The Energiewende (energy transition) is an internationally recognised example of Germans’ love for compound nouns, where two previously unconnected words are joined at the hip.
It conveys a package of meaning in a single word that tends to conjure up fierce support, or disdainful criticism. Yet not everyone agrees on what the term means, or even where it comes from.
As a companion piece to our interactive map showing how Germany generates its electricity, Carbon Brief has delved into the archives to bring you a timeline of the Energiewende.
History of the Energiewende
The Energiewende is widely associated with German chancellor Angela Merkel. However, her government’s 2010 “Energiekonzept” (energy strategy) makes no mention of the word.
- Mapped: How Germany generates its electricity
- Wie Deutschland seinen Strom erzeugt
- Timeline: The past, present and future of Germany’s Energiewende
- Zeitleiste: Die Vergangenheit, Gegenwart und Zukunft der deutschen Energiewende
In fact, the term Energiewende emerged in the late 1970s as part of the anti-nuclear movement.
Only after the post-Fukushima decision to speed up Germany’s nuclear phaseout did Merkel claim the Energiewende as her own, in a classic political manoeuvre that co-opted her opponents’ ideas. It was later adopted as the official nomenclature for Germany’s wider climate and energy strategy.
You can explore a detailed history of the Energiewende by scrolling through our interactive, 28-frame timeline, above, spanning 1971 to 2016.
The word was popularised in a 1980 book, titled “Energiewende: Wachstum und Wohlstand ohne Erdöl und Uran” (Energy Transition: Growth and Prosperity Without Oil and Uranium). The book’s title makes its priorities clear.
In a 2013 retrospective, Florentin Krause, one of the book’s authors, explained their thinking:
“At the time of our writing in 1980, both the oil crises and the ongoing Cold War were important considerations, Soviet gas imports were problematic, so our work was more circumscribed in its exploration of phasing out coal, exploring only a partial (roughly 50%) phaseout.”
Krause emphasised the broad scope of the project, a point all too frequently forgotten in Energiewende coverage that focuses on wind, solar, nuclear and coal:
“The turnaround for the German energy system that we envisioned was much more complete and radical than pushing the electricity sector towards more renewables. It is easily forgotten that high end-use efficiency is the trump card that makes a climate saving strategy feasible, and also affordable.”
The Energiewende started out as an approach encompassing energy efficiency, energy security, renewables and nuclear phaseout. Climate change only became a mainstream concern some years later – yet the success or failure of the Energiewende is now often measured in carbon emissions.
Barbara Hendricks, German environment minister, told a conference in Berlin in March 2016:
“For us here in Europe and Germany, the Paris Agreement means working to reduce emissions 95% by 2050…This is a mammoth task…No sector will be excluded from this transition.”
If Germany is to succeed, it must almost completely decarbonise not only electricity, but also heat, transport, industry and agriculture. As of 2016, it looks set to miss many of its goals (see Carbon Brief’s map and charts tracking the current state of play).
Climate action plan 2050
In 2014, Germany launched a nationwide crowdsourcing effort to find ways to get its climate and energy targets back on track. The process has fed into a draft Klimaschutzplan 2050 (climate protection plan) that was due to have been agreed by the cabinet this summer (see timeline).
However, on 21 June 2016, the German Ministry for the Environment (BMUB) said it needed more time to work on the proposals for reaching carbon neutrality by mid-century. The German cabinet is not now expected to finalise the plan before October 2016, reports Der Spiegel.
Within Germany, one of the most contentious elements is a coal phaseout. A 2045 or 2050 target has been dropped from the draft plan, with any decision now unlikely before the 2017 election. A leaked memo from the chancellery calls phaseout “politically controversial”.
The lack of agreement over a coal phaseout is in stark contrast to the cross-party consensus on nuclear. Despite the challenge it poses to the country’s climate goals, Germans appear steadfast in their support for the 2022 nuclear phaseout.
Indeed, on a March 2016 visit to Germany, Carbon Brief met wry amusement – and not a little Schadenfreude – over the UK’s continued enthusiasm for new nuclear, which appears to remain strong despite the continued delays and controversy facing the planned reactors at Hinkley Point.
Speaking in March 2016, Sigmar Gabriel, the minister of economic affairs and leader of the SPD, said:
“If you look at the cost of new nuclear power, you have a great reason to go for renewables. It’s a great deal cheaper than nuclear – at least that’s our experience”.
From an international perspective, the German nuclear phaseout is easily the most divisive part of the Energiewende. A reflection of this debate recently swept across the US, after an agreement on early closure of the Diabolo Canyon nuclear plant in California.
Amory Lovins, long-time anti-nuclear advocate and a key figure in the origins of the Energiewende (see timeline, above), wrote that the closure would save money and carbon. Others said the move undermines US climate and environment goals.
In marked contrast to California and Germany, New York State recently proposed subsidies for its existing nuclear fleet, as part of a wider clean energy plan that also aims to phase out coal.
Meanwhile, on 12 August 2016 Germany’s Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi) launched a green paper on making “energy efficiency first” the guiding principle of the Energiewende – just as the concept’s originators intended.
The paper admits that Germany’s wider climate and energy targets will be missed without new policies and looks for ways to enhance efficiency. It follows the allocation of €17bn for efficiency measures between 2017 and 2020, as well as a publicity offensive on efficiency launched in May.
Officials in Germany’s environment ministry admit “the transport sector is worrying us” because its emissions are rising. At an event in March 2016, foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said, “we need to change our mobility radically for the future”.
Rainer Baake, the state secretary for economic affairs and energy, said at the same event that transport had to be zero emissions by 2050. Yet in August 2016, the transport ministry said the Autobahn remains the “backbone” of mobility, allocating more money to roads than to any other transport mode.
Car firms are a major industry for the country. Daimler, Volkswagen, Porsche and BMW all have, or will soon launch electric cars. VW’s chief executive has spoken of the end of diesel. The firms are also exploring new business models including car-sharing services.
On the other hand, emissions are increasing and a target to get one million electric cars on the road by 2020 looks a long way from being met. A new electric car subsidy, introduced in May, has so far attracted very few buyers.
Transport emissions remain stubbornly high, but Germany already has several compound nouns to choose from to describe its plans to transform the sector. There is the Verkehrswende (transport transition), its anglicised version, the Transportwende, and even the Autowende and Mobilitywende.
The deeper question for Germany is whether its 2050 plan can present a positive case for its economy-wide, low-carbon transformation. Arguably, one of the greatest successes of the Energiewende is its public popularity, consistently reflected in opinion polls.
Even if it means different things to different people, it still offers some sense of shared vision and purpose. The UK, for one, lacks this common reference point.
Around the world, there are attempts to make a case for climate action emphasising opportunities rather than threats and innovative new business opportunities rather than onerous targets.
As Gabriel put it in March 2016:
“Yes, there is a major challenge, but there are also major opportunities for social and economic progress…We will only succeed if we demonstrate both that the energy transition delivers mitigation and better lives for everyone.”
Photo credit: Walchenseekraftwerk, a hydroelectric power station. Frederic via Flickr.