IN DEPTH: RE in German poll debate

Germany must reform its renewable energy legislation right after 22 September federal elections, Chancellor Angela Merkel of the Christian Democrats (CDU) said during a TV debate last night with her Social Democrat (SPD) rival Peer Steinbrück.

The chancellor said she would have preferred to amend the legislation before the elections, but acknowledged that it wasn’t possible to convince the country’s powerful states.

Her environment minister Peter Altmaier and economics minister Philipp Rösler earlier this year had pushed for a series of harsh cuts to renewables feed-in tariffs (FITs) that included controversial retroactive measures. But the proposals found no majority in the upper house, or Bundesrat, which represents German states.

“We need to adapt the build-up of renewable energy to that of grid systems and the necessary base load supply,” Merkel stressed.

Steinbrück agreed with Merkel on the need to let the extension of renewables go hand in hand with the expansion of Germany’s electricity grid.

But he also sharply criticised the government’s incoherent policy regarding the Energiewende – Germany’s turnaround away from nuclear power towards renewables.

“The management of the Energiewende is a disaster,” Steinbrück said. “The current management is the biggest investment brake that we have.”

The suggestion of possible retroactive measures by Altmaier and Rösler had indeed led to a freeze in new investment decisions in the offshore wind industry, where the cost of a typical wind farm in deep waters often exceeds €1.3bn ($1.7bn).

Energy managers are unnerved that they have to contact four or five different ministries in Berlin to find out what the current government’s energy really policy is, Steinbrück said.

Altmaier and Rösler in the past often had diverging views on how to proceed with the Energiewende, which has at times paralyzed policies. Elements of energy policy are also being decided by the transport ministry.

The SPD has proposed the creation of an energy ministry that bundles the competences for all matters regarding Germany’s energy supply and its move away from nuclear power.

Merkel and her contender Steinbrück were surprisingly mild during their debate and abstained from any personal attacks. Steinbrück was finance minister under Merkel’s first administration (2005 – 2009) before she switched her coalition partner to Rösler’s Free Democrats (FDP).

Also, with current opinion polls projecting a very tight race, Merkel wants to keep her options open for a possible revival of a so-called “grand coalition” with the SPD.

Merkel’s CDU in the most recent surveys polls stood between 39% and 41% of the vote, while the SPD hovers around 23% to 26%. The FDP is seen at between 5% and 6%, while the Greens – the SPD’s preferred coalition partner are at 11% to 12%.

The Left Party – an amalgam of disenchanted Social Democrats in Western Germany and the former Communists of Eastern Germany – could gain between 7% and 10%, but none of the other established parties wants to enter a coalition with it.