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Energiewende and German Energy Policy

German Energy Policy

Energiewende and German Energy Policy

When exploring the policy framework surrounding the development of German energy policy in recent years, it is incredibly difficult to miss the development of the German ‘‘Energiewende’ or ‘energy transition’ as a lens through which we should evaluate the role and objectives of German energy policy. Indeed the objectives of ‘Energiewende’ namely addressing increasing greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, the depletion of natural resources, phasing out the use of nuclear energy and improving energy security are wide-ranging and indeed are sufficient to stand alone as distinct policy areas worthy of a wide-ranging evaluation on their own merits, in Germany however, energy policy is neatly bundled under the ambitious targets and broad ranging objectives contained within ‘Energiewende’.

There are a variety of post- world war 2 (particularly) West German strands which led to development and proliferation of the ‘Energiewende’ approach towards energy, with (Hockenos, 2015) tying together a number of macro social trends to outline the ways in which such a policy framework has developed, and indeed within (Hake et al., 2015) we can see the role played by the consensus driven policy making process which came to define Germany during the post WW2 period, leading to the development of an energy policy which as outlined within (Hake et al., 2015) “ reveals that the German energy transition has been an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary process.”.

This point while perhaps rather obvious points to development of German energy needs and the policy approaches which seek to address these needs – for example, in the late 1940’s and during the 1950’s the objectives of successive governments was to ensure a stable supply of energy and the rebuilding of infrastructure towards the ‘Wirtschaftswunder’ or economic miracle period of economic expansion.

This however led to a German over-reliance on fossil fuel, specifically with regards to utilising their significant coal reserves and being dependent on international markets for access to oil and gas (Amelang and Wettengel, 2018). The impact of the oil-crisis in the early 1970’s crystallised the problems inherent within over-reliance of Germany on international energy markets, and led to an evolutionary drive towards greater energy security whilst this was at first targeted towards increased use of nuclear energy (a movement which at the time had broad cross-party support), due to increased pressure from a emboldened green movement, which following concerns over nuclear waste disposal (“Entsorgungskonzept”) and incidents such as Three Mile Island in the United states led to an altering in the German government position on the use of nuclear energy from an understanding that nuclear energy was “The technology of the future” to instead being viewed in more pragmatic terms on the reliance of Germany on nuclear energy as “a quite dangerous, but absolutely necessary part of Germany energy supply” (Hake et al., 2015).

It was within this vein that the emergence of a policy framework which supported the development of renewables was developed. We can see that from the mid-1970’s there is an increased awareness of the need within policy circles to encourage the development of a renewable energy sector, indeed in 1974 the German Ministry of Research and Technology launched a R&D programme for research on renewables, and this was followed in 1977 with state subsidies for the introduction of heat pumps and solar panels this approach continued (Lauber and Mez, 2004), with notable exceptions such as cuts to research grants by the Helmut Kohl government in the mid-1980’s.

With the fall of the Berlin wall and the reunification of Germany, a number of unique energy policy challenges faced the German government, this can be seen as the integration of energy systems between east and west Germany, alongside transitioning the east German economy away from a reliance on exploiting fossil fuels such as coal, specifically the use of the especially dirty lignite coal. (Irfan, 2014, Hansen, 1996) .

During the late 1990’s we can also see the impact the first ‘Red-Green’ coalition has on shaping German energy policy, with a key tenant of the green policy platform being the phase-out of nuclear energy, and to focus more on the integration of renewable energy into Germany’s energy mix.

As outlined within (Gründinger, 2017), a key focus of the new red-green government of the SPD and the Green was to ensure that their government would seek to ensure that future energy policy was environmentally friendly and maintained a cost-effective energy supply. To meet these target the new government sought to leverage “, non-discriminatory grid access and the creation and safeguarding of fair market opportunities for renewable domestic energies through a clear legal regime and a fair distribution of the costs of these sustainable energies” (Gründinger, 2017).

Whilst the incorporation of East and West Germany at the end of the cold war presented a series of headaches for policy makers, due to the dominant method of supply within the East, it also presented a number of opportunities towards the end of the 1990’s and into the 2000’s for the red-green coalition, namely in rebuilding a more efficient and sustainable energy production model. As can be seen in figure 1, this drop in the use of coal happened after reunification and was drove largely by the phasing out of (largely) east German coal plants.

Figure 1.

(Eia.gov, 2019)

This factor in particular has a specific salience with regards to targets set by the EU, which whilst setting ambitious targets, would be the primary yardstick through which to measure German success in transitioning towards more sustainable models of production of energy supplied, which contains the objective of “ The EU interim targets include binding emission reductions of 20 per cent by 2020 and of at least 40 per cent by 2030.

These numbers are based on 1990 emissions levels” (Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety, n.d.) – in the context of Germany, whilst still a costly exercise in developing an outdated energy system, presented an opportunity for German policymakers, to go some way to achieving these targets through addressing the flaws inherent within the former East German system, financed largely through West German support for integration of the east (Hansen, 1996).

In recent years however we have began to see the German government’s insistence on increasingly ambitious renewable energy targets (Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety, n.d.) with the federal ministry for the environment, Nature conservation, building and nuclear safety outlining the intention to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% in 2020 (from 1990) and by at least 55% in 2030, which seeks to surpass the goals set by the EU (of 20% and 40% respectively), this movement is largely taking place under the auspices of the ‘Energiewende’ framework, and sets targets which seek to fundamentally alter the makeup of the energy market within Germany.


Jason Deegan

Jason Deegan is a PhD Candidate (Stipendiat) and research fellow at the University of Stavanger. His work primarily focuses on; Innovation, Regional Studies, Smart Specialisation and Policy.

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