Germany’s “Energy Poverty”

In the wake of the Fukushima Nuclear Reactor disaster of 2011, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced a controversial plan to shut down all of Germany’s nuclear power facilities by 2022. The end goal of this plan is for 80 percent of Germany’s energy production to be from renewable sources.[1] There are many legitimate concerns about the feasibility of the plan, both in terms of its monetary cost and the potential environmental effects. While the final date of the transition is still years off, the cracks in the plan are already starting to show. This raises concerns about the European Union’s ability to meet its 2030 emissions reduction targets. Despite her conservative leanings, Merkel took this solution straight from the playbook of her liberal opposition, leading many to see it as a political move. The decision certainly played well in the lead up to the 2013 Bundestag elections, which saw Merkel win by her largest margin yet. Chancellor Merkel has consistently tried to outflank her political opponents on the left by adopting their policy ideas, and many Germans see this decision in the same light.

Additionally, since it is one of the few issues in German politics that enjoys widespread consensus between all the major parties, it is highly unlikely that the decision will be reversed even when Merkel finally bows out as chancellor. While many climate activists initially hailed this decision as a success for renewable energy, the transition towards it has proved rocky at best. This is truly uncharted territory, as no country has ever attempted such a massive conversion to renewable energy sources. Germany’s current renewable energy share is 22 percent, one of the highest in the world, but still far short of the 80 percent share mandated by Merkel’s plan.[1] Most energy experts seem to agree that there is no way Germany’s renewable energy grid can keep up with rising energy demands. This has led to old coal-burning power plants being fired up to compensate, and this backsliding toward fossil fuels may continue over the next decade.

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The Plight of the Working Man Additionally, there are major concerns that much of the added cost is being passed on to German families. Many poorer Germans are now choosing to only heat one room of their house and are lighting their places by a single light bulb. Organizations are springing up in most German cities to help individuals struggling with paying their energy bills. One such organization in Berlin has seen a marked increase in the number of Germans seeking help. In the first six months of this year, about 1,800 sought help, 200 more than in all of 2012.[1] A major cause of the increased cost is that, according to the New York Times, “the government has shielded about 700 companies from increased energy costs, to protect their competitive position in the global economy.” Despite these exemptions, German firms pay some of the highest energy costs in Europe and almost three times as much as comparable firms in the United States pay. Additionally, traditional industries such as textiles and steel have been subsidized less than high-tech industries. This has led to criticism that the German government is picking winners and losers, and that this policy will cost many hardworking, blue collar Germans their jobs. Additionally, the estimated cost of the overall program is $735 billion dollars, and much of this cost is expected to fall on German taxpayers.[1]

Rainy Day Droughts Critics of the government plan have also pointed out many holes in the planned transition to 80% renewable energy. The first is the lack of an adequate way to store surplus energy, which is a major concern with energy sources based on weather. Wind and solar will form the vast majority of Germany’s renewable options, and windless and cloudy days could result in energy shortages unless the government would be willing to fire up coal and oil plants to compensate. Additionally, it is proving to be more expensive and time-consuming to link offshore wind farms to Germany’s power grid than originally anticipated. One such wind farm in the Baltic Sea has been operational for over a year now, but remains unconnected to the grid. This casts serious doubt on the ability of this plan to reduce carbon emissions. In fact, due to the high costs of this program, many other carbon abatement programs may be sacrificed to pay the bills. Since Germany is by far the largest economy in the EU, this does not bode well for the overall direction of Emissions reduction in Europe. It could even lead to similar plans being adopted in Eastern Europe, where Germany has pressured many countries to decommission their nuclear reactors. It remains to be seen if there will be any significant change in public opinion on this issue, but now that many feelings of outrage over nuclear power safety have subsided, many Germans may have second thoughts about its merits.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/19/world/europe/germanys-effort-at-clean-energy-proves-complex.html?ref=europe

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