Why many environmentalists will fight Germany's green energy plan

The German cabinet approved on Tuesday an overhaul to the country's energy production, but upset antinuclear activists by extending the life of the nuclear power plants.

REUTERS/Greenpeace/Frauke Huber
Greenpeace activists protest with a projection reading 'Nuclear power damages Germany' on the nuclear power plant Isar near Landshut, Tuesday. Greenpeace activists projected the message simultaneously at all twelve sites of nuclear power plants in Germany, protesting the planned extension of the plants' operation time.

Angela Merkel’s German cabinet Tuesday ratified an ambitious blueprint for moving the country toward a low-emission energy future that calls for ending centuries of reliance on fossil fuels.

The plan calls for developing renewable energies and energy efficiency requirements to help cut greenhouse gas emission by 80 percent within four decades. It is, many say, a "green revolution" that could bolster Germany’s pace-setting role in addressing climate change.

"This is a very important step toward the restructuring of Germany’s energy future," says Miranda Schreurs, who heads the Environmental Policy Research Center at the Free University Berlin.

She says the blueprint sends a clear message to the country and its industrial concerns that the government is no longer going to support fossil fuels.

"Compared with what we see from North America, Austria, and other European countries, except for Sweden, that is going really far," says Ms. Schreurs. "It’s going to challenge other countries to do more."

Merkel's coalition of conservatives and pro-business liberals agreed on a package of 60 measures, from spending several billion euros on wind projects to expanding bio-energy to getting 6 million electric cars on German streets by 2030. It commits to combating energy waste by implementing stricter energy efficiency standards.

"We want to wake up the sleeping giant of energy efficiency," says Environmental Minister Norbert Röttgen. He says that improved energy efficiency standards could cut energy consumption by 40 percent.

The nuclear question

But in agreeing to use nuclear power as a "bridge" toward developing renewable energy, the Merkel coalition rekindled one of the most deeply anchored elements of German culture: its visceral aversion to nuclear power.

Last week, close to 100,000 people marched against the Merkel decision to reverse an earlier commitment to end nuclear, and keep the country’s 17 nuclear plants plans running an average of 12 years beyond the year they were supposed to be phased out.

Relying on nuclear energy for another decade would give Germany the time and money it needs to develop its energy sources and keep its economy competitive, supporters say.

Opponents of extending the life of Germany's nuclear power plants say they will fight the plan. While Chancellor Merkel says her initiative needs approval only from the Bundestag (the lower house) to become law, her opponents also say it require approval in Bundesrat (upper house), where Merkel no longer holds sway. The nuclear issue could be a major sticking point in getting Merkel's energy concept passed into law.

Even though the nuclear issue has turned many environmentalists sour on Merkel's energy blueprint, many say this plan put Germany at the forefront of renewable energy.

"If the goal is 80 percent renewable, halving energy consumption, improving efficiency in buildings, the opposition is no longer right in saying that renewable energy is not tackled," says Claudia Kemfert, who heads energy and environment research at the DIW German Institute of Economic Research in Berlin. "This is far beyond what the European Union ever dreamed of."

Price tag for the green revolution

But even though the government proposes to make nuclear power utilities contribute to paying for the development of renewable energy through a new tax, many question whether Germany can afford its green revolution.

Advancements in green energy will mean developing a system to transport and store the energy, as well. Germany’s current electricity grid cannot handle more than 30 percent of the electricity produced by renewable sources, and because renewable energy comes sporadically, on sunny or windy days, so there needs to be a better way t store it for future use.

Fritz Vahrenholt, who heads a subsidiary of energy group RWE that operates wind farms and biogas plants, says that the fluctuations of renewable energy could lead electricity prices to skyrocket and hurt Germany’s economic competitiveness.

"If we set our goals too high and dream of renewable energy covering all of our energy needs, then in the end we’re not going to have a steel, chemical, or machine-tool industry anymore – and then the Chinese will thank us," says Mr. Vahrenholt.

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