22 Jun 2015, 00:00
Energiewende – the first four decades

The history of the Energiewende

For many observers, the energy transition in Germany began with Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision to phase out nuclear power, following the accident at the nuclear plant in Fukushima, Japan. But the Energiewende pre-dates the government's decision to return to earlier plans to phase out nuclear power. A long process deeply rooted in German history and society led to policies that triggered a strong increase in renewable energy sources and are now at the heart of a move to a low-carbon economy.


Grassroots Resistance

The Energy Crises

An Environmental Party for Germany

Chernobyl and Climate Change

Red-Green Germany

“Half-time Energiewende”
: The confident title of environment think-tank Institute for Applied Ecology's celebration in March wrapped up what many have forgotten about Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spectacular post-Fukushima decision in 2011. The societal project, which now aims to decarbonize the economy by 2050, started decades before the Merkel government re-instated plans to exit nuclear power.

The Energiewende – a full-scale transformation of society and economy – arose out of enduring grassroots movements, an evidence-based discourse, concern about climate change, and key technological advances, as well as hands-on experience garnered along the way in Germany and elsewhere (see Timeline).

Grassroots Resistance

The origins of the Energiewende are diverse, but one potent stimulus was West Germany’s powerful movements – known as the New Social Movements (NSM) – that gathered steam across the 1970s in the wake of the late 1960s’ student rebellion.  

The anti-nuclear energy campaign was the most important NSM for what years later would be called the Energiewende. The anti-nuke campaign came to life with a bang in 1973 in Germany’s southwestern-most corner in the wine-growing region near the Black Forest that abuts Switzerland and France. There, in the hamlet of Wyhl, the area’s wine farmers, joined by activists from the nearby university city of Freiburg, as well as concerned French and Swiss citizens, organized to stop the construction of a planned nuclear reactor. They first occupied the construction site and then – after police used excessive force to remove them, a spectacle watched on TV across the country – took the utility to court, where it eventually backed down.

Until then, the West German utilities, with the full support of the Federal Republic’s political elite, had been gradually putting plans into motion to make nuclear power a cornerstone of the country’s energy supply. Both of the major political parties – the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats – were on board, some of their ranks claiming that the safe, clean technology might one day even eliminate energy bills. “Nuclear energy can be a blessing for hundreds of millions of people who today still live in the dark,” read a 1956 SPD party resolution.  

Yet there was a critical strand of postwar West Germans who had already been sensitized to issues around the splitting of the atom (nuclear fission). In the 1950s and early 1960s, several nationwide peace movements emerged in the Federal Republic in opposition to the Cold War and the stationing of NATO-administered nuclear weapons on West German territory. The Protestant church, some trade unions, many war veterans, and assorted leftists rallied in moral protest against the build-up of nuclear weapons worldwide and in particular in the two Germanies, which had become the militarized frontline of the East-West conflict. One explanation for Germany’s sensitivity to nuclear power is that early on, the postwar critique of nuclear weapons was linked to the civilian use of nuclear fission. (A second wave of the German peace movement in the 1980s would also bolster a younger generation’s resistance to nuclear power.)

“The protests at Wyhl shaped the anti-nuclear movement and even the Energiewende,” says Eva Quistorp, an activist and leading figure in the NSMs. “It began locally, as the whole movement would, in places directly affected. At the heart of the movement were the farmers, vintners, families, housewives, and parish pastors. Students and experts contributed too, but the movement’s force came from self-organized, citizens’ initiatives,” she says, explaining the tenacity of the protests over decades. Unlike the elitist, male-dominated student movement, notes Quistorp, the NSMs reached out across gender, age and ideological boundaries.

Beyond Wyhl, West Germans near other nuclear-power-related sites in places with names like Gorleben, Gundremmingen, Wackersdorf, Grohnde, and Brokdorf, began informing themselves about the dangers of nuclear energy – and possibilities to block its expansion.

In the past, energy wasn’t an issue that ordinary Germans were supposed to know anything about, says Quistorp. “But ordinary people began reading up and talking about technical issues like nuclear waste disposal, the warming of rivers through discharge from reactor cooling towers, the relationship between radiation and cancer, and the consequences of a meltdown or other kinds of accidents.”

With the concerns about nuclear energy, academic scholars and others with expertise began evidence-based research, and started up alternative-minded working groups, institutes and think tanks, like the 1977-founded Öko-Institut (Institute for Applied Ecology) in Freiburg. Among its founders were figures like Michael Sailer and Rainer Grießhammer, both of whom came from the movement’s ranks. (Today the Öko-Institut is just one of many dozen green think tanks in Germany. It employs more than 155 staff, including around 100 researchers at three locations in the country.)

In Germany there were bona fide experts among the dissidents from Day One. Holger Strohm, for example, was a prolific science writer whose 1971 Friedlich in die Katastrophe: Eine Dokumentation über Atomkraftwerke (Heading Peacefully to Catastrophe: A Documentation of Nuclear Power Plants) was a detailed, technical 1,300-page study on civilian nuclear facilities that sold 640,000 copies in West Germany. The best-seller Der Atom-Staat (The Nuclear State) by Robert Jungk, one of the world’s first “future researchers,” examined the relationship between the military and civil use of uranium.

The nuclear engineer Klaus Traube had worked in top posts in German and U.S. nuclear installations in the 60s and 70s. On the job, he had witnessed human error cause an accident, which alerted him to dangers that the industry wouldn’t admit to. After the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979 in the U.S., Traube switched sides and delivered the movement – as well as his party, the until-then pro-nuclear SPD – invaluable information about technical aspects of nuclear power.

“Other anti-nuclear movements in Europe,” explains Lutz Mez, a political scientist at the Free University Berlin and former director of an ecological think tank, “didn’t have someone like Traube who came from the industry itself. And they were always impressed at how well the German activists knew their stuff. Traube’s books and others like them were widely read in Germany, even discussed on Sunday TV talk shows.”

The Energy Crises

The phenomena that focused the 1970’s debate on the world’s energy future was not climate change, which had not yet emerged as a public issue, but rather the energy crises.

The world’s leading industrial economies, including West Germany, were hit hard when the oil producing states of the Middle East drove up oil prices dramatically and cut back their supply in response to Western support for Israel in the Yom Kippur War (1973) and then in the wake of the Iranian Revolution (1979). The decade witnessed stunted economic growth and prolonged recessions in part, as a result of the energy crises. West Germany, as did other countries, banned flying, driving and boating on Sundays. An iconic image from the time was a 1973 photograph of a horse pulling a Volkswagen van on an empty city street in southern Germany.

The energy crises seemed to confirm the findings of the widely read 1972 report “The Limits to Growth,” issued by the Club of Rome, a global think tank. The report, which was translated into German and many other languages, sparked a rich debate arguing that the growing world population was using up its resources at a dangerous pace and soon could encounter crippling shortages that would bring the world economy to its knees.

The report and the energy crises were wake-up calls that countries answered in different ways. Denmark, in response, began its conversion to renewable energy. The U.S., behind the Democrat president Jimmy Carter, devoted significant research funds to promote renewable energies – and Carter even put solar panels on the White House. U.S. research conducted by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration  contributed greatly to pioneering technological improvements to create the world's first multi-megawatt wind turbine. (Basically, this is the model of turbine used worldwide today.) Also, independent U.S. researchers like Amory Lovins began formulating “soft energy” alternatives to conventional energies and grow-at-any-cost logic.  

But West Germany, like France, opted to shift ever more energy production from fossil fuels to nuclear power. “The idea was ‘out of oil and into nuclear’ for the sake of energy security,” says Mez.

The shift, however, had a paradoxical impact on Germany’s energy future. “It caused a lot of Germany’s best energy specialists to leave the conventional energy sector where they had worked in gas and oil,” says Mez. “They opted to try their luck experimenting with renewables. This is how a lot of important innovation in solar PV and onshore wind happened in Germany.”

Over the course of the 1970s, West Germany’s anti-nuclear energy movement grew dramatically. Activists from the other NSMs, like the women’s, the peace and the environmental movements, found common cause with it and one another. The environmental movement, while much more varied and loosely organized than the anti-nuke campaign, addressed many issues that would later be part of the Energiewende and climate-protection rubric such as pollution, conservation, recycling, economic growth, biodiversity, sustainable development, low-impact lifestyles, and organic farming, among others.

“Renewable energy wasn’t initially high on the NSMs’ agenda but they realised they had to pose an alternative to nuclear power other than dirty fossil fuels,” explains the German sociologist Dieter Rucht. Yet, he says, from the start they endorsed a general vision of an alternative society in which renewable energy fit in neatly. This vision, he says, saw “a different kind of society based on decentralised structures, bottom-up processes, participatory democracy, and environmentally conscious economies. Energy was one application,” he says.

In 1980, three Freiburg-based activists who had worked with the renewable energy pioneer Lovins in the U.S. authored a book entitled Energie-Wende: Growth and Prosperity Without Oil and Uranium (Energie-Wende – Wachstum und Wohlstand ohne Erdöl und Uran), coining a term that would be used in Green and left-wing circles for thirty years before Angela Merkel made it popular in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster. The book, which sparked study groups across the country on the topic of “Energiewende,” relied mostly on energy savings as the means to reduce Germany’s need for petroleum und nuclear energy.

The big anti-nuke demonstrations in the late 1970s in Gorleben, Brokdorf, Kalkar and elsewhere attracted tens of thousands of concerned citizens and triggered a nationwide debate that raged in public forums. Yet the movement was not able to duplicate its spectacular success in Wyhl.

“Mostly defeats,” responds Christoph Becker-Schaum, director of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung archives in Berlin, to the question of ineffective battles of the anti-nuclear movement in the years after Wyhl. “The movement could get huge numbers onto the street but, for the most part, it couldn’t beat the nuclear industry in the halls of power and before the law.” The activists, says Becker-Schaum, simply weren’t trained to go head-to-head with professionals whose job it was to impact policy, win over politicians, and negotiate complex legal terrain.

An Environmental Party for Germany

The activists of the mass social movements, a wide array of citizens’ initiatives, as well as intellectuals like artist Josef Beuys, former student leader Rudi Dutschke, and writer Heinrich Böll, concluded that what they needed to make an impact where it counted – in the arenas of politics and policymaking – was a parliamentary party of their own. Over the course of the late seventies, the activists drew up “green” and “alternative” slates to run in local elections – and they won seats. In 1979/1980, they called to life a nation-wide party and named it the Greens. Its symbol was the sunflower. Its strategy was to have one leg firmly planted in the social movements, the other in the field of politics.

With the Greens, the anti-nuclear movement and proponents of renewable energy had their own in legislatures across the country – and, as of 1983, in the Bundestag, too. The Greens wrote Germany’s exit from nuclear energy high on their banner and pushed at every level of government, and internationally too, to halt the construction of new nuclear plants, to clarify the issue of waste storage, to increase reactor safety, and to offer alternatives to nuclear power and fossil fuels.

Issues like renewables, energy savings, low-impact lifestyles, sustainable development, mobility alternatives, and smart urban design, grew in importance – and became more concrete – as the Greens and the NSMs matured. The Greens, academic experts, and think tanks devoted themselves to turning visions into realistic policy proposals.

According to Becker-Schaum, the Greens’ first program was full of innovative and quirky proposals to encourage energy production from renewable, natural sources. “Among the early Greens were a lot of backyard tinkerers. They were experimenting with electricity and heating, storage and combined heat and power. Some thought hydrogen might be the answer,” he says, and had already struck out on their own to try it and other alternatives to conventional energy. Becker-Schaum notes that the early Greens employed the slogan “small is beautiful” for energy as well as other fields, presaging a decentralised, renewable power supply with many smaller, localised producers.

Chernobyl and Climate Change

The grassroots movements may have opened the debate on nuclear energy and alternatives to it, but the April 1986 meltdown of the nuclear power station in Chernobyl, Ukraine, then in the Soviet Union, shifted the discussion and its urgency to an entirely new level. The disaster sent a radioactive cloud across Central Europe, including much of northern Germany. The Soviets’ failure to announce the accident, the German government’s initial soft-pedaling of it, and the uncertainties of the health risks set the country in panic. West Germans were glued to their television sets, hungry for tips on how to deal with contamination and the weather forecasts. Pregnant women were advised to stay indoors.

“Germans were completely shocked,” says Lars Jessen, a German film director whose “The Day Bobby Ewing Died” is set in the aftermath of Chernobyl. “Many people wouldn’t leave their houses for days. It was like there was war again and they were in bunkers. The news was on all the time to learn about the latest measurements of radioactivity in the area and in produce. Kids couldn’t play in playgrounds, for example, because parents feared the sand might be contaminated.”

Chernobyl was a monumental turning point in the way Germans thought about nuclear power, says Becker-Schaum. The disaster and its fallout changed the minds of many who until then had been pro-nuclear or undecided, including many conservatives, trade unionists, and center-of-the-road burgher. The slow, wrong-footed response of West Germany’s own authorities illustrated that they hadn’t prepared for such a disaster. It took days before they issued warnings not to eat produce or drink fresh milk. (In East Germany, officials played down the catastrophe, calling it an “incident.” "Experts say: No danger from Chernobyl in East Germany," read one headline.) Since Chernobyl, says Becker-Schaum, a majority of Germans have opposed nuclear power – and this consensus would only grow in the decades to come.

Many follow-up studies show that the Germans weren’t overreacting. While most of the radioactive fallout happened in Ukraine, the food chain in Western Europe was affected, too. A World Health Organization report on the 20th anniversary of the accident stated that major releases of radioactivity “continued for ten days and contaminated more than 200,000 square kilometers of Europe.” The report asserts that “animals and vegetation in forest and mountain areas had high absorption of radiocaesium, with persistent high levels in mushrooms, berries and game.” (Radiocaesium is a radioactive isotope of the chemical cesium.) Elevated concentrations of radiocaesium were found in fish from lakes as far away from the disaster site as Germany and Scandinavia, claims the report.

It was a decisive moment for the Social Democrats, too, who had minority anti-nuclear voices in the party like the political scientist Hermann Scheer, one of the early fathers of the Energiewende. “The party was increasingly divided and had been backing away from nuclear step by step,” explains Nina Scheer, the late Hermann Scheer’s daughter and today an SPD MP in the Bundestag. “But Chernobyl changed everything. This is when the SPD as a party turned on nuclear power.”

Though less spectacular, 1986 also witnessed the introduction of climate change into the German discourse. Sebastian Helgenberger, head of the Transdisciplinary Panel on Energy Change at Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, sees the dramatic 1986 cover story in Spiegel magazine showing the Cologne cathedral half covered in water as a pivotal moment.  “This marked the beginning of the discussion around climate change in Germany,” he says.

Helgenberger says that Germans were relatively quick to understand climate change as a compelling, man-made threat. “Science has a high reputation in Germany and Germans take it seriously,” he says, adding that studies in the late 1980s and 1990s, like the first report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1990, were read in Germany. But, he underscores, “it was the Greens that brought climate change onto the table in legislatures, institutionalised it as an issue for Germany, and forced other parties to respond in the years ahead.”

While in the U.S. the buzz around renewable energies faded in the 1980s when Republican administrations held office (President Ronald Reagan took Carter’s panel off the White House in 1986), it was proceeding apace elsewhere, like to Germany’s north, in Denmark. “Germans could look and see the impressive strides the Danes were making with wind power,” says Lutz Mez.

In 1991, German chancellor Helmut Kohl and Germany’s center-right government instituted one of the world’s first feed-in tariffs designed to encourage investment in renewable energy production. “It was a limited measure but something to build upon,” says Mez, who notes that it was effective mostly in expanding small hydro-electric generation. According to Mez, though, the measure underscored a consensus in Germany on renewable energy and against nuclear power that had solidified as a result of Chernobyl. There were, for example, no new nuclear reactors planned and built in West Germany after 1986.

Red-Green Germany

In autumn 1998, Germans voted out Kohl’s conservatives after 16 years in office in favor of a coalition run by Social Democrats and Greens. “Red-green” governments already existed in many localities and in some federal states (Länder), too, but the 1998 election marked a sea change in the country. The coalition promised it would prioritise “ecological modernisation,” which included climate protection, renewable energy expansion, energy efficiency, and sustainability measures. An “Energiewende” – though not mentioned as such in the coalition agreement – was now part of the Federal Republic’s agenda.

Two of the administration’s first major moves were to pass ground-breaking laws to phase out nuclear energy and promote investment in renewable energies.

The 2000-finalised nuclear phase-out was a compromise with the big utilities to shut down Germany’s nuclear reactor sites (which accounted for 35 percent of Germany’s power) gradually over a period of thirty years. Although observers saw the deal as a crowning victory of the anti-nuclear movement, its activists and many Greens saw the long transition period as a betrayal – and an opening for the utilities to revise the agreement when the conservatives returned to power. They had manned the barricades for years and braved winter nights blocking nuclear waste transports in order to end Germany’s nuclear era immediately, not three decades down the road.

As for clean energy, the Renewable Energy Act (EEG), also passed in 2000, established significant feed-in tariffs for a wide range of renewable energies that – because of high investment costs – were not competitive with conventional energy on the market. The tariffs acted to stimulate investment by covering the difference between the cost of production and the market price. The act also stipulated that grid operators must buy electricity and gas generated by renewable energy producers at the price fixed by the act. The stated goal was to cover 12.5 percent of Germany’s electricity needs with renewables by 2010. Remarkably, the act, which would catapult Germany to a global leader in renewable energy production, was passed with virtually no fanfare or opposition in the Bundestag – unlike the fiercely contested nuclear phase-out.    

Another factor that prepared the ground for the Energiewende to take off were several late-1990s EU directives designed to open up national electricity and gas markets. They demanded the deregulation and liberalisation of domestic energy markets in the EU with the aim of lowering energy prices by encouraging competition, which had until then been severely limited by sector monopolies. (In Germany, four giant utilities, the so-called “Big Four,” owned almost all of the energy production as well as the transmission grids.) Another directive addressed the “unbundling” of the ownership of production facilities and distribution infrastructure.

These directives were turned into national law by Germany, which in the years to follow effectively broke up the production and distribution monopolies. This opened the market for the entry of many smaller renewable-energy producers; customers could thus choose their energy supplier. Today, there are more than one thousand participants in Germany’s electricity market, the vast majority of which do not own power plants or supplier networks. Moreover, the Federal Network Agency – a key player in the Energiewende – was established in 1998 as part of the process. Its task is to regulate the electricity and gas markets, which includes ensuring fair competition and overseeing the transmission networks.

The red-green government came and went (leaving office in 2005) with non-energy-related issues – like the stagnant economy – dominating the news shows. But in the form of the feed-in tariff and grid priority for renewables, the seeds had been planted in the newly liberalised market. Mostly small actors, like farmers, co-ops, citizen-led groups, and other non-industry companies, began investing in green energy production, mostly thermal and PV solar, bio-energy and onshore wind technology. The share of renewably produced electricity in Germany shot up to 14.2 percent in 2007, far outpacing the original targets.

“No one expected the renewables to shoot up so high, so fast,” says Nina Scheer. “The act sparked a real grassroots citizen’s movement. Germans turned the Energiewende into their own project.”

A key component of the act’s success (renewables electricity’s share rose to 17 percent by 2010) was the fact that it didn’t prioritise one kind of technology or another, says Scheer. “There was no master plan but rather a general direction and a support scheme with priority access for renewable energies. No one knew in 2000, for example, that the cost of solar PV would sink so dramatically and become such an important pillar of the Energiewende,” she says.

In 2010, the center-right government led by Angela Merkel formulated an Energy Concept that set ambitious targets for renewable energy expansion, energy efficiency, CO2 reduction, and low-carbon transportation. Yet the administration maintained that Germany could not expand renewables so rapidly without its nuclear fleet functioning as a “bridge technology.” That same year it passed laws extending the lifetimes of Germany’s reactors for more than a decade, a significant modification of the red-green phase-out.

On March 11, 2011, the world watched aghast as reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power station in Japan melted down after being hit by an earthquake and then a tsunami. The disaster deeply unsettled Chancellor Merkel, a professional physicist, who immediately shut down three of Germany’s oldest reactors and formulated a new plan for an accelerated phase-out of nuclear power by 2022. 

“As a scientist, Merkel understood climate change and the dangers of nuclear power,” says Martin Faulstich, chairman of the German Advisory Council on the Environment (SRU). “But she thought there could never be a meltdown in advanced, developed countries like Germany or Japan. To her credit, when exactly that happened, she acted quickly and took steps that might not have been possible at a later point.”

Only in the aftermath of Fukushima did Merkel begin to regularly use the term “Energiewende.” In autumn 2011, her administration beefed up the Energy Concept, replacing some of the goals and time tables with more ambitious targets. In 2014, the new center-left Merkel-led government revised the Renewable Energy Act by lowering feed-in tariffs, authorising new transmission corridors, and devoting more funds to facilitate energy efficiency.

In understanding the Energiewende, says R. Andreas Krämer, founder and former director of the Ecologic Institute, a Berlin-based think tank, it’s essential to see that Germany “was never as hooked on nuclear power as other nations.” Moreover, says Krämer, Germans consider themselves “citizens of the world with a sense of duty to do good.”

“Germans seem to be proud of the Energiewende as a model that the rest of the world can learn from,” said Dieter Rucht, explaining the consistently high approval rating for the Energiewende, despite concerns about cost. “But we’re only going to know if it is successful two or three decades from now.“


Paul Hockenos is a freelance contributor to the Clean Energy Wire. He has also written about energy issues for a wide range of international publications and is the author of the blog Going Renewable. He is the author of Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic: An Alternative History of Postwar Germany (Oxford University Press).

All texts created by the Clean Energy Wire are available under a “Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence (CC BY 4.0)” . They can be copied, shared and made publicly accessible by users so long as they give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made.
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