“To curb the expansion of wind energy…”

Interview: Jörg-Rainer Zimmermann, 29 Jan 14
That’s the new German government’s intention according to Christian Social Union (CSU) member of the Bundestag Josef Göppel, who helped to draft the coalition agreement but in the end did not approve it.

new energy: Mr Göppel, you played a part in drawing up the coalition agreement as a member of the energy working group, but in the end you did not accept the outcome.  Why not?

Josef Göppel: Party leaders changed the energy working group’s text in two major areas. Firstly, the special regulations for community energy projects were removed. Secondly, a minimum output of 75 percent was specifically added for wind energy in line with the reference yield model. The original idea that good locations throughout Germany could still be operated more economically was thus undermined.

ne: In your opinion, what does the agreement mean for climate protection and a successful switch to renewables in Germany?

Göppel: Unfortunately, we can’t expect electricity production targets to be reached under these conditions, even after the expansion corridor introduced under former environment minister, Peter Altmaier. Towards the end of the legislative period, we will hear calls for a time extension for nuclear power plants once again. Alfred Gaffal, president of the Bavarian Industry Association,recently demanded that the Grafenrheinfeld nuclear power plant, which is due to be shut down in 2015, be kept running for longer. I suspect that the nuclear industry’s plans for a revival are behind the slowing down of renewables in the coalition agreement.

ne: Many observers do not share such fears, partly because the legislative process would be too complex. Instead, given the views of the new Social Democratic Party (SPD) energy minister, Sigmar Gabriel, many fear a return to coal...

Göppel: Maybe we south Germans have a somewhat different view of this issue. For us, nuclear power plants play a much greater role.

ne: The coalition agreement has already been criticised for opening the floodgates to fossil fuels. Ulrich Kelber, who was previously responsible for the environment in the SPD parliamentary group, recently called for the greater use of gas power plants. Where are we headed with the SPD?

Göppel: In the SPD, and also in the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), there are two schools of thought. The first strongly supports the further expansion of renewables because it is seen it as an economic model for the German export economy, and a way to provide seven billion people with clean energy. The other side emphasises the difficulties and weaknesses, such as low energy density, which has to be laboriously concentrated and is not consistently available. These people are the “structural conservatives” who can be found in every social system. This type of thinking led to the collapse of the old east European systems, which couldn’t keep up with new technological and economic conditions. Recently, the Federation of German Industries repeatedly railed against renewables – that’s clear structural conservatism. The Federation’s officials still have exactly the same thought patterns as those in the old industrial world. They believe that power plants have to be large and centralised – then they count for something. Renewable energies and their control technology, the internet, are interconnected worldwide, but they are decentralised and small scale.

ne: Peter Altmaier furthered a wave of insolvencies in the German solar industry. Are you worried something similar will now happen in the wind industry?

Göppel: The intention is clearly to curb the expansion of wind energy. Some representatives of the CDU/CSU are concerned that we will produce too much power in the future. At the same time, those same people are also moaning that we need to keep more conventional energy sources at the ready, and they want to introduce capacity markets for them. I think that’s schizophrenic.

ne: The switch to renewables really has to pick up pace for the sake of climate protection. Can it actually be done?

Göppel: First, changes are now due to industry’s exemption from paying the Renewable Energy Sources Act surcharge; then the first half of 2014 will be dominated by amendments to this Act, which will be accompanied by a new version of the Energy Industry Act. But we can only really achieve the targets set for 2030 and 2050 by expanding renewables further and introducing new energy market regulations. This task is sure to fill the next legislative period.

ne: Do you think we will witness a German divide, and continue to find hardly any wind farms in the south? Aside from the coalition agreement, Bavaria has campaigned for tighter regulations on the minimum space between turbines…

Göppel: If the “pincer movement” comprising distances of ten times the height of a turbine and a minimum output of 75 percent becomes a reality, no more wind energy will be produced south of the Central German Uplands. This represents a massive breach of trust. There are serious disputes within the CDU/CSU. Two years ago, under Horst Seehofer, the Bavarian government adopted an energy concept that aims to expand wind energy to cover ten percent of Bavaria’s energy needs. But now, the same government is doing a U-turn. It has put a moratorium on all planned wind farm projects. There is a lot of bitterness among CSU members who have been involved in community energy cooperatives.

ne: The new government doesn’t seem very interested in decentralised community energy. Why is that?

Göppel: I can only speculate that a return to fossil fuels and nuclear energy is behind it all. That’s not only a bad move economically, but also a huge political mistake that will have dire consequences. Renewables have hardly any flexible costs. From around 2018 onwards, we will see that the plants that have been paid off will be able to produce electricity far more cheaply. The entire public opinion will change then.

ne: How do you explain the gift to offshore wind energy just before the end of the coalition talks? 

Göppel: That was down to the involvement of Stephan Weil, the minister-president of Lower Saxony, whom the SPD deliberately assigned to the energy working group. Independently of this, Weil has also called for widespread grassroots participation.

ne: What are your thoughts on the watered-down statements on biogas? The sector was already in big trouble even before that...

Göppel: The restrictive statements on biogas are based on demands from Bavaria. Personally, I am fully behind them. A certain amount of dense input material is beneficial for the fermentation process and gas yield, so we shouldn’t stick exclusively to waste materials. Small biogas plants that use slurry will continue to expand in Bavaria.

ne: Do you think there are any significant achievements as regards the switch to renewables in the coalition agreement?

Göppel: In a sobering comparison of this text with that agreed between the CDU and the liberal Free Democratic party (FDP) in 2009, I see no real progress in any of the targets.

ne: Does this also apply to energy efficiency?

Göppel: Admittedly, this area does have the most concrete statements. But the EU’s energy-saving target of 1.5 percent per year has not yet been fully implemented.

ne: However, many experts regard the targets as completely inadequate...

Göppel: It will be a matter of clearly spelling out the mechanisms for implementing the EU directive. It isn’t simply a matter of setting a target, but also of designating the body that will be responsible for it. That was left out of the coalition agreement.

ne: Even the tax write-off in energy-efficient renovations has failed…

Göppel: I’ll gladly repeat – there has been no significant progress in comparison with the 2009 agreement.

ne: But staffing issues are likely to be crucial in the ministries, aren’t they?

Göppel: Since being elected to the Bundestag, I have seen four coalition agreements. In my experience, people read into the agreement whatever suits them best. Political actors are therefore seen as very significant.

ne: Will the establishment of an energy ministry – as has now been decided – be able to help renewables? This was an extremely controversial issue prior to the formation of the new government.

Göppel: We discussed this intensely in the energy working group, and established that seven federal ministries are involved in discussions on the switch to renewables. The ministry of justice, the ministry of the interior, the finance ministry, the agriculture ministry and the ministry of transport all play a very role alongside the environment ministry and the economics ministry. Although we now have a ministry of economics and energy, the specialised input from the other ministries is not redundant. And the other ministers will definitely still want to have their say.

ne: And Sigmar Gabriel? As former federal environment minister he didn’t exactly do much to bring about the switch to renewables…

Göppel: Gabriel is under pressure to succeed in the future. The SPD will only be able to gain majorities if it resolves environmental issues credibly. That’s an opportunity for the switch to renewables.

ne: You mentioned the term “capacity markets”. What suggestions can you make for a future system design?

Göppel: I think it’s important to stop selling renewables entirely on the spot market of the stock exchange. This means we have to better integrate the 900 German regional electricity suppliers in order to boost direct selling. These electricity suppliers are the bridge between producers and consumers. They have a better insight into the local market than the large grid operators, which have no direct relationship with individual consumers. The problem of overflowing spot markets can therefore only be solved with the greater involvement of regional suppliers and an optional marketing model that brings green electricity straight to the end customer. The marketing structures of the old, centralised energy sector do not work well with decentralised production.

ne: Mr Göppel, following these coalition talks, when will you be joining the Greens?

Göppel: In 1970 I joined both the CSU and Friends of the Earth in Bavaria. I have been a member of the CSU for 43 years and I don’t plan on changing that. I would like to show that a conservative party can tackle the great challenges of the future in a credible way. A major objective in the CSU’s manifesto is to distribute assets more widely and create more stable conditions for the middle class. Renewables could achieve this by allowing people on lower or medium incomes to go from being passive energy consumers to key actors in the switch to renewables. The switch to renewables fits in perfectly with the core principles of the CSU. I have helped the CSU to win elections for four decades now with a consistently high proportion of personal votes.This proves that even conservative voters want credible environmental policies.