10 Mar 2015, 11:02
Lars Borchert

Citizen participation as the key to energy transition success

Since the energy transition took off in 2000, millions of Germans have become energy producers, investing in solar panels on their houses and buying shares in wind parks. Citizens' engagement is one reason that support for the energy transition is high despite rising power prices. But as the transition gathered pace the government changed regulations, stoking concerns that more complex rules will put citizens off. At the same time, important Energiewende projects have run into resistance, requiring new ways to keep the public on board.

Joint decision-making dispels doubts

The roof of the Leptin family’s Hamburg home is a mini green power plant. 44 square metres of glossy panels cover its south-facing aspect, turning the sun’s rays into electricity which is fed onto the German grid. Soon, it will also be turning a profit for the family. “It’s a useful technology, for economic and ecologic reasons,” said Luise Leptin. “We would have been stupid not to do it .”

The installation harvests some 5,000 kilowatt-hours (KWh) per year. For every kilowatt they feed onto the grid the family are paid 51 cents by their power provider. “This way, our investment will have paid off by next year, 10 years after the installation,” Leptin told the Clean Energy Wire. “From then on we should make a profit, because the 51 cents are guaranteed for 20 years.”

Millions of Germans like the Leptins have installed solar panels on their roofs or come together to form renewable energy cooperatives, meaning they have a direct stake in their country’s transition to a low-carbon economy. According to a study by the Leuphana University of Lüneburg, citizens owned almost half the country's installed biogas and solar capacity and half the installed onshore wind power capacity.

From the start, the “Energiewende”, which has its roots in the early environmental and anti-nuclear movements of the 1970s, has been driven by a broad social consensus. The transition has gripped large parts of society, and local initiatives, research and educational projects as well as new business models have sprung up across the country.

But now the project enters a new phase as renewables produce over 27 percent of the electricity used in Germany. Revised rules governing the payment for renewable power, as well as the construction of vital new infrastructure, have triggered uncertainty over who will shoulder the social costs of the Energiewende – and even sparked public protest.

A large majority of Germans are in favour of the goals of the Energiewende, with polls showing support of between 60 and 90 percent depending on the question, despite the fact that electricity prices have risen, in part because of the payments for renewables.

Many observers say that citizens having a stake in the project has kept support high.  “If people participate with their own money, for example in a wind or solar power plant in their area, they will also support it,” Manfred Fischedick, Director of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy told the Clean Energy Wire.

Citizens' involvement has also started to turn the old structures in the energy market upside down, leaving the big utilities with unexpected competition. “So far, the energy transition has been strongly influenced by the financial commitment of citizens,” said Heinrich Degenhart of the Leuphana University Lüneburg. “With their investments, the energy market has grown from a virtually monopolistic to a polypolistic market."

This dramatic shift to a decentralised energy system has taken place under the framework of the Renewable Energy Act (EEG), introduced in 2000. Small investors were given an incentive through feed-in tariffs for new renewable power installations, guaranteed for 20 years. The share of renewables in Germany’s electricity consumption surged from below 7 percent in 1990 to over 27 percent in 2014.

The government is quick to acknowledge the role of citizens in the German energy transition, as deputy energy minister Rainer Baake stressed during the New Year reception of the German Cooperative and Raiffeisen Confederation in early 2015. “We are often asked abroad: How did you manage to get such broad support for the Energiewende and the rapid development of renewables? The key answer is: participation,” Baake said, citing ownership as the major factor.

Is the EEG reform breaking the backbone of the Energiewende?

But Baake then highlighted that the Energiewende had entered a new phase given the growing share of renewables, making recent changes to the EEG indispensable. His remarks were met with audible dismay by the cooperatives’ representatives.

The new framework conditions under the latest reform of the EEG, enacted in August 2014, expose renewable energy producers to market forces by phasing in a switch from feed-in tariffs to a “contract for difference” (CFD) system of payments. Investors in new wind parks and solar projects larger than the average roof-top installation must market their power themselves (or through a third party), selling their electricity on a daily basis to the wholesale power market.
Smaller installations are affected in a different way by the revised regulations. In response to the plummeting price of solar panels, the guaranteed feed-in tariff for new installations like the Leptins' has been cut from 51 to less than 13 cents per kilowatt-hour over the years.

Yet the changes have led to uncertainty. “Due to the changes in the energy policy and the lack of lucrative projects, the population’s willingness to support the energy transition is waning,” said Silke Eulenstein, a board member of the Energiegenossenschaft Otterndorf, an energy cooperative in the north German state of Lower Saxony, whose 89 members have so far invested in two solar installations with a total capacity of 40 KWh. The group is in talks with the municipality over how to integrate windparks into a concept for renewables for the community.

For the small-scale producers – private households, farmers and cooperatives – whose production has so far been seen as the backbone of German clean energy, the new regulations has lead to uncertainty over future investments.

Consequences for cooperatives

While residential-scale facilities are largely unaffected, the reform began to have an impact on investment in energy cooperatives even before its parliamentary approval. According to a study from the Bundesgeschäftsstelle Energiegenossenschaften (Federal Office of Energy Cooperatives), in 2014 almost a third of energy cooperatives refrained from investing, while in 2013 only 8 percent of them had lacked an investment plan. And the number of new cooperatives formed was lower than in previous years, falling back to the level of 2009. According to the Bundesgeschäftsstelle, cooperatives want to be sure of the feasibility of implementing the new legal requirements before they invest.

“The lack of certainty over feed-in tariffs makes it difficult to guarantee fixed interest rates for the money put into a cooperative. This causes a ‘wait-and-see’ attitude amongst potential members,” Eulenstein said.

Infrastructure casts a shadow

And the revised renewable energy legislation isn’t the only development that could dent public support for the Energiewende. Recent surveys still show that a vast majority of Germans want green energy and support the transition, but projects key to its implementation have triggered mixed feelings, as the social costs to some parts of society become apparent.

Resistance has been building across the country to large-scale infrastructure projects such as transmission grid expansion and biomass plants, as well as large wind and solar parks. This has led some observers to wonder if so-called “Nimbyism” (Not In My BackYard) might become a serious stumbling block for the whole project.

Some citizens fear their property will plummet in value as the result of proximity to a wind turbine, power mast, or high-voltage transmission cable. Others worry these constructions could impact the local environment, cause health problems or damage the appeal of tourist spots.

Grid expansion is seen by most experts as crucial for Germany to hit its target of 55 percent of power generated from renewable sources by 2035, reducing emissions and guaranteeing energy security. The government has made its importance clear in several chapters of its Progress Report on the Energy Transition published last year. But the project is also highly controversial – particularly in Bavaria.

“Not in my Alps”

In many ways, Bavaria is at the forefront of the energy transition. The state came first in a ranking comparing the overall performance of all 16 German states in the Energiewende – mainly because Bavaria increased its share of renewables in energy consumption much faster than any other state, according to the study. It is also home to 237 energy cooperatives and more than 60,000 Bavarians make a living from renewables. And opinion polls show the population is overwhelmingly in favour of the Energiewende.

But many Bavarians have also taken to the streets to protest the power lines planned to transport wind power from the North and Baltic Sea to the industrial hubs in the south. When Chancellor Angela Merkel addressed citizens in the central Bavarian town of Ingolstadt in May last year, her speech was drowned out by the shouts protestors, who gathered in their hundreds to oppose the construction of a power line from Bad Lauchstädt in Saxony-Anhalt to Meitingen in Bavaria.

And Bavarians aren’t alone in their resistance. Although studies show limited effect of renewable installation on tourism and evidence of health dangers is lacking, concerns have been on the rise in various places. Eulenstein says plans for onshore wind turbines have been met with protest in Otterndorf.  And in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, a northern state bordering Poland, 40 citizens’ initiatives opposing wind power development founded the action alliance “Freier Horizont” (Free Horizon) in November 2014.

“The growing number of wind turbines is ruining our state’s image as a region of unspoilt landscapes and intact natural areas and hence threatens our earnings from tourism,” Norbert Schumacher, head of Free Horizon, told the Clean Energy Wire. “Our government is systematically destroying the identity of our region.”  Schumacher also worries about health hazards from the turbines.

Free Horizon says far better citizen participation is needed in future wind power projects. “The way the local and the federal government say that they integrate us is nothing but a joke,” said Schumacher. “We feel patronised. When they conduct their surveys, they don’t even let us comment on wind power itself, only on certain side-effects of the turbines. Afterwards they claim that we are actually in favour of this energy source, which is not true.”

The call for greater participation in decision-making processes is echoed around Germany. “Unfortunately, there is neither the support nor measures from the municipality to integrate the local population in order to support the energy transformation,” said Eulenstein.

As the Energiewende moves into its next phase, public support is as important as ever. But given the scale of the transformation, the concerns of ordinary citizens are understandable, experts say.

“What this all boils down to is uncertainty,” said Lars Waldmann of Berlin-based think-tank Agora Energiewende*. “The energy transition is a deeply interconnected system and a complex challenge for all actors involved. New technologies, new protagonists and new modes of governance characterise it. This means a high level of uncertainty for citizens.”

“Even though all surveys prove that the population wants and supports the Energiewende it still holds lots of potential for conflict,” Waldmann told the Clean Energy Wire. “People quickly feel insecure, especially when they receive contradictory information, or feel left out.”

Joint decision-making dispels doubts

Waldmann said early public participation is key to building acceptance. “And early public participation in this case does not mean to display project plans somewhere in the basement of a town hall and posting a small ad about the times when they can be inspected somewhere in the local newspaper. It means organising events at convenient times for everybody, to give them a chance to inform themselves and discuss matters, before coming to a personal and hopefully also a joint decision.”

Waldmann isn’t the only one advocating this kind of open process of public consultation.

“If space for common shaping is created, chances for broad approval of jointly developed problem-solving are high,” writes social sciences professor Ortwin Renn, a former member of the German government’s Ethics Commission. “Participation procedures, which follow the model of an analytical-deliberative discourse and combine this scientific expertise with ethical and moral considerations are particularly promising.”

Hagen-Garenfeld, a small town in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, provides a case study for just this kind of collective decision-making. For almost 18 months, its citizens fought the construction of a transformer station, which they thought was too big and too close to their homes. Perhaps the biggest stumbling block was that they didn’t feel they had been informed early enough, or provided with enough information.

In May 2013, network operator Amprion invited residents of Garenfeld to an event to inform them about the building. But many citizens didn’t know about it, and others only found out by chance. Those who did attend the event were shocked: Amprion wanted to begin the construction of a building over 22 metres high in the autumn of that year.

The people of Garenfeld felt the network operator was trying to get one over on them, while politicians and the local authorities turned a blind eye. They founded the citizens’ initiative “Menschen unter Strom” (People carrying Current) to block the construction. At the same time they agreed to enter mediation with Amprion, rather than go to court.

Following 17 meetings, the citizens of Garenfeld came to an agreement with Amprion in December 2014. The transformer will be built, but as far as possible from their homes (more than 400 metres from the nearest house) with the height reduced to 14.5 metres. Orchards and fast-growing trees are to be planted to screen the construction from view. Both the network operator and citizens said they were satisfied with the outcome, agreeing that mediation achieved what a court process could not have done.


* The Agora Energiewende  and the Clean Energy Wire are both joint initiatives of  the Stiftung Mercator and the European Climate Foundation.

Lars Borchert is a freelance contributor to the Clean Energy Wire. He has written for Platts, Der Tagesspiegel and Reuters among others.

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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