While U.S. policymakers remain hesitant to contemplate the transition to a low-carbon economy, Germany’s energy transition is already under way. At two Washington, D.C. events on Monday, October 3 (Germany’s Unity Day holiday), Franz Untersteller, Environment Minister for the German State of Baden-Württemberg, discussed his country’s efforts to phase out nuclear power and heavily promote renewable energy in the coming decades. Germany’s decision this spring to phase out nuclear energy by 2020 has been regarded as a controversial path to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and tackling climate change. At a panel titled Leading the Way or Lights Out? Germany’s Nuclear Exit and U.S. Energy Perspectives held at the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies (SAIS), Minister Untersteller described how Germany plans to achieve both the nuclear phase-out and the reduction of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

Minister Untersteller has been Environment Minister of the State of Baden-Württemberg in the Green-Social Democratic government since the March 2011 regional elections. Baden-Württemberg is a highly industrialized German state that is home to global industrial players such as Mercedes, Porsche, and Bosch. The region could serve as a model for other very industrialized areas in showing how high energy intensity can be combined with CO2 emissions reductions. Untersteller described the German government’s nuclear exit strategy as “irreversible,” not just because the amendments to the Nuclear Energy Act were supported by an agreement of all parties in the German Bundestag, but also because the strategy is based on broad popular consensus. The nuclear phase-out by 2020 is accompanied by several other elements:

  • A substantial rise in the share of renewable energy in the country’s energy mix, projected to reach 38 percent of the national electricity supply by 2020, compared to 20 percent today and 6 percent in 2000;
  • The construction and use of flexible natural gas power plants;
  • Infrastructure adaptation, especially high investment in the electric power grid; and
  • Increase in energy efficiency, including a further decoupling of energy use from economic growth.

The nuclear phase-out already is having a dramatic impact on Germany’s energy system, particularly in Baden-Württemberg. Two of the state’s four nuclear plants have been shut down since March and will not return to power production. The two remaining plants will continue running until 2019 and 2021. Nuclear energy still accounts for half of total electricity production in Baden-Württemberg. In the medium and long term, renewable energy sources and natural gas plants are to replace this share. For the short term, including this winter, a coal-fired power plant will serve as a reserve supply. Germany’s rapid growth in renewable energy production is the result of a number of initiatives, most importantly a federal law that grants higher feed-in tariffs to renewable energy over
conventional fossil and nuclear energy entering the grid. Despite the strong political support, however, Germany’s ambitious energy transition will only be possible in tandem with adaptation of the grid system, both in Germany and at the European Union level.

The panel at SAIS also discussed the options for a nuclear phase-out in the United States. Kate Gordon, Vice President for Energy Policy at the Center for American Progress, noted that the
United States is in a very different position from Germany, lacking comprehensive energy and climate legislation. Nuclear power accounts for 20 percent of the U.S. energy supply—similar to Germany’s share before the latest shutdowns. However, with a comprehensive strategy and political and economic courage, Gordon said, a similar energy transition is possible in the United States: the necessary technology already exists and should be included into business models for long-term planning. Yet in the absence of economic development policy at the federal level and without a substantial increase in the price of fossil fuels, the prospect of such a transition in the United States is limited.

All panel speakers agreed on the importance of political and economic will to undertake a fundamental energy shift. While the idea of nuclear phase-out has broad popular and political consensus in Germany, there is very little debate on this topic in the American society. Rather than increase the share of renewable energy, as Germany has, the U.S. plans to replace coal power with gas-fired plants in the coming decades. Panelist Kenneth Green, an environmental scientist and publisher, noted another key constraint to a substantial energy transition: the lack of capital for large-scale investments in the U.S. energy sector. Whereas the panel discussion focused largely on Germany’s nuclear phase-out, the Roundtable on German Success in Clean Energy Reindustrialization, held at the Center for American Progress (CAP) in cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Foundation examined the development of German renewable energy sources and the European framework for energy and
climate policy. Untersteller said his country’s leading role in renewables’ technologies and innovations must be defended in the future. Germany’s long-term transition plan—with its target of 90 percent fewer carbon emissions in 2050 compared to 1990—gives the industrial sector a high degree of predictability. Industrial players have consented to ecological modernization, with a special focus on energy efficiency. And Baden-Württemberg already has approved strong renewables legislation for the residential heating sector, which currently accounts for 40 percent of Germany’s energy use.

At the European level, German energy policy is embedded in the EU Framework Directive on Energy Efficiency and the EU-wide cap-and-trade system for CO2 emissions. The former obligates EU member states to establish energy-saving schemes, and calls on the public sector to take the lead by example. The cap-and-trade system (Emission Trading System, or ETS) allocates a specific, decreasing number of emission certificates to factories, power plants, and other companies. Beginning in 2013, the certificates must be purchased through auctions—a move that is expected to further reduce emissions and raise efficiency standards throughout the EU.

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