Five years ago, the nuclear accident in Fukushima helped sweep Germany’s first Green state premier, Winfried Kretschmann, to power in the wealthy, industrial state of Baden-Württemberg.
At the same time, the Green Party also massively increased its share of the vote in neighbouring Rhineland-Palatinate.
Then, nearly half of voters in Baden-Württemberg said energy was the most important election issue.
Now, the two states – plus Saxony-Anhalt in the east – are preparing to head to the polls again on March 13. But this time round, priorities are very different, with the refugee crisis overshadowing all other issues.
Yet the outcome of these elections could have a significant impact on the development of renewables in Germany, experts warn.
Blossoming wind sector at risk
Kretschmann remains hugely popular. But energy policy observers are watching closely to see if he can retain power after a tight race against the Christian Democrats (CDU), traditionally the leading party in the state.
Last year, efforts by Kretschmann's Green-Social Democrat coalition government to promote wind power started to make a clear impact, with 144 megawatts of new capacity going online in Baden-Württemberg, compared to just 19 megawatts in 2014.
Political scientist and energy analyst Arne Jungjohann, who has close links to the Green party, says this trend could be at risk if the balance of power shifts in the region.
“I suspect many decisions to push wind power will be reversed if the Greens are no longer part of a new government,” Jungjohann told CLEW.
“After a very slow start, Baden-Württemberg has finally started to catch up on wind development. But it’s still a tender shoot.”
Consequences for federal policy
The regional elections could also impact energy policy on a federal level. State premiers meet four times a year at the Conference of Federal State Premiers. This is an informal meeting, but often important decisions are made.
“A green state premier at this meeting is an important voice strongly in favour of the Energiewende. Without it, the pursuit of the energy transition will be less ambitious, and less in favour of citizens’ energy,” Jungjohann said.
Fewer Green voices in the Bundesrat, the upper house of parliament that represents regional states at the federal level, could also count against green power development.
“Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate are both states strongly in favour of onshore wind development, especially in the context of the pending reform of the Renewable Energy Act,” said Patrick Graichen, head of think tank Agora Energiewende*.
The reform is to manage the amount of new renewable capacity added to the German energy system each year by switching from guaranteed feed-in tariffs to a system of auctions, and are slated for approval before the summer break.
But the wind power sector in particular is concerned that the bill could limit development and complains of lack of guarantees for investment.
Graichen says even though the reform does not require formal approval by the Bundesrat, the house could intervene to delay the bill’s approval, prolonging uncertainty for developers.
Gains for far-right party
In the wake of the Japanese reactor meltdown in 2011, Merkel reversed her earlier decision to postpone the nuclear phase-out, which had been agreed a previous government coalition of Greens and Social Democrats. But many voters saw Merkel’s sudden move as politically motivated and voted Green. A New York Times headline read, “Merkel loses key German state on nuclear fears.”
Today, headlines are dominated by what local elections will say about public support for Merkel’s handling of the recent influx of refugees.
"Energy policy in general and Energiewende issues in particular are playing no role whatsoever in the election campaign in Baden-Württemberg," said Manfred Güllner, head of pollster Forsa.
The biggest beneficiary of the focus on refugees is the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD), who polls show are likely to take seats all three regional parliaments.
AfD is defined by its strictly anti-immigration stance. Its energy policy plans vary in the three states, though it tends to be highly sceptical of the Energiewende.
In Baden-Württemberg, AfD has voiced doubts over the need for urgent action on climate change and called for a 10-year freeze on current power mix – i.e. to keep nuclear power running beyond the 2022 phase-out deadline and halt the growth of renewables.
No clear winner in Rhineland-Palatinate
In Rhineland-Palatinate, energy policy was absent from the televised debate between the two main candidates for state premier, incumbent Malu Dreyer (SPD) and opposition leader Julia Klöckner, whose CDU holds a narrowing lead in the polls.
However, the polls show neither the current SPD-Green coalition nor a traditional centre-right coalition of conservative CDU and business-oriented Free Democrats are on course for a parliamentary majority.
- Find an overview over the parties' stance on energy policy in Baden-Württemberg in German by local public broadcaster SWR here.
- Find an overview over the parties' stance on energy policy in Rhineland-Palatinate by local public broadcaster SWR here.
- Find information on the election in Saxony-Anhalt by local public broadcaster mdr in English here.
- Find some key facts on the three states and their electricity mix here.
*Like the Clean Energy Wire, Agora Energiewende is a project funded by Stiftung Mercator and the European Climate Foundation.