As Switzerland braces itself for yet another heated debate on its energy future, what is happening to the revolution begun by its northern neighbour?
Germany’s historic 2011 decision to close all nuclear power stations by 2022 was hailed as a bold step to a cleaner future. Six years later, Germany’s greenhouse gases are still rising, and it looks like it will miss its Paris Agreement emissions targets for 2020. Switzerland is watching anxiously.
The decision to hasten Germany’s exit from nuclear power has left a supply void which energy companies of all persuasions are racing to fill. One result has been a boom in clean energy - mainly wind and solar.
However, an unwanted, but not unanticipated, secondary effect has been to increase dependence on fossil fuels. And of the fossil fuels, Germany is most reliant on coal, the worst of all greenhouse gas emitters, and the source of other nasty pollutants, such as those that cause smog and acid rain.
Clearly, it is proving difficult to solve two thorny environmental problems simultaneously: eliminate nuclear and reduce pollution. Some concerns are being raised that the latest edition of the German law which is steering the transition to renewable energy risks undoing some of the gains made so far.
Opinions on how to manage the energy transition remain as divided as ever.
Andrew Boneexternal link is a Lugano-based translator and writer covering environmental issues in Europe, specialising in energy issues. He has bachelor's degree in environmental science and a master's degree in environmental management from the Imperial College of Science and Technology in London.
Market or state
One school of thought says governments should wait for economies of scale and improvements in technology to reduce the price of renewables to the point where the market will buy into them of its own volition. To some degree, this is already happening. Renewables can be cheaper than fossil-generated power, even without subsidies.
Another school of thought says the issue of energy is broader than the profit and loss sheets of vested interest companies.
Governments, it is argued, have an obligation to guide the transition to clean energy more forcefully, through the carrot and stick of subsidies and taxation. For a quarter of a century, the German government has enjoyed the support of the public, and actively overridden opposition to the development of renewable energy - with impressive results. Yet this success has not silenced the sceptics.
At over €20 billion (CHF21.4 billion) per year, the level of German investment in energy has not been seen since the government poured tens of billions into the nuclear industry in the 1980s.
Germany has the second highest electricity prices in Europe, just behind Denmark, also a major wind promoter.
Twice as much
The average household in Germany now pays twice as much for its electricity as it did in 2000. A little less than a quarter of a German householder’s electricity bill is for a feed-in tariff (FIT). This was a cornerstone of previous versions of the law on renewable energy sources, and was designed to ensure access to the grid for small producers, such as owners of solar panel rooftop installations.
The 2017 revision to the renewable energy law shifts the focus to more market-based instruments.
Instead of a raw subsidy to equalise prices across the market, grid operators will have greater freedom to choose whom they buy their power from.
This is a major sea change for the programme, and the risks are great, especially in an election year, and in a market with stubbornly low energy prices, due in part, it must be said, to the success of the renewables themselves.
On May 21, the Swiss are being asked to vote on the government’s Energy Strategy 2050. The core issue is how to replace the shortfall in electrical power as the nuclear power stations pass beyond their use-by date over the next 15-20 years.
Energy efficiency and elimination of waste is a major part of the equation, but whether or not renewable energy, either domestic or imported, will be sufficient to meet future demands will be the question addressed, if not fully answered, by May’s nationwide vote.