Energy Anxiety

Energy Anxiety

After more than half a century of dependence on Russian oil and gas, the war in Ukraine has forced German officials to reconsider their reliance on fossil fuels entirely.

Water vapor rises from the cooling towers of the coal-fired power plants of Neurath, Germany on February 8, 2023. (Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)

Though more than 1 million Ukrainian refugees have fled to Germany since the Russian invasion last February, the ballooning cost of energy is what has most directly catapulted the war to residents’ doorsteps—or, more accurately, their wallets. On October 1, the German government began adding a “solidarity levy” to all gas bills, raising energy costs by a factor of “a few hundred euros per household” to reflect the skyrocketing cost of energy after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The increase has affected around 20 million residences; every other home in the country is heated using gas.

After more than half a century of German officials fostering dependence on Russia for oil and gas, Putin’s war in Ukraine—and the subsequent international pressure on Germany to take punitive action—have forced officials and residents to reconsider their reliance on fossil fuels entirely. Some are looking to Germany’s Energiewende, or energy transition—a decade-old set of renewable energy policies codified by former Chancellor Angela Merkel—with newfound optimism. The Energiewende aspires to make the country carbon neutral by 2045, a goal that controversially includes phasing out nuclear energy completely. As winter comes to a close and Germany’s inhabitants and politicians assess the full cost of their inflated heating bills, could substantial progress finally be made on the Energiewende? Or will German officials continue on the slow, centrist path?

In 2020, renewable energy powered 50.5 percent of Germany’s electricity supply, and 42.1 percent of the country’s grid overall. Still, until the war in Ukraine, experts were pessimistic about the country’s ability to meet its ambitious targets. In 2018, the country’s environmental ministry reported that a 1990 goal to reduce CO2 emissions by 40 percent by 2020 would not be achieved. That same year, the New York Times reported, Germany became “the world’s leader in the mining and burning” of brown coal, “one of the dirtiest fossil fuels.” Volker Quaschning, a Professor for Renewable Energy Systems at the Berlin University of Applied Science, published an influential study in 2021 demonstrating that the Energiewende would not be possible in its proposed timeframe. If Germany maintained its prewar pace, he told me, it would need roughly “200 years to become carbon dioxide free.” 

But the combination of the election of a new parliamentary coalition in December 2021 and the war in Ukraine appear to have prompted a shift in the political will to make changes to energy policy. Last spring, Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced that Germany now aims to be 80 percent reliant on renewable energy by 2030, with a “power supply based almost entirely on renewable energies” by 2035. When I asked EU Environmental Policy expert and Maastricht University senior researcher Martin Unfried if he thought Germany would have been on track to meet its Energiewende goals if the country hadn’t been forced to sever its ties to Russian energy, he was quick to reply: “No, of course not.”

In 1970, West German Chancellor Willy Brandt authorized the extension of the Druzhba (Friendship) Pipeline from the Soviet Union into Bavaria, providing oil to power German industry in exchange for supplying the pipes to carry the fuel. Wandel durch Handel, or change through trade, would become the central ethos of Brandt’s Ostpolitik, which leveraged commerce to normalize West German relations with countries in the Eastern Bloc. That fall, the future Nobel Peace Prize winner penned an op-ed for the New York Times explaining his government’s approach. “It is clear that any Soviet government will pursue its own interests as it sees them,” he granted, “but one should not exclude the possibility that these interests might occasionally coincide with Western objectives.” Not everyone was so hopeful: in a letter to Richard Nixon in early April 1970, Henry Kissinger mused, “Few people, either inside Germany or abroad, see Brandt as selling out to the East; what worries people is whether he can control what he has started.”

While Ostpolitik officially ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1989, later German leaders continued, and dramatically expanded, Brandt’s legacy of energy cooperation with Russia. When Merkel and then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev officially opened the gargantuan Nord Stream 1 pipeline in 2011, the $10 billion project was described by the German chancellor as “the basis of a reliable partnership” between Germany and Russia and “a milestone in energy cooperation.” Analyst and Freie Universität instructor Thomas O’Donnell summarized German politicians’ outlook before the war in Ukraine: “We can’t trust [Putin], but we’re dependent on him. We need the gas; we have no alternative. The Energiewende is costing so much money. We don’t have cheap natural gas, and we’re getting rid of coal and nuclear.”

The same year that Nord Stream 1 began funneling energy into Germany, the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster propelled Merkel to announce that the nation would wind down its nuclear energy industry. Construction also began on Nord Stream 2, a new pipeline meant to increase the flow of natural gas, now deemed a “transitional” source of energy to be used on the road to decarbonization. Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who helped shepherd the deal for Nord Stream 1 in 2005—and accepted a job as the director of the shareholder committee of a Russian state-controlled pipeline company seventeen days after leaving office that same year—played a major role in the creation of the new pipeline. When Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 rang alarm bells for some German politicians, Schröder vociferously advocated for continuing forward with Nord Stream 2. Representatives formalized an agreement to move forward with the pipeline in 2015.

In short: before the war in Ukraine, Germany bet heavily on Russian gas, partly because it had vowed to be off of nuclear by the end of this year and coal by 2030, and partly out of financial interest. By 2020, Russia provided Germany with about half of its coal supply and more than half of its gas. Former German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble assessed the country’s increasingly dire energy landscape with a sense of defeat. “I was wrong,” he admitted to the Guardian last summer, summarizing the outcome of German dependence on Russian energy. “We were all wrong.”

On February 22, 2022, in response to the outbreak of the war, Chancellor Scholz halted Nord Stream 2’s certification. (Though the pipeline was a single step away from operation, Scholz’s announcement followed a steady drop in energy supply from Russia since November 2021.) Between July and August 2022, Nord Stream 1’s steady flow of fuel slowed to a trickle, and the pipeline became a pawn in a tense game of chicken between Russia and Germany. On July 16, 2022, Scholz announced that Germany would reopen twenty-seven coal and oil-burning power plants to transition quickly off Nord Stream 1’s energy supply, a backward step the chancellor described as “temporary.” In September, both Nord Stream pipelines were damaged in a series of explosions that were soon identified as Russian “sabotage.” As of late February 2023, a UN investigation into the bombings—requested by the Kremlin—is ongoing, with Germany, Denmark, and Sweden conducting independent reports.

Despite the necessity of turning away from Russian energy supplies, experts remain divided on the feasibility of Germany’s ambitious, non-nuclear energy transition. Two of the biggest obstacles have been technology and political will at both the civilian and parliamentary levels.

O’Donnell remains skeptical about Germany’s ability to realize the ambitions of the Energiewende, especially without the use of nuclear power. He views techno-optimism—the belief that the Energiewende will be achieved through the use of technology that doesn’t yet exist, namely adequate energy storage solutions and smart grids—as part of the problem. In a country that is decisively “lagging behind in digitalization,” he said, “I wouldn’t bank on developing new technologies that [don’t] exist and completely throw out your whole system that works.” 

Conversely, Unfried directly correlates Germany’s winding down of nuclear energy with its dramatic surge in renewable energy use, up from 6 percent in 2000 to nearly 50 percent today. This increase, he said, “can only be explained by the phasing out of nuclear power.” Comparing Germany to the Netherlands (11 percent renewable energy use, as of 2020) and France (25 percent in 2022), where nuclear energy continues to be used, Unfried correlated Germany’s comparatively high statistic directly to its anti-nuclear agenda: “There is no scenario in Germany where you can go to 50 percent renewables and you keep nuclear power.”

Quaschning, the author of the pessimistic 2021 Energiewende study, emphasized that Germany’s best hope would be to lean heavily on wind and solar energy, since, unlike volcanic Iceland or forested Finland, Germany cannot rely on geothermal or biomass energy. (With the exception of some mountains in Bavaria, he continued, the terrain for hydropower is similarly unavailable.) He imagines a shift from an international energy economy—the kind that is vulnerable to the sort of shocks that brought Germany to its current crisis—to a centralized, domestic one, specific to each country’s geography and needs.

O’Donnell and Quaschning agreed, though, on a critical issue in renewable energy: storage. In a country with long winter nights, an Energiewende powered by solar and wind energies would require the existence of places to stash as much surplus energy as possible in the summer to keep showers running and apartments heated all year long. The issue isn’t just that sufficient storage technology doesn’t exist in Germany; it doesn’t exist anywhere. For O’Donnell, this was enough of an obstacle to rule out a large-scale shift to renewables altogether without significant continued reliance on nuclear. Quaschning, conversely, remains hopeful that battery technology could be used to meet household electricity needs.

Yet any environmental efforts will come up against the paradox of Germany’s current governing coalition, comprised of the Social Democrats, the Greens, and the market-liberal Free Democrats (FDP). The coalition was elected shortly before the war in Ukraine began. While the Greens oversee the economy, the environment, and food and agriculture, they were stymied by the loss of one of fossil fuel’s biggest sectors—transportation—to their onetime rival, the FDP, whose approach has been summarized by frustrated environmental lawyer Remo Klinger as “basically anything that would help us close the gap in our climate goals can’t happen.” In recent months, the FDP remained obstinate during bargaining over the implementation of the Climate Protection Act—a set of measures passed in 2019, and updated in 2021, that aim to slash Germany’s CO2 emissions by 2030.

After clawing their way back into parliament following an existential defeat in 2013, the FDP turned one popular effort at reducing emissions—a speed limit on the country’s infamous autobahn—into what Christopher F. Schuetze likens to “debates over gun control in the United States”: a symbolic political position that has become critical to the party’s identity.

The government has offered a few popular provisions since the energy crisis began, like a lump sum of €300 for all taxpayers and a price cap on energy bills beginning in January 2023, meaning that the government will subsidize 80 percent of consumers’ increased gas prices. In other words, affected residents can anticipate increased costs, but less than they may have initially feared. Last summer, in an effort to offset energy costs and discourage driving, government officials subsidized a €9 monthly train ticket—a fraction of the typical €86 fare Berliners pay monthly—that could be used on all public transportation, causing a 46 percent surge in ridership from April to June. After much deliberation, the Berlin government elected to extend a variation on this policy, offering a €29 ticket between October and April. Beginning in May, the German government will once again subsidize a nationwide public transportation ticket, this time for €49 a month. Measures like these have meant that the most catastrophic version of the German energy crisis, including potential outages, has been averted.

Moreover, the sudden need to disconnect from Russian energy could trigger a larger, international effort to move off of fossil fuels long term. Some of this is pure economic logic. “I’ve worked for thirty years in the sector of renewable power and climate protection,” Quaschning told me. “The whole time, everybody told me that there will be no solution to become carbon dioxide free; that renewable power is too expensive. Look at the prices at the moment: solar power is the cheapest technology.” In late October, the International Energy Agency published a report confirming that assessment. “For the first time,” the New York Times reported, the IEA “now predicts that worldwide demand for every type of fossil fuel will peak in the near future.”

But Quaschning still worries that price changes alone will not move Germany, along with the rest of the world, to a carbon-neutral energy system on the short timeline that climate change has imposed. Transformative climate policy capable of meeting Energiewende goals, he argues, would require a government willing to enact dramatic legislation, such as proposed initiatives to ban cars with combustion engines and put 31 million electric cars on the streets by 2025. Even with a powerful Green Party in the national government, such a policy cannot not be ratified now.

Unfried remains hopeful that the experience of energy anxiety will create lasting change—and that necessity is the mother of invention. While crisis-informed Energiewende compromises in the short term may be environmentally harmful, the experience of sky-high fossil fuel prices could prompt significant changes down the line. “Industry, private households, they are all looking for alternatives,” Unfried said. “People will remember that, I think, in the future.”

Eliza Levinson is a writer based in Berlin. Her writing has been featured in publications including the Nation, Teen Vogue, VICE, Artforum, and Frieze.