The Conflict over German Nuclear Power and Renewables Rages On

Stephen Gross

New York University

Stephen G. Gross is jointly appointed in the Department of History and the Center for European and Mediterranean Studies at NYU. After working for several years as an economist at the Bureau of Economic Analysis in Washington DC, he completed his PhD at UC Berkeley where he subsequently lectured with the International and Area Studies Program. In his research and teaching Dr. Gross is interested in 20th century Germany, European unification, European and international political economy, energy policy, and international relations. His first book, Export Empire, was published by Cambridge University Press in December 2015. He has also published on a variety of economic themes in German and European history in Central European History, Contemporary European History, German Politics and Society, and Eastern European Politics and Society, as well as in various book chapters.

His second book is tentatively titled Energy and Power: Germany in the Age of Oil, Atoms, and Climate Change. It explores the political economy of energy crises and transition, tracing how this oil-poor yet highly industrial state managed the transition from coal, to oil, to more renewable fuels, how it negotiated the many intense political and social tensions that came with this transition, and how it inaugurated what is now called the German Energiewende, or the transition to Green energy.

On New Year’s Eve 2021, Germany shut down three of its last six nuclear reactors, with the final ones slated for closure in December 2022. This marks the end of a process that began in 1975 with the first anti-nuclear demonstrations in the small town of Wyhl. From these protests grew one of the most influential Green parties in the world, which has profoundly shaped Germany’s approach to energy and atomic power. As global warming accelerates, and with the Greens part of a new governing coalition in Berlin, the shutdown of these low carbon electricity sources has reopened the debate over German and European energy policy. Critics pan the nuclear phaseout as a fatal error that will lead Germany to burn more coal and natural gas. They point out how Britain and France are decarbonizing faster than Germany by keeping their reactors online. Advocates counter that Germany can cover any power shortfall by expanding renewables. Some go further, condemning a new campaign by the European Commission to label nuclear sustainable in the drive for net-zero emissions.[1]

Both sides miss important dimensions of Germany’s Energiewende—the longstanding quest to restructure the nation’s energy system along green lines. For one, the Energiewende was not just a product of the Greens, and it was never just about fighting climate change.[2] Second, creating a renewable energy system has been intimately linked to atomic exit since 2000. Put differently, the promise of ditching nuclear power was the price Germans paid to forge a political coalition that enacted policies which revolutionized the cost of wind and solar—a gain for the world that should be celebrated. But this linkage was a profoundly national decision shaped by many discussions specific to Germany, and Germans should not seek to extend their opposition to nuclear power across Europe. Instead, Berlin must aspire for transnational energy collaboration and see a diversity of strategies to tackle global warming as a strength rather than a problem.

Birth of the Energiewende

The Christian Democratic (CDU) Chancellor Angela Merkel is often credited with launching the Energiewende (Energy Transition) after the catastrophic nuclear accident in Fukushima in 2011. The concept, however, dates to 1980 when the Eco-Institute in Freiburg published a pioneering study that argued Germany could end nuclear power by making its energy system radically more efficient.[3] After 1980, the new Green Party adopted this concept. But so too did the reform wing of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) following the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in 1986. While the CDU governed Germany during the 1980s and 1990s, both Greens and Social Democrats authored major reform proposals that aspired for an efficient energy system rooted in local, democratic energy producers. In 1998 these two parties came together to govern Germany in a Red-Green national coalition, a novelty among large industrial nations. Together they inaugurated the Energiewende, passing groundbreaking legislation that transformed the global market for solar and wind power.

The Energiewende was not a product of the Greens alone but grew from a complex alliance that included reformist Social Democrats like Hermann Scheer (nicknamed the Solar King), mainstream experts, machinery manufacturers, Mittelstand companies, farmers, progressive unions, and grassroots environmentalists. Crucially, fighting global warming was only one of many goals this motley alliance strove for—and often not the most important. They hoped that electricity from community-owned, decentralized wind turbines or solar panels would curb the power of the massive energy conglomerates that seemed to have their hands in every aspect of German politics. Green energy would mean a more democratic society in which local municipalities or cooperatives ran the grid instead of a handful of opaque, centralized utility companies that often pursued dubious tactics of intimidation against opponents. But this coalition also saw solar and wind as engines of economic modernization. As the burden of political reunification led to Germany’s worst unemployment since 1950, the Red-Green government wanted to extend the “made in Germany” export label to green technology. Making their nation an export leader in solar, wind, and energy efficiency equipment would transform the economy and create jobs at home—something that appealed to small companies, machinists and engineers making components for this new infrastructure, and farmers who put turbines on their land. And of course, solar, wind, and efficiency would help the environment by lowering carbon emissions.

The Energiewende was not a product of the Greens alone but grew from a complex alliance that included reformist Social Democrats like Hermann Scheer (nicknamed the Solar King), mainstream experts, machinery manufacturers, Mittelstand companies, farmers, progressive unions, and grassroots environmentalists.

Ending nuclear power brought this alliance together, and the Greens saw this as their highest priority. As Jürgen Trittin, the Greens’ Environmental Minister after 1998, put it, “the fight against nuclear power plants was the reason to the found the party.”[4] Atomic energy epitomized the centralized, technocratic, undemocratic politics Greens defined themselves against. Radiation and storage were a problem, of course, but even more was the concentration of unaccountable influence the atomic industry seemed to possess. Its representatives had the ear of politicians, while many of the earliest reactors were built over the heads of local communities. In the late 1970s nascent Greens hyperbolically linked the Federal Republic to the Third Reich through the term Atom-staat (the Atomic State), arguing that the expansion of state security to guard against nuclear crises would create a permanent state of siege, that citizens would lose their voice. This unique association of atomic power with authoritarianism persisted well into the 2000s and, alongside the shock of Chernobyl, explains the extreme resistance to nuclear power in Germany. The Greens channeled this sentiment, making nuclear exit a condition for broader energy reform.[5]

At the same time, the Greens, alongside reformist Social Democrats, believed nuclear phaseout would provide an incentive to make Germany’s entire energy system more efficient and help reorient the country toward renewables. In 2000 Germany had plenty of electricity capacity, taking some offline was not the problem it is today. Instead, so the Red-Green coalition hoped, removing reactors would create the space for a new type of locally produced, community-owned energy to thrive. For reform-minded Social Democrats, who had favored ending atomic power even before Chernobyl, nuclear energy ceased to be the engine of modernization and jobs that it had once been as the domestic and export market for new reactors withered. That reputation was increasingly held by green energy technology.

Green Energy Breakthrough

Between 1999 and 2002, the Red-Green coalition passed energy reform against massive resistance from utilities, heavy industry, the CDU, neoliberals, and even the European Commission. It reached an agreement with utilities to close all nuclear reactors in thirty-two years—far too long for many Greens. Then with the Renewable Energies Act of 2000 Berlin fixed a political price for green power through feed-in tariffs, bucking the global neoliberal trend that held markets to be infallible. Solar producers at first received a whopping seven times the consumer price for the power they generated. When combined with investment subsidies for solar and incredibly cheap credit from Germany’s state investment bank, this led the risk of investing in solar and wind to plummet. For a time, it became nearly impossible not to make a profit by sinking capital into green energy.[6]

With these policies German solar and wind capacity exploded, revolutionizing the global market. By the mid-2000s, Germany boasted a third of global wind capacity, was home to nearly half of all photovoltaics (PV) being installed in the world each year, and was producing 45 percent of the earth’s solar power.[7] Demand for components in Germany soared, stimulating producers around the world and dramatically reducing the costs of manufacturing PV. In Germany, these policies realized the promises of employment and exports: according to the German Federal Environment Agency, by 2013, over 1 million domestic jobs hinged on the Energiewende. Abroad, Chinese PV producers became world leaders by ramping up mass production for sale in the Federal Republic. Between 2000 and 2012, the price of solar panels fell by over 80 percent: a laudatory achievement that was strongly aided by German policies. As one expert put it, “we can afford this—we are a rich country. It’s a gift to the world.”[8]

This tension between sustaining a stable grid and achieving carbon neutrality is the great challenge now for Germany’s Energiewende.

But there have been problems along the way, as Energiewende apostles must admit. These achievements came at a cost to German consumers, who paid some of the highest electricity prices in the world per kilowatt-hour. Under the CDU-SPD grand coalition from 2013 to 2018, price concerns led to a major revision from feed-in tariffs toward auctions and an explosion of red tape for investors. This reduced the return on renewable investment and made it harder for small-scale citizen producers to enter the market. Since then, the growth rate of renewable capacity has slowed.

The decision to phase out nuclear power, moreover, presented a challenge for reducing the country’s dependence on carboniferous lignite coal, which alongside natural gas was the nation’s prime source of dispatchable energy that did not depend on the weather. Upon coming to power in 2005, Chancellor Merkel reversed the Red-Green decision to shut off the nation’s reactors. With Fukushima, she unexpectedly switched again, accelerating the atomic phaseout even as her party began watering down the incentives to build renewables. Yet many of the new lignite plants that came online after 2011 were actually commissioned before Fukushima. In 2005 the European Union had inaugurated the world’s largest carbon market in an effort to put a price on pollution, but it let national governments hand out emission certificates gratis. Berlin gave these carbon rights free to utilities, encouraging them to invest in modern coal and gas plants, augmenting fossil-fuel electricity capacity. Germany’s continuing reliance on coal, in other words, has several roots and is not solely the fault of its nuclear phaseout.

Intermittency: A New Problematic

Since 2012, however, the amount of power generated annually by renewables has far surpassed what has been lost as nuclear reactors ramp down. On good days, Germany produces so much electricity that it must export power across Europe, a dynamic that generates its own complications as German neighbors struggle to manage this influx.

The challenge now is intermittency, for the sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow. As Germany winds down the power generators that can run independently of nature—first nuclear and since 2019 coal—this puts pressure on the grid during calm, cloudy days. For the moment, natural gas, much of it from Russia, is picking up the difference. But since the IPCC’s climate report in 2021, scientists now see this fuel as a powerful driver of climate change.[9]

This tension between sustaining a stable grid and achieving carbon neutrality is the great challenge now for Germany’s Energiewende, for the frightening pace of global warming has changed the calculus since 2000. Back then, fighting climate change was but one goal of many; today it is by far the most urgent one. The devasting summer floods of 2021 brought this home to Germany’s public. And the linkage that enabled the Energiewende to unfold the first place, between nuclear exit and renewable expansion, is less firm than before. The problem of radioactive storage and the risk of a meltdown still burn, though not as brightly in the face of a climate catastrophe that is already upon us. The notion that green energy is inherently more democratic, meanwhile, is debatable given the expansion of corporate wind parks and solar farms. This new calculus is showing. As late as 2019, 60 percent of Germans still supported a quick end to atomic power. Today, polls show a slight majority now favor keeping the nuclear option open—not building more reactors, but keeping existing ones online until renewables can expand further.

Nevertheless, it is unlikely that Germany’s new government will keep any reactors online after 2022. With Greens at the helm of the Ministry for Economics and Climate, the chance of realizing the party’s longest-standing objective is within reach. Many Germans in the center and even more on the left agree on ending nuclear power. This is Germany’s choice. Critics must appreciate that nuclear exit is part of the context that made this nation’s impressive advances in renewable energy possible in the first place.

Germany should embrace European energy diversity because a diversity of carbon-free sources can lead to a robust grid.

But for their part, Energiewende advocates should recognize that nuclear exit is a profoundly national decision that cannot be extended to other countries with their own histories of energy. Today the European Commission is trying to label nuclear sustainable in its campaign to lower carbon emissions, something German Greens viscerally reject. Economics Minister Robert Habeck, a leader of the Greens, is right to criticize the Commission’s decision-making as hasty and untransparent; the matter should be open to debate.[10] Yet Germans must also appreciate that there are different paths to fighting global warming. The European Union is built on the concept of unity in diversity, after all, and this applies to climate strategies as much as to culture or politics. Global warming is now so urgent that nearly anything which lowers carbon emissions must be considered.

Germany should embrace European energy diversity because a diversity of carbon-free sources can lead to a robust grid. Across the Rhine, France, with one of the largest nuclear fleets in the world, could complement Germany’s increasing reliance on renewables. At home, Germans should build battery storage, remove regulatory hurdles for renewables, and pour investment into wind parks and solar farms. But they should also invest massively in transnational grid interconnectors to reach a wider range of power sources—from France, Britain, Scandinavia, and Eastern Europe—evening out the ebbs and flow of peak demand and the challenges of overcast, windless days. If done effectively, new interconnections could ease the phaseout of coal and even help Germany burn less natural gas from Russia. A truly interconnected continental grid has been an ambition of Brussels for decades. Alongside investment into renewables, energy efficiency, and electricity demand management, it should stand at the forefront of Europe and Germany’s effort to fight global warming.

[1] For criticism see David Frum, “The West’s Nuclear Mistake,” The Atlantic, December 8, 2021; Editorial Board, “Germany is Closing its Last Nuclear Plants. What a Mistake,” The Washington Post, January 1, 2022; Erik Olson, “A Tale of Two Decarbonizations” The Breakthrough Institute, July 1, 2020; for advocacy of the nuclear shutdown see Kerstine Appunn, “Why is Germany Phasing Out Nuclear Power and Why Now?” Clean Energy Wire December 28, 2021; Julian Wettengel, “German Government Split over EU Plans to Label Gas as Sustainable,” Clean Energy Wire January 4, 2022.

[2] Craig Morris and Arne Jungjohannm, Energy Democracy: Germany’s Energiewende to Renewables (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

[3] Florentin Krause, Hartmut Bossel, Karl-Friedrich Müller-Reissmann, Energie-Wende: Wachstum und Wohlstand ohne Erdöl und Uran. Ein Alternativ-Bericht des Öko-Instituts/Freiburg (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 1980).

[4] Archiv Grünes Gedächtnis (AGG), Kristin Heyne Nachlass, 109 1/2, “Die Energiewende vollenden – den Ausstieg aus der Atomenergie vollziehen” March 18, 2000.

[5] Robert Jungk, The New Tyranny: How Nuclear Power Enslaves Us All (Der Atom-Staat. Vom Fortschritt in die Unmenschlichkeit) translated by Christopher Trump (New York: Fred Jordan Books, 1979/1977); Eva Oberloskamp, “Intellektuelle und die Janusköpfigkeit der technische Moderne,” in Ingrid Gilcher-Hotley and Eva Oberloskamp (eds.), Warten auf Godot? Intellektuelle sei den 1960er Jahren (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2020), 101-116; Dolores Augustine, Taking on Technocracy: Nuclear Power in Germany, 1945 to the Present (New York: Berghahn Books, 2018).

[6] AGG, B.II.4, 4144, Bündnis 90/Die Grünen, “Startschuss für Strom aus Erneuerbaren Energien,” March 2000; Daniel Yergin, The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World (New York: Penguin Books, 2012), 543; Stefany Griffith-Jones, “National Development Banks and Sustainable Infrastructure: The Case of the KfW,” Global Economic Governance Initiative Working Paper 006 (July 2016), 1-33.

[7] Volkmar Lauber and Staffan Jacobsson, “Lessons from Germany’s Energiewende,” in Jan Faberberg Staffan Laestadius, and Ben R. Martin (eds.), The Triple Challenge for Europe (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 173–203; Hermann Scheer, Energy Imperative: 100 Percent Renewable Now translated by Joanna Scudamore-Trezek (London: Earthscan, 2012/2010), 116–118.

[8] Morris and Jungjohann, Energy Democracy, quotation from 174–175, see also 151 and 217.

[9] Michael Mann, The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet (New York: Public Affairs, 2021), 148–150; Alejandra Borunda, “Natural Gas is a Much ‘Dirtier’ Energy Source Than We Thought,” National Geographic, February 19, 2020; Valerie Volcovici, “To Save the Planet, Focus on Cutting Methane—U.N. Climate Report,” Reuters, August 9, 2021; IPCC, Sixth Assessment Report. The Physical Science Basis, August 2021.

[10] Mehreen Khan and Joe Miller, “German Greens Lead Attack on EU Plan to Label Nuclear Power ‘Sustainable,’” Financial Times January 2, 2022.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.