Future energy supply

A brief sociology of the switch to renewables

Joachim Nitsch* and Uwe Pfenning**, 28 May 14
Electricity is having an ever-greater impact on our daily lives. We discuss the fears and myths that are accompanying the transformation of Germany’s energy system.

The switch to renewables is on everyone’s lips – but does not yet seem to have arrived in everyone’s heads. Some politicians seem to be having a particularly hard time getting to grips with the notion that renewables can provide a modern industrialised society with a reliable energy supply. But is the switch to renewables really so controversial? Opinion polls show that the majority of the population (over 70 percent!) supports it, although people are also critical of increasing electricity prices. Yet this is not a contradiction. People accept the goal of climate protection, but they are critical of the actors in the energy sector and political sphere. However, what seems to be a much greater problem is that the switch to renewables has so far only been discussed as a supply system; far too little attention has been paid to its psychological and cognitive impact on individuals.

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Why is there such a high level of acceptance for the switch to renewables? This question is easy to answer, as transforming the energy system makes sense in a whole range of ways. First of all, it makes political sense. For the first time, a democratically legitimised energy system is becoming a fixture in public discourse in Germany. We are also seeing more and more participation in energy projects at the grassroots level. It also makes sense from an energy supply point of view – there are already over one million privately owned renewable energy plants. It makes financial sense, demonstrated by the fact that significant investments have been made in over 1,000 energy cooperatives. It also seems to makes sense for institutions, as local governments have set up new municipal utilities. And it makes ideological sense for the various energy-self-sufficient communities that have sprung up. All of this has been possible thanks to renewables’ decentralised energy production. And let’s not forget how quickly a technology system can die off if it does not have the support of the people – one need look no further than the nuclear industry for evidence of that!

This brings us to how the switch to renewables makes sense for society. For the first time since the 1970s, it seems that the public no longer regards large-scale energy-supply technology merely as an economic growth factor, but rather as an instrument for a sustainable and ecological future. The idea of energy saving and energy efficiency only starts to make sense in this context. And it has far-reaching consequences: energy does not only have a value – it becomes a value in and of itself, a cultural and educational asset. This also has an impact on the current shortage of skilled workers in technical and scientific professions. Energy and environmental technology degree courses are currently very popular, especially with female students. Renewable energies also make sense geopolitically. The debate on importing controllable solar energy, for example from North Africa, could lead to great opportunities for reducing the North-South divide. This would be of benefit to both sides: the North would benefit from a reliable energy supply, while the South would enjoy economic development and greater prosperity.


* Joachim Nitsch is a senior researcher at the German Aerospace Center. He coordinated the pilot studies for the Federal Ministry for the Environment and was a recipient of Eurosolar’s German solar prize.

** Sociologist Uwe Pfenning is a researcher in the systems analysis and technology assessment department at the German Aerospace Center’s Institute of Technical Thermodynamics.


This is an abridged version of the article – the complete text is available in issue 5/2013 of new energy.

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