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What is Germany’s Energiewende?
Blog...What is Germany’s Energiewende?

What is Germany’s Energiewende?

Ecology News
wind turbines
In this article we’ll examine the Energiewende and what it means for Germany’s energy transition.
Ecology News
wind turbines

Germany’s energy transition, otherwise known as the Energiewende, is its national response to the global challenge of climate change. The Energiewende embodies Germany's commitment to transform its energy system, phasing out nuclear power, significantly boosting renewable energy, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, all while maintaining economic stability.

👉 In this article we’ll examine the Energiewende and what it means for Germany’s energy transition.

What is the Energiewende?

The Energiewende is Germany's ambitious policy to transition from fossil fuels and nuclear energy to a renewable energy-based economy. At the heart of this transition lies the goal to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to global efforts to mitigate climate change. The policy encompasses several key aspects:

  • Renewable energy expansion - Germany has been aggressively expanding its renewable energy sector, with a focus on wind and solar power. This shift is instrumental in reducing reliance on traditional, polluting energy sources. The goal is that by 2050, 80% of the country’s electricity will come from renewable sources.
  • Phasing out nuclear power - Following the Fukushima disaster in 2011, Germany expedited its plan to phase out nuclear energy, with its last three nuclear power plants powered down on April 15th, 2023. 
  • Reducing greenhouse gas emissions - A central element of Germany’s Energiewende is the significant reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in line with international climate change treaties such as the Paris Agreement and the European Green Deal. Germany has set the target of becoming greenhouse gas neutral by 2045 with preliminary targets of reducing emissions by 65% by 2030 and 88% by 2040. Data indicates that as of 2022 the country had achieved a reduction of 40.4%
  • Energy efficiency - Enhancing energy efficiency across various sectors is key to Germany’s Energiewende. This involves revamping existing systems and encouraging new technologies that use less energy while maintaining productivity. Germany hopes to halve energy consumption by 2050 by using energy more efficiently. 
  • Public participation and support - The success of Germany’s Energiewende depends on strong public support and participation. This has been a key focus of the transition plan and until recently Germany's green policies had enjoyed strong support. Later in the article, we’ll touch on why the country has been forced to roll back some of its climate policies. 
  • Economic transformation - While environmentally driven, the Energiewende is also an economic initiative. It involves restructuring the energy market, supporting green technologies, and creating jobs in the renewable energy sector. Germany recognizes that the energy transition has the potential to drive significant economic growth. 
  • International cooperation - Germany's energy transition is part of a concerted global effort. The country collaborates with international partners to share insights, technologies, and strategies to promote sustainable energy practices worldwide. Additionally, Germany’s success in transitioning its energy sector will help encourage other countries to move forward with their own energy transitions. 
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The background of the Energiewende

Public distrust of nuclear energy

The Energiewende is rooted in Germany's anti-nuclear movements. Public opposition to nuclear power grew in the 1970s and 1980s, gaining significant support over the years due to increasing concerns about environmental degradation and climate change. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 was a turning moment, strengthening the public’s distrust of nuclear energy's safety and boosting support for renewable alternatives.

During this time, the lack of independent scientific expertise on nuclear power and environmental issues led to the establishment of the Öko-Institut in 1977 - an independent environmental research institute. In 1980 they published strategies for phasing out nuclear power and eliminating petroleum use by 2030 without stalling economic growth. This publication and the growing number of energy scenario studies played a significant role in shaping public and political opinion on energy transformation.

Legislative support of renewable energy

In 1987, the German Parliament’s Commission on Protective Measures for the Earth’s Atmosphere publicly recommended substantial CO2 emission reductions by 2005. The Electricity Feed-in Law introduced in 1990, and later the Renewable Energy Sources Act in 2000, were critical legislative milestones designed to help reduce carbon emissions. They established mechanisms for integrating renewable energy into the national grid and incentivized the growth of renewables - particularly wind power.

The phase-out of nuclear energy

The coalition government formed in 1998 between the German Social Democrats and the Green Party paved the way for a planned phase-out of nuclear power, with the aim of closing all nuclear power plants by the early 2020s. This plan became law in 2002, marking a significant shift in Germany's energy policy towards a greater reliance on renewable sources.

The Renewable Energy Sources Act

The Renewable Energy Sources Act of 2000 helped to drive the growth of electricity generation from renewable sources in Germany. It provided fixed and cost-covering remuneration for renewable energy, encouraging investments, including small companies and individual homeowners. This act helped boost public acceptance and support for the Energiewende.

The Energy Concept 

The "Energy Concept" document released by the German government in 2010 set specific climate and energy targets for the coming decades, aiming for a significant reduction in GHG emissions by 2050. It also laid out a basic strategic approach for the transition to renewables. However, the government's decision to prolong the use of nuclear power in 2010 faced public opposition, which intensified after the Fukushima disaster in 2011, leading to a recommitment to phasing out nuclear power by the end of 2022.

Recent developments 

The "Fridays for Future" movement, spearheaded by Greta Thunberg in 2018, along with a critical 2021 ruling by Germany’s supreme constitutional court, significantly accelerated the momentum of the Energiewende. The court's decision pointed out that while the existing Federal Climate Change Act met immediate emission reduction targets, it lacked long-term plans post-2030. This led to the recognition that current emission allowances would severely limit future generations' freedom to reduce emissions. 

Responding to these influences, Germany revised its climate goals, advancing its target for achieving climate neutrality to 2045 and imposing more rigorous sector-specific emission reduction targets through the updated Federal Climate Change Act. 

How is the Energiewende being achieved?

To achieve the goals of the Energiewende the German Government has implemented a range of measures, let’s take a closer look at some of these key policies and actions:  

Renewable energy expansion 

Germany is phasing out the use of coal and is significantly increasing investments in renewable energy, especially in wind and solar power. In July 2023, 69.2% of Germany’s public electric generation was supplied from renewable sources. Significant investment in the sector, particularly in solar PV facilities is helping to drive this growth. An increase in onshore wind power permits is also set to boost the country’s renewable energy supply. 

Energy efficiency initiatives 

Germany has implemented stringent energy efficiency standards, achieving a reduction of about 15.2% in building-related energy consumption between 2008 and 2021. Notable standards include the Energieeinsparverordnung (EnEV) regulations, which mandated specific energy savings for new buildings and major renovations, and the more recent Energy Efficiency Act (EnEfG) which focuses on energy reuse, waste heat, power supply, and the energy consumption of data centers. 

The country's commitment to energy efficiency covers both residential and commercial buildings, promoting a sustainable approach to construction and renovation practices. Homeowners can receive financial assistance for replacing oil central heating, loans are also available to aid in the construction of energy-efficient buildings, and tax breaks are awarded to help building owners enhance their energy efficiency. However, attempts to introduce a ban on new fossil-fuelled heaters were recently stalled, potentially highlighting a concerning shift away from progressive green policies - but more on this later. 

Smart grid development 

Investments in smart grid technologies are key to integrating fluctuating renewable energy sources, ensuring stable energy distribution. In 2023, Germany’s central infrastructure authority shared plans to double the country’s high-voltage transmission grid from 440km of lines to 900km, reaching 4,400km by the end of 2025. This is intended to create better links with the north of the country which is home to the largest wind farms. 

Transport sector transformation  

Embracing electric vehicles, Germany is expanding its network of charging stations and incentivizing EV use. In 2023 the German government announced a green mobility update which will see railway infrastructure expanded, the introduction of a CO2 surcharge for truck transport, and the installation of solar panels along roadsides. 

Research and innovation in green technologies  

The German government supports research into renewable energy technologies and energy storage solutions. For example, Germany’s Hydrogen Strategy is helping green hydrogen reach the market quickly, providing an alternative sustainable source of energy that can be utilized by sectors that are traditionally harder to decarbonize (such as the aviation sector and steel industry). 

Public participation and investment 

Over half of renewable energy installations are owned by citizens and farmers, highlighting community engagement in the energy transition. The German Government has helped facilitate this through the Renewable Energy Act (EEG) passed in 2000. The act guaranteed fixed feed-in tariffs encouraging German households to install solar panels. It’s also possible for citizens to band together to invest in larger-scale installation of solar parks and wind turbines.

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Challenges to Germany’s Energiewende

Recent polls show dwindling support for Germany’s Green party, with members of the public declaring their support for the party falling from just above 20% to the mid-teens. This shift is matched by increased support for the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), a party that recently printed posters declaring “Roll back mad climate laws!”. 

The far-right party was also firmly opposed to German Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck’s proposed bill to introduce a home-heating law that would ban new gas and oil boilers and subsidize the cost of heat pumps. Unfortunately, public concern over the cost of such a measure (polls showed that less than a fifth of voters supported the ban), combined with political opposition, meant that the government was forced to water down the final legislation. 

Under the original proposal fossil fuel boilers would have been phased out from 2024, requiring that any new boilers run on at least 65% renewable energy. The watered-down legislation means that the ban will only apply to new buildings in areas of new residential developments. Outside of these development areas, heating systems running on oil and gas can continue to be installed until the local authority has produced detailed plans on transitioning sustainable heating within the district. Large cities have a deadline of 2026 for publishing their plans, while smaller towns have until 2028.

Public opposition to Germany’s green policies extends beyond the boiler ban; a number of other energy and green policies have also come under fire. In a sharp turnaround to earlier public sentiment, polls showed that a majority of German citizens believed that closing down nuclear power plants at a time of high cost of living and heightened energy insecurity was a bad idea. A majority also oppose EU rules to phase out fossil fuel-powered cars by 2035. 

This public sentiment marks a wider trend that is being witnessed across Europe with support for green policies stalling, or worse, going backward. There are a number of recent policies that have been watered down at the European level and across other EU member states too.

This presents a risk to Germany’s Energiewence. While Germany’s energy sector has made significant strides towards decarbonization, this progress could be overshadowed by weakened targets in other sectors and at the European level. Environmental groups and experts from within the energy sector have warned the German Government against scrapping key policies under its Climate Action Law which is currently scheduled for reform. 

What about Greenly?

At Greenly, we can help you to assess your company’s carbon footprint, and then give you the tools you need to cut down on emissions. Why not request a free demo with one of our experts - no obligation or commitment required. 

If reading this article has inspired you to consider your company’s own carbon footprint, Greenly can help. Learn more about Greenly’s carbon management platform here.

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