Klaus Töpfer
Harald Will
Ewald Woste

Yes to renewables – But not in my backyard!

Dialogue Forum on 9 April 2013

The phase-out of nuclear power in Germany is a settled matter and meets with broad social consensus in the country. However, the question of whether the requisite compensatory wind power systems and power transmission lines can be built will also depend on the wishes of the German people. What is required to ensure that the energy turnaround does not come to a halt? This was the central question at the fourth session of the dialogue forum series entitled "The (im)mobile society – Ready for the future?". The debating panellists included Klaus Töpfer, former German minister of the environment, Ewald Woste, President of the German Association of Energy and Water Industries (BDEW), and Harald Will, Managing Director of Solarinitiative München.

The resistance of the general public to the expansion of power grids or the construction of wind power systems at their own front doors comes as no surprise to Klaus Töpfer. The introduction of the "Green Dot" package recycling scheme and of waste recycling management, which he initiated many years ago, was also at first greeted with widespread scepticism. Today, Germany has made a name for itself as the market leader in the production of waste separation systems. "It isn't necessarily in itself a negative thing if people protest against something," is the lesson drawn by the executive director of the German Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS). His recipe for dealing with it: "Where there is resistance, you must either have good arguments to convince people, or you must see to it that the citizens are involved at the earliest stage possible." Only in this way can you succeed in proceeding from opposition to finding an overall social solution.

Resistance as the basis for new ideas
Even in the case of the energy turnaround, resistance against certain undertakings can also provoke reflection on alternative solutions. The discussion about the length and number of new power transmission lines, for example, led to a more intense confrontation with the idea of decentralised energy supply. As long as large power stations ensure an uninterrupted flow of electricity, the question of efficient energy storage systems remains superfluous. "However, we must address this issue in view of the numerous decentralised systems that will generate a discontinuous supply of electricity in the future."

Töpfer warns against burying heads in the sand and hoping for a suitable technology in the far future: "We tend to act according to the motto of: we don't want to miss the improvements of tomorrow so we won't do what's right today.  But this means that the ills of yesterday will persist. This must not happen," he insists. A leading technological country such as Germany must not only contribute to achieving sustainable energy supplies including the requisite infrastructure for its own people, but also to offering technologies that can be used by other countries.

Conventional power stations still necessary
Ewald Woste appeared very pleased with the energy turnaround so far. "I think we have been doing quite well in what we have achieved so far," said the board chairman of Thüga AG summing up the current standing. With shares in approximately 100 municipal utility services, the company is the largest network of regional power and water suppliers in Germany. However, the greatest successes of the energy turnaround can sometimes even prove to be a problem. Due to the rapid expansion of renewables, we are today already able to supply ourselves at times with over 100% power from renewable energy sources. "This leads to conventional power stations no longer being able to operate cost-efficiently," said Woste, explaining the situation. However, merely withdrawing them from the market is not the solution. Despite the success of the energy turnaround, we still need conventional technologies for a certain length of time. "We don't yet have an answer to the problem of power plants that are no longer cost-effective."

Citizen participation for greater acceptance
Another problem is that the south of Germany will require wind power from the north when the Grafenrheinfeld nuclear power station is taken from the grid in 2015. "Either we will succeed in building a power bridge through the Thuringian Forest or will have to invest billions in new power stations in Southern Germany - which the people don't want either," Woste explains the dilemma. To deal with these and other energy-turnaround challenges, the BDEW is calling for adequately advanced project organisation and a national Energy Turnaround Platform. "We must get all the different stakeholders to the table, we must talk openly about the problems and we must reach a consensus," believes Woste. Drawing on his experience with Thüga, he adds that wherever the citizens are integrated into projects, criticism is more moderate and acceptance higher.

As CEO of Solarinitiative München, Harald Will is well acquainted with acceptance problems, albeit from a different perspective. "I had an intensive discussion with the Bavarian State Heritage Office concerning the debate surrounding: Photovoltaics everywhere -  Is this really necessary?" explained Will. He sees his primary responsibility in activating as much surface area as possible in Munich for solar systems. However, the regional capital is still far from achieving its target of producing solar power right on site where it is needed. "Although we have 3000 systems in operation here, we still only generate 0.5 per cent of the electricity required with photovoltaics." Things are quite different in the surrounding areas where numerous roofs are fitted with solar modules so that Bavaria as a whole generates a total of 10% solar power. Will emphasises that towns must also capitalise on their solar potential much more efficiently. Only then can an efficient form of consumption-oriented energy generation be achieved.

Adaptation of the EEC to the requirements
Töpfer is not convinced that the idea of a new ministry of energy is a particularly good one. "Anyone who really wants to implement something within a relatively short period of time should not set their minds on a new ministry," he advises. The ethics commission for safe energy supply, of which he is a prominent member and which advises on the phase-out of nuclear power, has instead suggested an energy forum to ensure the professional management of the energy turnaround . "This has not been the case so far," comments Töpfer with regret. The example of the Hartz labour market reforms has proven that external solutions can be developed, he says. He believes that it is essential to engage a professional project management supported by commerce and industry, and to introduce a corresponding monitoring procedure.

Woste is of exactly the same opinion. He recommends the adaptation of the German EEG law governing renewable energies: power stations should primarily be built where power lines are already in place, even though this might not be quite simple. "I have the impression that in addressing the adaptation of the EEG we have touched on something sacrosanct, and anyone attacking anything sacred will have to deal with extreme criticism," he fears. However, he is also certain that the efforts will not only pay off in macroeconomic terms in the long run but also for each person as an individual. The energy turnaround can succeed if certain points are taken into consideration. Professional management is important, the integration of relevant players and, above all, the timely consideration of citizens' interests help in finding the solution.

The next dialogue forum will take place on 14 May and address the question of "Social mobility– Hamster wheel or new-found freedom?".

CB, 15 April 2013