19 Jun 2024, 11:51
Benjamin Wehrmann

Eastern German states put energy supply in focus in push to counter populists’ rise

A solar farm by energy company LEAG near a lignite power plant in eastern German state Saxony. Photo: LEAG/EPNE
A solar farm by energy company LEAG near a lignite power plant in eastern German state Saxony. Photo: LEAG/EPNE

One week after the shock results for East Germany in the European elections, where populist parties made strong gains while the government coalition parties took a beating, chancellor Olaf Scholz met with state leaders from the East to debate urgent policy changes in the region. The eastern state leaders, who fear another major victory for the far-right and nationalist left-wing forces in three state elections later this year, said a successful energy transition will be a key instrument in the bid for keeping voters in the East away from supporting extremist forces.

The heads of the six eastern German states have called for a concerted endeavour to modernise the region’s energy infrastructure and bolster its attractiveness as an industry location through reliable and fossil-free power supply. At a conference in the eastern town of Wittenberg, chancellor Olaf Scholz met with the heads of government of the city of Berlin and the five states of Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia about one week after the European elections revealed a particularly strong support for populist left and right-wing parties in the formerly communist region that re-opened debates about Germany’s political cohesion in the fourth decade after its reunification in 1990.

“We’ve achieved a lot in the past three decades in terms of building up the East – also thanks to support by the federal government and the EU,” which had improved living conditions, infrastructure and wages, said Saxony-Anhalt’s state premier Reiner Haselhoff from the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), who chaired the conference. “Now it’s about safeguarding what we accomplished and building up further from there,” Haselhoff said, adding that “a secure energy supply” and a successful transformation of local economies are key to fulfilling this ambition.

The eastern government leaders warned that securing the country’s energy supply must remain a priority for the federal government and urged the coalition to publish its eagerly awaited Power Plant Strategy, which spells out what kind of backup power plants the country must build and where to complement its comprehensive rollout of renewable energy sources.

The eastern state premiers told the chancellor that they regard a “massive expansion” of secure and flexible power generation capacity in the region as necessary to successfully master the energy transition. This should be coupled with close coordination of the expansion of electricity, gas and hydrogen grids, they added. “The planned auction of ten gigawatts in additional plant capacity is a step in the right direction but it alone won’t suffice,” said Brandenburg’s state premier Dietmar Woidke from the SPD. Eastern Germany would have to play a key role in a “coherent” power plant strategy thanks to its advanced renewable energy infrastructure, he argued.

With a view to the results of the EU elections in eastern Germany, in which the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) or the left-wing nationalist Sarah Wagenknecht Alliance (BSW), founded by the homonym former member of the Left Party, made huge gains, Saxony-Anhalt's state permier Haselhoff, ahead of the conference, had said the populist victory “must be taken very seriously” and could not allow policymakers to continue business as usual, public broadcaster ARD reported.

The AfD became the strongest party in all eastern states except for the city state of Berlin, while the BSW managed to get ahead of the federal government parties, Scholz’s Social Democrats (SPD), the Green Party and the Free Democrats (FDP), in many states. The strong showing by populist and extremist parties has led to worries among centrist forces for the upcoming eastern state elections in Thuringia, Saxony and Brandeburg in September, where the AfD and the BSW are projected to make great gains again. Saxony’s state premier Michael Kretschmer called on the federal government to “send a big, strong message: we have understood” the need to quell the rise of the far right. Manuela Schwesig, state premier of coastal Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania for the SPD, said the federal government must put a greater focus on workers and “create jobs with good wages,” for which clean energy technologies, such as hydrogen, could play an important role.

Energy transition success story for East – Scholz

At the conference, chancellor Scholz promised that his government “will do everything to ensure a secure and affordable energy supply” for eastern Germany that will benefit citizens and businesses there. He reiterated his view that the energy transition so far has largely been a success story for the eastern states, news station n-tv reported. These on average boast a much higher per capita output of renewables than their western counterparts and in recent years managed to attract major foreign investments, for example by U.S. electric carmaker Tesla in Brandenburg, chipmaker Intel in Saxony-Anhalt or Chinese battery producer CATL in Thuringia. Scholz said the currently higher transmission grid fees in eastern Germany are an injustice that his government will address.

Nearly 30 percent of Germany’s total installed renewable power generation capacity is located in eastern states, meaning the per capita output of wind, solar or bioenergy plants is about twice as high as in the rest of the country, figures in a statement released by the German Renewable Energy Federation (BEE) showed. Most people in the East support the continued buildout of renewable power installations, which according to the BEE create jobs, lower energy prices and attract industry investments. “The eastern states have gained themselves a true head start in this respect,” said BEE leader Wolfram Axthelm.

Coal exit more controversial than in western mining regions

Germany’s planned phase-out of coal-fired power production by 2038 is much more heatedly debated in eastern Germany than in western coal regions, partly due to the weaker industrial basis in eastern regions like Lusatia, where the coal industry still contributes a sizeable share to local economic output. The AfD and the BSW have therefore criticised the country’s plan to end coal in line with international climate targets and instead call for using domestically available lignite and more fossil fuel imports from Russia to satisfy the country’s energy demand.

The eastern state governments as well as the federal government and the EU instead aim to bolster the region situated in the heart of central Europe by making it a hub for hydrogen trading and greenhouse gas neutral industries. This includes projects such as the envisaged Net-Zero-Valley initiative in Lusatia, which could make the region the first in Europe to receive dedicated EU support under the scheme. 

With a view to EU cohesion policy efforts that aim to redistribute wealth across the union, the eastern states called for sustaining support for Eastern Germany also in the future, arguing that declining population numbers, which also reduce the pool of available skilled workers, would warrant higher investments to maintain living standards. “Future cohesion policy after 2028 must put regions like this one in the focus,” the state government leaders said in a statement.

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