BERLIN — Occasionally, during certain peak times — say, at noon on a windy, sunny day — close to 100 percent of all electricity consumed in Germany comes from renewable energy (RE) sources. As most of the world’s governments refuse to act while the threat of climate change intensifies, this might seem like a desert mirage. But the German embrace of renewables — known as the Energiewende, or energy transition — is the achievement of a broad social movement that dates back more than three decades.
At the most abstract, technical level, the Energiewende is the movement-driven and concurrently government-supported transition of the German electricity system from one based on large-scale fossil fuel and nuclear power plants to a system based on smaller-scale RE sources, in particular wind and solar power. By 2050, Germany aims to generate at least 80 percent of its electricity through renewable sources and to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, relative to 1990 levels, by 80 to 95 percent.
From a political perspective, it is much more than that. It is a process that began some 35 years ago, when ordinary people started fighting not just against dirty energy — be it nuclear or fossil fuels — but also against the centralized power structures that dominate the energy sector. Through this process, in turn, they began to reclaim control of their (energetic) future and indeed their present. It is inspiring to witness the social and cultural revival and collective empowerment that communities experience when they commit to the project of becoming a so-called “BioEnergy Village” or “100 percent-region” and start collectively investing in and building up RE infrastructures.
Some numbers might better illustrate the poetry: Aside from the 100 percent figure mentioned above, in the first half of 2014, an average of 30 percent of all electricity consumed in Germany came from renewables. There are some 25,000 wind turbines and 1.4 million solar panels in operation. More than 50 percent of this capacity is owned by individuals, farmers and other smallholders, not the “big four” companies that control most of the energy market. Around 400,000 jobs have been created in the RE sector over the past decade. And according to research by the respected think tank FOES, the transition in fact generates net positive economic effects, once you factor in the societal benefits of jobs and incomes and the avoided costs of ecological damage and fossil fuel and nuclear subsidies.
The Energiewende is by no means an unqualified success story. The gap between the overly grand claims made by some of its supporters and reality has no doubt opened up space for its detractors, and the critics have some important points to make. The Energiewende is not, for example, a just transition. Jobs in the RE sector are often not unionized and are badly paid and precarious. Like many other ecological policies, the ones supporting the expansion of RE tend to benefit the wealthy more than the poor. Last but not least, in a darkly ironic twist, German greenhouse gas emissions have actually gone up, rather than down, since its much-publicized phase-out of nuclear power began after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.
These criticisms have some merit. But the downsides can be remedied by reasonably easy policy interventions. For example, the increase in emissions comes from burning more coal. But the electricity thus produced isn’t actually for consumption in Germany, it’s for export. A coal phase-out law mirroring the nuclear phase-out would put an end to these dirty exports.
The problem with emphasizing the indisputable downsides to the energy transition is that it tends to obscure what many practitioners within and analysts of the Energiewende would consider the single most important fact about it: that it is a massive success for social movements, achieved by a broad coalition that included conservative farmers, urban radicals and concerned middle-class citizens that together made up the antinuclear movement, as well as the utopian visionaries and, later, small-scale entrepreneurs that constructed the RE sector as their own economic power structure. Many of these folks emerged from what in Germany was known as the “alternatives movement” of the 1980s.
This kind of grassroots participation in the Energiewende could never have progressed as rapidly and moved as quickly into the social mainstream without support from within political institutions and newly emergent entrepreneurs. The Renewable Energies Act (EEG) of 2000, passed by a cross-party coalition of members of parliament, promised everybody who put up RE installations that the electricity they produced would be taken off their hands at a price that was guaranteed for a period of 20 years. This system of “feed-in tariffs” at once suspended the market and made it profitable for anyone to invest in renewables, whatever their commitment to the ecological cause.
At this point, due to the increasingly determined opposition of the big energy companies and their allies in government, the Energiewende stands at a crossroads, and the ambitious 2050 targets may not be reached. But the unusually broad-based transformative coalition that has fought for and achieved the major victories described above still holds. Without the protests of the anti-nuclear movement, there would never have been the nuclear phase-out; and without the work of those who wrote the EEG in parliament, we would never have produced enough renewables for the transition. Transformative politics, then, requires broad coalitions, broader than the many critics of “electoralism” on the one hand, and “wild-eyed movement radicalism” on the other, sometimes care to acknowledge.
Tadzio Mueller is a political scientist and research fellow in the Berlin office of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.