by Julius Fischer
Germany is moving forward to replace fossil fuels with renewables faster than most countries. But there is always pushback, most recently in the form of much media discourse about rising electricity prices spearheaded by the Federal Minister of Environment Peter Altmaier. Like many politicians, he is already preparing for national elections in September, so let’s take an honest look at this discourse surrounding electricity prices and how they affect Germany’s move toward renewables.
Ever since the Fukushima catastrophe two years ago, Germans have redoubled their efforts to phase out of nuclear energy and fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy — called the “Energiewende” (energy transition) that began in 2000. Minister Altmaier, CDU (Christian Democratic Party — center-right) believes that the recent rise in electricity prices for households poses the biggest threat to the success of the Energiewende, because rising household electricity bills endanger public support for renewables. He thus proposed a plan to prevent an “explosion of electricity prices.”
First of all: why care about what happens in Germany? For one thing, German policy-makers played a dominant role in the evolution of feed-in tariffs (FITs) for renewables (the term is actually an Anglicization of the German “Stromeinspeisungsgesetz”). FITs are the most elegant and effective policy instrument to incentivize renewable energy deployment in a cost-effective manner. Germany remains on the forefront of optimizing FITs to account for the differences in renewable technologies and decreasing market prices over time. Germany also has an impressive record of success in deploying renewable energy (especially solar), and set uniquely high targets of efficiency improvement and renewables deployment. Once we realize that the Energiewende is not a big government program by naïve tree-huggers, we can use the German example to help show that renewable energy can and does create jobs and lower costs.
The discourse surrounding the Energiewende has ranged from whether the grid expansion can keep up with renewable energy deployment, to whether the grid liability can be maintained (yes it can), and whether shutting down nuclear power in Germany will just result in imports of nuclear power from France or the Czech Republic (it hasn’t). The current discourse raises the questions of whether household electricity consumers should pay less, whether industry should pay more, and whether the Energiewende can be done cheaper.
Should households pay less?