Germany's Energiewende in 416 words

The “Energiewende” – literally meaning “energy turnaround” or “energy revolution” – is Germany’s effort to reduce climate-damaging CO2 emissions, without relying on nuclear energy.  

In the landmark Paris Climate Agreement, countries from around the world committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions to get climate change under control. Germany is a pioneer in this regard: With broad public backing and cross-party support, Europe’s most populous country aims to become almost climate-neutral by mid-century.

This is why Germany’s energy transition is watched closely, for the valuable lessons it provides on weaning a major economy off fossil fuels. The “Energiewende”, which grew from a grassroots anti-nuclear and environmental movement into a vast national project, has profound effects throughout society and business.

Many environmentalists cite Germany as proof that an industrialised nation can ultimately ditch fossil fuels without sacrificing growth. Critics argue the German experience confirms that switching to renewables comes at a high cost to consumers and industry – and doesn't automatically reduce carbon emissions.

So far, the transformation has focused on the electricity sector. The boom of wind and solar power, triggered by generous financial support, means a third of the electricity Germany uses now comes from renewable sources. Citizens and cooperatives own many of these installations, while the fortunes of major energy companies have declined. Integrating this distributed, small-scale generation that depends on the weather into the power system still poses significant challenges.

At the same time, Germany is now serious about extending the scope of its energy transition. It aims to power heating and transport with renewable electricity, to replace fossil fuels entirely – a move with massive implications for its car giants BMW, Mercedes and VW. And much must still be done to reduce the energy appetite of the world’s fourth largest economy, by increasing efficiency both in households and industry.

Despite its green ambitions, Germany struggles to meet its short-term climate targets, because it continues to burn lignite, or brown coal, to generate its electricity. Phasing out this particularly climate-damaging fuel seems inevitable if Germany is to meet its emissions targets. But the government has held back on setting a deadline for a coal exit, fearing an economic blow to lignite mining regions.

In contrast, Germany is firmly on track to give up nuclear power by 2022. Major nuclear reactors have already been shut down without harming the security of the power supply.

This guide lays out the basics of Germany’s generational Energiewende project and links to CLEW’s in-depth reporting for those who want to find out more.

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