’s industrial centres in the south and west. No precise and promising plan for the large-scale construction of grids is yet in place, and NIMBY-protests along any new power lines could cause major delays and produce additional costs.
The Political Challenge: Coal/Lignite vs. Natural Gas
The “Energy Shift” requires fossil “bridging” technologies such as coal/lignite and natural gas. There are significant differences between the political parties over the way forward on this.
The “Energy Shift” requires fossil “bridging” technologies such as coal/ lignite and natural gas. There are significant differences between the political parties over the way forward on this. While CDU und SPD favour the building of new coal-fired power stations, the Greens are strictly against coal or lignite which they say is dirtier and less flexible than natural gas when combining it with power from renewable energy sources.
The role of communication
While communication is only part of the problem and can therefore only be part of the solution, it is key to the success of Germany’s “Energy Shift” in two important ways: Communication needs to provide momentum from above, and it is important in facilitating progress on the ground.
While there is much talk of the “Energy Shift” in the media and politics, the term has not so far been filled with a mission or purpose which could give it the status of a national project. A national campaign needs to provide the necessary patriotic emotion to serve as a unifying theme from above and to provide momentum for the political and regulatory process.
This would not just incline federal politics to continue to treat the “Energy Shift” as a matter of national importance, but it would also make it easier for individual politicians to sell hard choices and to stand firm in the face of protest – all the way down to the local level, thereby paving the way for the successful completion of individual projects on the ground.
However, communication is also key at the local level itself. To prevent endless stalemates with regard to important building projects, local citizens need to be involved in the planning process at an early stage. There needs to be clear, transparent and continuous information, and participatory elements throughout the entire process are essential. While citizens cannot be involved in every detail, they must be given the opportunity to participate in real decisions. Once citizens themselves have taken a democratic decision, it will be far more difficult for them to go back on it.
This article is part of a report “Europe’s Energy – At A Crossroads”, published on April 15, 2012 by MSLGROUP on the state of the energy industry in Europe. With the backdrop of socio-economic challenges facing other countries including climate change, growing fuel poverty and security of supply, MSLGROUP’s dedicated energy team has to confront various issues every day on behalf of our clients and in this report, we share our thoughts on these issues. MSLGROUP has a growing footprint across Europe and beyond, and a fantastic team in place to help our clients rise to the challenge of communicating effectively with stakeholders around the world on these and other critical issues.