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The populist threat to renewables in Europe

IN DEPTH | Nationalist climate-sceptic parties are on the rise in France, the Netherlands and Germany, and have a real chance of gaining power, writes Bernd Radowitz in Berlin

Right-wing populist parties with an aggressive climate-sceptic, anti-renewables or anti-wind agenda are rapidly gaining strength ahead of upcoming elections in three key European countries.

It may seem unlikely that Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen and Frauke Petry will govern the Netherlands, France and Germany later this year — but opinion polls and media assumptions before the UK’s Brexit vote and the US presidential election also turned out to be wrong.

A victory at the polls by populists in Dutch parliamentary elections in March, the French presidential race in April and May, and German elections for a new Bundestag in September would not only shatter the European Union as we know it, but also be a devastating blow to green power globally.

With 5.4GW, 1.6GW and 887MW in wind additions last year, Germany, France and the Netherlands were Europe’s top three wind markets, and all three are vital for the long-term viability of the offshore sector.

The rising populist parties in those countries — the Party for Freedom (PVV) in the Netherlands; Front National (FN) in France; and Alternative for Germany (AfD) — want to get rid of wind power, and in the case of France and Germany, also extend the nuclear adventure.

“There are many reasons to disapprove of nationalist parties. Their rejection of the Energiewende [energy transition] only provides another reason,” says a spokesman for German renewables developer Juwi.

Few renewables companies that Recharge approached for comment wanted to speak on the record about these parties, or would only give very vague statements — deciding that rocking the boat may not be helpful if any of the populists get near the levers of power.

Rather than criticising the populists, a better approach would be to point to the economic and job-creating impact that renewables can have, according to the wind industry associations.

“Populist movements who deny climate change and question the Energiewende should consider that home-grown, renewable energies strengthen local economic cycles and employment — particularly in rural areas,” says Hermann Albers, the president of Germany’s powerful wind-energy federation BWE.

WindEurope chief executive Giles Dickson adds: “Investing in wind brings down consumer power bills. Any political party should recognise the obvious business sense of renewables.”

The Netherlands

In recent years, under Prime Minister Mark Rutte, the country has become the darling of the renewables industry, particularly for offshore wind — which saw extremely low winning bids at two tenders last year.

The outgoing government — a coalition between Rutte’s centre-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) and the centre-left Labour Party — plans annual 700MW offshore tenders in 2017-19 and then 1GW a year from 2020.

But these plans are endangered by Wilders’ PVV, which has been leading most opinion polls ahead of the 15 March general election.

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Wilders, who was once banned from the UK for “extremism”, has previously claimed there was a “climate hysteria” among the established parties, and called climate policy a “leftist hobby of the elite”.

While the PVV’s one-page election manifesto concentrates on anti-immigrant and anti-Islam rants (including forbidding the Koran and closing all mosques), it also states: “No more money for development help, windmills, art, innovation, broadcast, etc.”

As Recharge went to press, a survey of polls put the PVV as the strongest party with 17% of the vote, followed by Rutte’s VVD at 16% and the Christian Democrats, the centrist D66 party and the Green Left at 11% each. Such an outcome would make the formation of a new government extremely complicated.

Most other parties in the Tweede Kamer, the Dutch parliament lower house, have pledged not to co-operate with the PVV in a possible coalition government, but they have said that in the past as well — and then did. The minority government led by Rutte from 2010-12 depended on the PVV to pass legislation — until Wilders’ party withdrew its support over budget disagreements.

France

Under the outgoing President François Hollande and his successful environment minister Ségolène Royal (Hollande’s former partner and the mother of his four children), France has led an impressive renewables drive. Last year, the country had the second-highest wind-power additions in Europe after Germany. Royal also pushed through a plan to reduce France’s dependency on nuclear electricity from the current 75% to 50%, although no deadline for the scale-back was given.

The renewables push would certainly be weakened if far-right candidate Marine Le Pen were to win upcoming presidential elections.

Le Pen seems almost certain to gain the most votes in the first round on April 23, attracting 25-28% of the vote, according to various opinion polls last month.

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But in the decisive second round on May 7, Le Pen is expected to lose to her most likely opponents — François Fillon, the conservative candidate and former prime minister from the Republican Party, or rising star Emmanuel Macron, a former economics minister backed by a centre-left party called En Marche! that he founded last year.

But not everyone is convinced Le Pen would lose against Fillon, who is tainted by a nepotism scandal involving his wife, or Macron — who has been accused of secretly being homosexual and of being backed by international finance in a smear campaign possibly financed by Russia.

Guillaume Bernard, a political scientist at the Catholic Institute of Superior Studies, told French daily Le Figaro that a Le Pen-Macron second round would be somewhat of a repetition of the Trump-Clinton battle, in which nationalist forces would rant against Macron’s multiculturalism, while the left may fail to back Macron due to his economic liberalism.

“Many proposals by the FN —authority for the state, limiting immigration, a strict security policy — find a majority in public opinion,” Bernard points out.

 In the FN election manifesto, Le Pen makes 144 promises, including a moratorium on wind power. This includes offshore wind, the FN’s election team told Recharge. Asked whether this isn’t a contradiction of Le Pen’s call for a re-industrialisation of France, given the rise in wind jobs on the French coast, an FN energy expert bizarrely cited health reasons for the hostility to offshore wind.

His comment came one day after Denmark’s LM Wind announced it will build an offshore blade factory in the French coastal city of Cherbourg that is expected to employ 550 people, with as many as 2,000 further indirect jobs.

“What renewables bring is economic development to areas in need of new industrial investment,” Dickson told Recharge without referring directly to Le Pen. “If you are serious about industrial policy and industrialisation, then this is something you should be embracing.”

Le Pen does favour solar, biogas and biomass, as they are somehow “French renewable energies”. But she also calls for nuclear energy to continue and be modernised under state-owned utility EDF. Keeping nuclear’s current share in France’s energy mix could render any new renewables superfluous.

Germany

Parliamentary elections in September will indirectly determine whether Angela Merkel will continue as chancellor.

Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), have been on a downward spiral in the polls in recent months. They are now neck and neck with current coalition partner, the Social Democrats (SPD), which has been improving in polling since former EU parliament president Martin Schulz was announced as its designated candidate.

The right-wing populist AfD party, led by 41-year-old mother-of-four Frauke Petry, reached 15% of the vote in surveys in February, but subsequently fell to around 10% — still in third place, but well behind the CDU and SPD on 30-34% as Recharge went to press.

Comments by Björn Höcke, the AfD’s leader in Thuringia state, that the Berlin Holocaust monument is a “monument of shame” no other country would allow in the heart of its capital, have not helped the party’s cause. Open anti-Semitism is still shocking to most Germans, although being anti-Islam is more accepted.

Obviously, the AfD wants to act as a lobbyist for the old oil and coal industry

According to its election manifesto, the AfD wants to abolish the Energiewende and Germany’s successful Renewable Energies Act (EEG), and talks of a “climate hoax”. It wants to extend nuclear power with “safe German nuclear plants” (as opposed to importing nuclear electricity from “unsafe” third countries such as the Czech Republic).

“The AfD has the audacity to spread lies and non-solid counter-facts in the climate science and renewable-energy area. Obviously, the AfD wants to act as a lobbyist for the old oil and coal industry,” Oldag Caspar, team leader of German and EU low-carbon policy at the green advocacy Germanwatch, tells Recharge.

All parties currently represented in the Bundestag have ruled out working with the AfD, but individual CDU and CSU politicians have been less hostile.

And importantly, the AfD’s anti-renewables rhetoric has pushed the CDU and its former right-wing coalition partner, the Free Democrats, further to the right on green policies, and some CDU politicians are now also calling for the EEG to be abolished.

The AfD is expected to campaign hard against the growing cost of the EEG surcharge that consumers have to pay on their electricity bills to finance the renewables build-up. That could trigger another damaging, emotional debate about the costs of the energy transition.

So even if the AfD doesn’t enter government, it may already be doing harm to the renewables industry.

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