Energy People

The challenge of a changing world

Jörg-Rainer Zimmermann, 3 Jun 13
Wolfhart Dürrschmidt dedicated his career to Germany’s switch to renewables. At the end of 2012, he retired from the Federal Environment Ministry where he worked for 22 years.

Change is inevitable – and attempts to prevent it are doomed to failure. This goes for all types of systems, too. Wolfhart Dürrschmidt found this out from a young age. “We weren’t allowed to say a word when we crossed the border from East to West Berlin with our parents, shortly before the Berlin Wall was built.” He is soft-spoken, with a touch of the Saxon dialect from his childhood mixed with expressions from his second home, Baden-Württemberg. And when he speaks about his life, he sounds clear and confident. Dürrschmidt has lived all over Germany and left an academic career for the civil service. “My horizons were wider because I experienced two types of society when I was a boy. I am convinced that radical change, however traumatic, also gives people a chance to start over. In hindsight, I can see that this belief defined my working life. I always fought for what I truly believe in, namely the switch to renewables, the big system transformation.” Last December, Dürrschmidt left the Federal Environment Ministry, retiring as a ministerial counsellor and head of division after 22 years. The success of renewable energies in Germany is due in no small part to him, although the public is not generally aware of his role.

Like many other pioneers of nuclear phase-out, climate protection and the Renewable Energy Sources Act, Dürrschmidt was inspired by the early days of the green movement. However, he was always politically neutral. He was happy to let his talents develop. “I was very good at maths and science at school. If I’d had a stronger family connection to Oberrot*, where we lived at the time, then maybe I’d have stayed there and worked as a carpenter.” He says this without false modesty, although he completed his PhD in physical chemistry at the University of Tübingen in 1979. (*Schwäbsich Hall district, Baden-Württemberg).

Microwave spectroscopy, quantum physics, molecular research – Dürrschmidt’s main research fields were a truly explosive combination. It’s no wonder that companies were so keen to hire him. “I had job offers from nuclear research institutes and the arms industry. One job involved developing guided missiles, but I would never have done that.” Dürrschmidt observed himself and the system around him with critical distance. He wasn’t interested in just making money fast. “I thought a great deal about what I wanted to do with my life. When I accepted a temporary job at the University of Kassel because I found the topic interesting, some of my colleagues thought I was very odd.”

1980 was the year when Dürrschmidt really turned his back on conventional energies. Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker was president of the University of Kassel at the time. A short, but revolutionary, book by the Oeko-Institut - “The Energy Turnaround – Growth and Prosperity without Oil and Uranium” – was the subject of heated public discussion. In this intellectual climate, a new course was set for the future. Weizsäcker founded the Interdisciplinary Working Group on Adapted Technology, which Dürrschmidt later joined. The group focused on the decentralised use of renewables in industrialised countries and on socially acceptable and environmentally friendly technical innovations.

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