Germany: Renewable gains, won by people's power, face corporate threat

Anti-nuclear protests in the 1970s successfully stopped nuclear plant construction.
August 22, 2016

In 2000, renewable energy made up just 6.3% of Germany's electricity. By last year, it had risen to 31%.

Cloudy Germany became a leading innovator in solar energy. It did so not by subsidising large power utility companies, but by mobilising hundreds of thousands into energy cooperatives. The two legs of this democratic energy transition are Germany's commitment to phase out nuclear power and its feed-in tariffs, which allowed small renewable energy producers to sell their electricity.

Both policies were fruits of the environmental movement. Now, the feed-in tariffs are under attack by the right-wing Angela Merkel government, which wants to hand over renewable energy to large corporations.

The anti-nuclear leg of the renewable energy transition came out of protest. It was born out of a struggle against a nuclear power plant begun in the early 1970s.

By the time the plant's construction was stopped in 1977, the anti-nuclear movement had organised a 10-month occupation by 20,000-30,000 people at the construction site. The victory sparked similar protests across the country.

The anti-nuclear movement further consolidated anti-nuclear power sentiment. Its ranks were swelled by various nuclear disasters around the world.

In particular, the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear meltdown directly impacted Germans by showering them with nuclear fallout. By 1989, the movement effectively stopped construction of new commercial nuclear power stations. Protests continued focusing on nuclear waste storage sites and the transport of spent nuclear fuel.

When the Green Party, founded by the anti-nuclear movement in 1980, came into power in coalition with the Social Democratic Party in 1998, it passed a law ending nuclear energy by 2022.

Even after losing power in the Bundestag (Germany's legislative branch) in 2005 to Merkel's pro-nuclear Christian Democratic Union Party, the anti-nuclear movement successfully fought off attempts at weakening the nuclear phase out.

In the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, the anti-nuclear movement achieved electoral victories that forced Merkel to reverse her rescindment of the nuclear phase out law, to be completed by 2022.

The second pillar, the feed-in tariffs, was a response to the question: “If not nuclear then what?” The answer was the renewable energy movement.

The feed-in law of 1990 and 2000 came directly out the movement and its experiments with renewable energy. The 1990 feed-in law came out of the various “independent think tanks” established by the anti-nuclear movement that was now forming the renewable energy movement.

The feed-in law allowed renewable energy producers to sell excess electricity to the grid at a percentage of the retail price. It directly challenged the power utilities by displacing electricity produced by their nuclear and coal-fired plants with renewable energy.

Craig Morris of the Energiewende blog said that “innovation doesn't come from those with established assets”, because they have little incentive to undermine their assets at hand (i.e. conventional coal and nuclear power plants) by investing in competing innovative technologies. Change must come from outside.

The real breakthrough in feed-in tariffs came with the SPD-Green ruling coalition. In addition to providing fixed low interest rate loans for renewable technology investment, it further empowered the renewable energy movement by setting a fixed 20 year feed-in price (in 2000) for renewable energy, based not on a portion of the retail price but on the higher cost of investment.

It was a direct lesson from the early renewable energy installations: increase demand by decreasing risk with a steady source of income and lower the price of renewable technology (especially solar) by exploiting economies of scale from greater demand.

Yet, to view the feed-in tariffs as the drivers of Germany's renewable energy transition is to ignore the movement that created it and put it into practice. Even before it was profitable, the renewable energy movement was building policy and technical expertise through its independent institutes, organising energy cooperatives to crowdfund renewable energy projects.

The feed-in tariffs were implemented so successfully because grassroots groups such as the Association for the Promotion of Energy and Solar (FESA) existed to help villages and communities invest in renewable projects.

The great success of the renewable energy movement threatens the big power utility companies that are based on nuclear and coal-fired power plants. So the Merkel government is transitioning from feed-in tariffs, which allowed everyone to be an energy producer, to a quota-based auction system that advantages large-scale renewable energy projects.

This allows the power utility companies to enter a renewable energy market they long neglected to protect their conventional power plants. With the quota-based auction system, producing renewable energy means investing in a risky and expensive bidding process.

It is clear that to wrest renewable energy from the hands of the power companies and return it to the hands of people will involve a fight with the Merkel government. Ultimately, energy democracy, like all democracy, cannot be given by vested interests in power. It must be fought for and won, as Germany's environmental movements have been doing.

[Slightly abridged from the International Strategy Centre.]

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