08 Apr 2015 | Sören Amelang

German Energiewende enjoys strong social mandate

Regardless of recent squabbles about new power lines and rising electricity prices, Germans remain staunch supporters of the principles behind the Energiewende. Survey after survey shows a large majority of the population is in favour of the transition to a low-carbon and nuclear-free economy, with recent approval rates ranging from around 60 to 90 percent. But even though the aims of the Energiewende remain popular, many people disapprove of its current implementation and worry about rising electricity prices.

Deep Roots

Public opposition to nuclear plants and a strong culture of environmentalism are deeply rooted in German society and have a long history, becoming mass movements as early as the 1970s. This background is essential to understanding how the Energiewende came into existence and also why it remains such a popular project. Reflecting a broad public consensus, many of the most important political decisions that paved the way for the Energiewende – such as the nuclear phase-out – were supported by all parties in the German parliament.

The government is well aware that the massive enterprise can only become a success story if the general public stays on board. “The reconstruction of energy provision requires a broad and sustainable support of the population,” states the “Progress Report” on the Energiewende from the Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy published in December. In order to maintain public support, the ministry actively promotes its energy policy, aims to inform the public from an early stage of policies and also aspires to get interested parties involved in the planning of new projects, according to the report. Additionally, it says it aims to uphold acceptance by controlling the cost of the Energiewende.

Franz Emde from the Federal Agency for Environmental Protection, a scientific arm of the Ministry for the Environment that also conducts surveys on the Energiewende, told the Clean Energy Wire: “Overall, Germans deal with the subject in a fairly sophisticated and well-thought-out manner. In principle, there is a large approval of the Energiewende. But at the same time, respondents insist that we do not lose sight of the issue of environmental sustainability.” For example, Germans approve of biomass and the use of wood under the condition it does not lead to depletion, explains Emde. The same applies to new Energiewende infrastructure such as power lines and wind turbines. “Citizens fear characteristic landscapes will be spoiled and demand a careful selection of locations. So in principle, there is approval of renewable energies but with the attached request for their careful and sustainable application.”

Indeed, some polls show the most common criticism of the Energiewende is born of environmental concerns. When pollster Allensbach asked people last year which negative consequences the Energiewende will have, concern about a changing landscape due to wind turbines and power lines came first, ahead of increasing electricity prices.

Subtle Differences

Disparities in approval rates (see the CLEW poll Factsheet) might reflect differences in questionnaire design and varying definitions of the Energiewende given by pollsters or implied in the question itself. For example, surveys vary in the number of possible answers that are considered to signify "approval". 

Subtle changes in phrasing can also have a large influence on results. For example, when asked by pollster Allensbach: “The roll-out and support for renewable energies are to be cut. Do you think this is right or wrong?” 20 percent of respondents believed it was the right decision. But approval rates almost doubled to 37 percent when the question was changed to: “The roll-out and support for renewable energies are to be cut in order to limit the rise in electricity costs. Do you think this is right or wrong?”

This example also illustrates that the debate about the cost of electricity has indeed affected perceptions of the Energiewende recently. Approval of the project, while remaining strong, has decreased in many surveys. Most pollsters attribute this to prominent discussions about the energy surcharge paid by consumers to finance support for the renewable feed-in tariff.

But while public concern about electricity prices has been rising and is now considerable, most polls find it does not yet dominate people's perception of the Energiewende. 59 percent of Germans still consider the amount of the surcharge “appropriate” or even "too little", compared to 36 percent who believe it is "too high", according to a recent survey by the Renewable Energies Agency (AEE).

Most Germans also remain willing to contribute financially to the Energiewende, surveys by the AEE and the company Stiebel found. Asked to name the most important priorities for energy policy, electricity prices only came 7th in a survey by pollster Allensbach last year, trailing behind a fast roll-out of renewables, climate protection, reducing dependence on single energy sources, safety, and energy savings in companies and households.

The issue of electricity prices becomes much more dominant when considering certain sub-groups of the population. The environment ministry concluded last year that “approval of the Energiewende has become a class issue,” as poor households have become sceptical of the enterprise, whereas the support of the well-to-do remains strong.
Surveys also tend to show that young people are more in favour of the Energiewende than older citizens, West Germans more than East Germans, highly educated individuals more than those without higher education, and individuals like the project much more than companies.

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