16 Jun 2015 | Paul Hockenos

Milestones of the German Energiewende

This factsheet provides a time line of important events, policies and research that have shaped the energy transition in Germany over the past four decades.

1972  

Publication of “The Limits to Growth” Report

The Club of Rome, a global think tank, published a full-length report claiming that as a result of population growth, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion, the world was going to run seriously short of many natural resources, including petroleum products, in the upcoming decades. It warned that if industrial growth continued as it had until then, the global economic system could collapse by 2030. The report was translated into 37 languages, sold 12 million copies, and was widely read and discussed in West Germany.

1973-75  

Birth of Germany’s Anti-Nuclear Energy Movement

Germany’s anti-nuclear energy movement was born in the wine-growing region of the Black Forest abutting the borders of Switzerland and France. In the hamlet of Wyhl, the area’s 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. In 1975, the Wyhl campaigners forced the utility giant to back down and scrap its plans. Nevertheless, the Federal Republic continued to expand nuclear power production in Germany, which it deemed safe and cost effective.  The anti-nuke movement’s emblem was a smiling sun with the slogan “Atomkraft, Nein Danke!” (Nuclear Energy? No, thank you!).

1973  

Oil Crisis / 1979: Energy Crisis

In 1973/4 and then again in 1979 the world’s leading industrial economies were hit hard when the oil producing states of the Middle East (grouped together as the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC) drove up oil prices dramatically and cut back their supply in response to Western support for Israel (1973) and then in the wake of the Iranian Revolution (1979). The 1970s witnessed limited economic growth and prolonged recessions in part as a result of the energy crises.

1978

Development of the First Multi-Megawatt Wind Turbine

The world's first multi-megawatt wind turbine was constructed in 1978 based on a Danish model that German and U.S. aeronautics specialists improved upon. Like today’s commercial mills, it included a three-blade propeller, horizontal-axis, and turbine hub. The new-design turbine boasted capacity of two megawatts, a breakthrough at the time.

Late 1970s and Beyond

Germany’s Anti-Nuclear-Energy Movement Grows

Wyhl encouraged the formation of a broad-based anti-nuclear energy movement across West Germany. Robert Jungk’s 1977 best-seller Atom-Staat (The Nuclear State) became a staple of nuclear energy’s critics, which included many church figures, intellectuals, scientists and some critical Social Democrats.  The movement found important allies in the peace, women’s and environmental movements – the so-called New Social Movements – that brought millions of West Germans into the streets in the late 1970s and 1980s. The diverse environmental movement also addressed topics linked to what would later be called the “Energiewende,” like pollution, energy savings, growth models, and environmental conservation. Yet, most of the locally based anti-nuclear campaigns did not have the same success as the protesters in Wyhl. Nevertheless, they continued to put pressure on local and state (Land) governments and at the sites of nuclear facilities in the form of protests and blockades.

1979/1980

Green Party is Founded

Germany’s Green Party was founded by the representatives of the New Social Movements, as well as conservation-minded Christian Democrats, the splintered factions of dissolved Marxist parties, an array of citizens’ initiatives, and organic-minded farmers. The anti-nuclear energy movement was a key pillar of the party and West Germany’s exit from nuclear energy was a core demand. With the Greens, Germany had a political party committed to a non-nuclear, renewable-energy future that would eventually be represented at all levels of the Federal Republic. As coalition partners of the Social Democrats in state-level governments in the 1980s and 1990s, the Greens prioritized progressive energy policies that they termed part of an Energiewende.

1980

Publication of Energie-Wende: Growth and Prosperity Without Oil and Uranium (Energie-Wende – Wachstum und Wohlstand ohne Erdöl und Uran).

Three West German, Freiburg-based activists, recently returned from the U.S. where they had been working on renewable energy projects, coined the term Energiewende. In a short book by that name, they looked at energy-saving technology and models to wean West Germany off conventional energy.

April 1986

Chernobyl Disaster in Ukraine

On April 26, 1986, a sudden surge of power during a reactor systems test destroyed one unit of the nuclear power station at Chernobyl, Ukraine, in the former Soviet Union. The accident and the fire that followed released massive amounts of radioactive material into the environment. The radioactive cloud passed over northern Europe, including much of Germany. The accident solidified Germans’ resistance to nuclear energy and ignited a much smaller anti-nuclear movement in East Germany.

1986

Climate Change Enters the Discourse

Although climate change had been taken up in Green circles as well as in the scientific community in the early 1980s, it didn’t become a popular concern until much later. In 1986 the weekly Spiegel magazine published a cover story on global warming that showed the Cologne cathedral half covered in water. The next year, the Bundestag established an advisory panel to address concerns about climate change.

1991

Germany Institutes a Feed-in Tariff for Renewable Energy

The legislation, passed by the entire Bundestag and Bundesrat, required utilities to purchase renewable energy from third-party producers at a fixed price. In light of the Chernobyl disaster and the increasing evidence of climate change, the law was designed to make renewable energy sources more attractive to investors. Until then, utilities – primarily four large utilities called “the Big Four” – had been the sole suppliers of electricity and gas, as well as the owners of transmission grids. But the measure had only limited impact as the feed-in rate was not high enough to make the production of renewable energy competitive with conventional energy.

1996

Publication of Study “Zukunftsfähiges Deutschland

This ground-breaking study “Sustainable Germany in a Globalized World” authored by several German think tanks set the course for the Energiewende and the sustainable transformation of Germany’s economy and society. It charted a course for Germany to use its resources to best manage globalization and other environmental challenges making development in the future sustainable. Twelve years later a follow-up to the study was published.

1997

Kyoto Protocol

The international agreement linked to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change committed participating nations to set binding emission reduction targets. The protocol was adopted in Kyoto, Japan, in December 1997 and entered into force in 2005. Germany, the world's sixth biggest emitter of CO2, signed the protocol in 1998 and it was ratified by the Bundestag in 2002.

1998

EU Liberalizes the Energy Market

The EU passed several directives in the late 1990s designed to open up national electricity and gas markets. They stipulated the deregulation and liberalization of the nationalized energy markets in the EU with the aim of lowering energy prices by encouraging competition. Another directive addressed the “unbundling” of the ownership of production facilities and transmission grids. These directives were quickly turned into national law by Germany which resulted in the break-up of the monopolies in the energy production and distribution sectors. This enabled customers to choose their energy supplier and opened the way for the entry of other energy producers into the market.

1998

Germany’s First Red-Green Government

In late 1998, in nationwide elections, Germany’s Social Democrats and Greens ousted the conservative coalition led by Helmut Kohl’s Christian Democrats. The new administration pledged to phase out nuclear power, cut carbon emissions, and transition to renewable energy. By 2000 it had cemented an agreement to exit nuclear power over a 30-year period and it passed the Renewable Energy Sources Act (in German: Erneuerbare-Energien-Gesetz, or EEG) that stipulated significant, fixed feed-in tariffs for renewable energy production and priority for green energy in the energy markets.

2000-present

Renewable Energy Production in Germany Soars

The rapid growth of renewables in the electricity sector – first in onshore wind, then in solar PV – exceeded the expectations of even the most optimist observers. It soared from 6.3% in 2000 to 15% in 2008. By 2013, renewables accounted for 25.6% of Germany’s power production with bio-energy also playing a significant role. Much of the investment came from small and medium-sized producers such as farmers, co-ops, citizen-led investment groups, and small and medium-sized businesses – not the big utilities which continued to bet on conventional energy. The plummeting cost of solar PV technology gave the Energiewende an enormous boost.

2011

Meltdown of Nuclear Reactor in Fukushima, Japan

On March 11, 2011, reactors of the Fukushima Daiichi power station in Japan melted down after being hit by an earthquake and then a tsunami. The government of Chancellor Angela Merkel, a professional physicist, shut down three of Germany’s oldest reactors and formulated a new plan for an accelerated phase-out of nuclear power. 

Only in the aftermath of Fukushima did Merkel begin to regularly use the term “Energiewende.” In 2011, her center-right administration beefed up the 2010 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 Sources Act by lowering feed-in tariffs, authorizing new transmission corridors, introducing direct marketing, and devoting more funds to facilitate energy efficiency.

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