IN DEPTH: German RE under fire

The junior partner in Angela Merkel’s coalition government enters the campaign for the German election committed to cutting renewables support fast.

“We want more market, and out of the planned economy,” the Free Democratic Party (FDP) election manifesto reads. “Fixing electricity prices by policies mustn’t become permanent.”

In order to stop power prices from rising and not undermine the competitiveness of German industry, the build-up of renewables needs to be managed better, says the party of economics minister Philipp Rösler.

“Because of that, security of supply and affordability are as important as rapid progress in environmental protection,” the manifesto states, adding that all support mechanisms for renewables must be verified on a regular basis and, if necessary, “adapted”.

The “expensive over-support” stipulated in Germany’s Renewable Energy Act (EEG) that had been introduced by a government of Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens more than a decade ago, has to be eliminated, the text goes on.

Rainer Brüderle, a former economics minister and the FDP’s leading candidate for the federal election on 22 September , has explained how this could be done:

“It’s time to put on the brakes. The EEG has to be reformed profoundly. And until that happens, no new wind turbines or solar plants should be [permitted] onto the grid,” he told the Rheinische Post newspaper last week.

Such a reform should abolish the current system of feed-in tariffs (FITs) for renewables and replace it by a “quota model” in which power utilities are bound to offer a certain percentage of renewables in their generation mix, no matter from which region or source, Brüderle suggests.

The FDP manifesto continues to insist on the introduction of an “electricity price brake”. This is the term used by Rösler and environment minister Peter Altmaier for their proposal earlier this year for harsh cuts to FITs with the aim of containing electricity costs that soared in part due to a surcharge paid by consumers to finance renewables’ FITs.

The measures were in effect blocked by Germany’s powerful states, which objected in particular to retroactive cuts in support that had been part of the proposals, making any reform to the renewables act possible only after the election.

Renewables need to compete with other energy sources in a free market at the latest in 2022, when the last nuclear plant is switched off, the FDP demands.

Yet its commitment to Germany’s nuclear phase-out may be lip service. After Chancellor Merkel made a U-turn in energy policy when massive demonstrations made clear that the country would no longer accept nuclear power in the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan, Brüderle openly stated that his party’s agreement to the nuclear exit was motivated by upcoming state elections, and that he continued to favour atomic energy.

Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and the FDP plunged in the state elections nevertheless, and even lost the key state of Baden-Württemberg to a coalition led by the Green Party. But a continued insistence on nuclear power would probably have cost the government this year’s national election as well.

The FDP isn’t completely against renewables; it is the only party to mention the desert power project Desertec positively in its manifesto as a long-term option to diversify Germany’s energy supply. The party also favours a fast expansion of high-voltage power grids as a basis to integrate offshore wind. And it supports energy-storage systems such as pumped hydro and power-to-gas technology.

Yet, on balance, of all the German parties, the FDP clearly is the one the renewables industry has to fear most. Opinion polls, however, forecast a steep fall in its support, from almost 15% at the last election in 2009 to close to the 5% needed to enter parliament at all. That would leave it with little clout to push though its free-market energy ideas in any government.