Shortcomings and Perspectives of the German Energiewende

By Tobias Haas and Hendrik Sander*

Germany’s so-called Energiewende (energy transition) is a broadly discussed issue. This article surveys its current state and identifies several major shortcomings. First, the “Energiewende” is so far little more than a first step toward an electricity transition. Second, the social character of the Energiewende only partially challenges capitalist relations and follows to a large extent the logic of ecological modernisation. Against the background of these shortcomings we will discuss strategies and campaigns of progressive actors that aim to transform the Energiewende. Crucial will be the following questions: 1) how to expand the Energiewende to the spheres of transportation and heating; 2) how to enforce the end of coal as an energy source; 3) how to establish new ownership structures (examining energy referenda in Berlin and Hamburg); and 4) how to constitute a narrative and practice of the Energiewende that makes it an attractive project for trade unions.

The term Energiewende was coined by the Öko-Institut in a 1980 research study (Krause et al. 1980). At that time a transition toward renewable energies was little more than a utopia that grew within the ecological movements. But as nuclear energy became further delegitimized after the catastrophe of Chernobyl in 1986, more and more people and small enterprises intensified their search for alternatives to the existing fossil-nuclear energy regime. In 1990 the first feed-in tariff (FiT)1 for renewables (Stromeinspeisegesetz) was passed and in 2000 it was extended by the Renewable Energy Act (Erneuerbare Energien Gesetz, EEG). These developments, in combination with broad support and participation from civil society and sharp cost reductions especially in solar and wind technologies, culminated in a renewable energy boom within the German electricity sector. The share of renewable energies increased from 6.6% in 2000 to 32.5% in 2015 (Agora Energiewende 2016: 3). This growth was mainly driven by wind and photovoltaic installations but also by biomass and to a minor degree by new water-power stations and geothermal energy.

The German renewable energy boom was also widely recognized abroad. While Naomi Klein discusses the German Energiewende in Capitalism vs. the Climate (2014), Thomas L. Friedman celebrated Germany in his New York Times column as “the Green Superpower” (Friedman 2015). For several reasons, we do not share this enthusiasm. But, and this is our central argument, there are several promising approaches inherent to the Energiewende that have to be advanced in struggles for a “real” Energiewende.

The purpose of this article is to identify how to further push the energy transition in an emancipatory direction. We will begin by developing a theoretical perspective drawing upon the work of Antonio Gramsci. We will then analyze the current status of the Energiewende and explore its major shortcomings. The Energiewende breaks only partly with capitalist social relations, and largely follows the logic of ecological modernisation. Third, against the background of these shortcomings we will discuss strategies and campaigns that aim to transform the Energiewende in a progressive way.

Theoretical perspectives on energy transitions

Against the background of the financial and economic crisis and related crises including those of climate and energy, a new discursive space analysing the roots of these crises and possible solutions has emerged (Markard et al. 2012). But as Ulrich Brand (2011) suggests, the majority of these approaches exhibit a “steering optimism,” i.e. the assumption that society can be directed in deliberate ways to achieve intended outcomes, irrespective of the societal conditions of production and reproduction and the inscribed power relations.

One widely discussed approach to energy shifts in the European context is the “Dutch” school of transition theory. Verbong and Geels (2012) claim that transition approaches focus too much on technological innovations and fail to conceptualize conflicts within civil society. Instead conflicts are assumed to drive green innovations. Another shortcoming they identify is that the focus on policy instruments and economic links coincides with an underestimation of the impact of values and ideology. Against this background and intensified conflicts within European electricity markets, Geels (2014: 21) claims that transition research should reflect more on obstacles to sustainable transitions by including insights from political economy: “…many transition-scholars have too high hopes that ‘green’ innovation will be sufficient to bring about low-carbon transitions. Future agendas in research and policy should therefore pay much more attention to the destabilization and decline of existing fossil-fuel regimes.”

To conceptualize the struggles between supporters of the fossil-nuclear energy regime and the new forces pushing for a renewable energy regime, we draw on Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, which combines elements of oppression with elements of consent. Hegemony refers to the capacity of a social group to universalize particular interests by material concessions, the ability to exercise ideological leadership and to form strategic alliances. The terrain of struggle is the integral state that includes civil society and the state in a narrow sense.

Following Gramsci, we can distinguish political projects and hegemony projects that are operationalized in quite different manners (see Kannankulam and Georgi 2012). Political projects refer to concrete social and political struggles that can cause a dynamic renewal and reconfiguration of the historical-structural level and its underlying relations of forces (Bieling et al. 2013: 234-236). Hegemony projects unite material interests with ideological orientations and are connected to actors bound together by common interests and strategies. Hegemony projects are neither static nor coherent. Their participants may be even internally highly heterogeneous, e.g. the mainstream parties of the Christian Democratic Union of Germany and Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CDU/CSU) and Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) capture the whole breadth of energy-policy orientations. Hegemony projects are grounded and advanced by concrete political projects that claim to offer solutions and aim to universalize the hegemony project (Bieling and Steinhilber 2000: 106).

We can distinguish two conflicting projects within the energy policy field. The first is bound (materially and ideologically) to the old centralist fossil-nuclear energy regime. We call this the grey hegemony project, emblematic of their huge power stations. This project hints at preserving the current power and destructive societal-nature relations. While the grey actors tried to abort the energy transition for a long time, they eventually performed a strategic maneuver of slowing down the Energiewende by pushing the transition in a direction that follows the logic of the old centralistic energy regime, e.g. by implementing large-scale, off-shore wind parks. The main actors advancing this project are the four formerly oligopolistic energy companies (RWE, E.ON, Vattenfall and EnBW), the majority of the communal enterprises (Stadtwerke)2 and their associations (BDEW and VKU), large parts of the German industry and its association (BDI), and large parts of the trade unions (especially IGBCE and Verdi).3 Furthermore, several think tanks linked to German industry (like the RWI, EWI and the IW)4 are skeptical towards the Energiewende, as is the German Ministry of Economics. The central political projects of this spectrum have been the following: 1) to abolish the EEG (Renewable Energy Act) by arguing that it is neither cost-efficient nor compatible with the European carbon-trading system that was introduced in 2005; 2) to adjust the carbon-trading system so that it serves the interests of the grey factions of capital; 3) to extend the lifetime of the nuclear power stations to maximize profits; and 4) to introduce so-called “capacity mechanisms” to subsidize the existing but no longer profitable fossil power stations (based on the argument that renewables are too expensive and volatile).

The rival hegemony project is bound (materially and ideologically) to the emerging renewable energy regime. We call this the green hegemony project. This project hints at a fast transition to a renewable-energy regime and, at minimum, less destructive societal-nature relations. Furthermore, the green actors envision a more decentralized energy regime with at least partly new actors providing the energy supply. But regarding the social character of the new energy regime, there are different visions within the project: some actors link the Energiewende to a concept of ecological modernization focusing on a technological renewal without fundamentally questioning the current societal power relations, while others seek socio-ecological transformation linked to new forms of participation and ownership and decentralization of the energy system. The “green” enterprises and business associations like the Bundesverband Erneuerbare Energien (BEE), Bundesverband Windenergie (BWE) or Bundesverband Solarwirtschaft (BSW) are important drivers behind the Energiewende. But the Energiewende – unlike most energy transitions in other countries – has strong roots within civil society based on energy cooperatives, private investors, farmers, and a broad consensus on the advantages of a renewable-energy regime. Some communal utilities (Stadtwerke) are linked to the green project, as are parts of the trade unions (e.g. IG Metall) and more clearly several environmental NGOs and the Ministry of the Environment. The central political projects of the green spectrum have been to defend the EEG with its guaranteed feed-in tariff (FiT) and to promote a vision of a decentralized renewable energy system connected to other forms of socialization. Watchwords for these visions are “energy autonomy” (Hermann Scheer) and “energy democracy” (Mueller 2012). Linked to these goals is the nuclear phase-out as well as the coal phase-out. The latter has emerged as a new project within the last few years.

Brief history and shortcomings of the Energiewende

Beginning with the struggles of the environmental movements in the 1970s, the green hegemony project has grown continuously stronger. The struggles against nuclear energy were flanked by the search for alternatives. These search processes took a long time but were the necessary precondition for the breakthrough of wind and solar technology in the 2000s. Another important aspect was that green movements became more and more institutionalized (establishment of the Green Party, environmental ministries and bureaucracies). In 1998 the Green Party, by forming a coalition with the Social Democratic Party (SPD), entered the federal government for the first time. On the one hand the Green Party, a former “movement” party, abandoned several of its core elements including the pledge not to participate in a war of aggression. On the other hand, they laid the basis for a more rapid energy transition with the EEG and for the nuclear phase-out, which was negotiated in 2001. The EEG was mainly developed by parliamentarians (including Hermann Scheer) and enforced against the resistance of the Ministry of Economics led by Werner Müller, who had very strong ties to the fossil-nuclear energy corporations. The compromise for the nuclear phase-out was negotiated by the Ministry of the Environment with the four big power companies (the Big Four). These developments indicate that the green hegemony project was no longer marginalized but became more influential and a serious threat to the grey hegemony project.

In 2000 the share of renewable energies (mostly hydropower) in Germany was around 6.6% of gross final consumption. In 2010 a share of 17.0% was reached, that increased to 32.5% in 2015 (Agora Energiewende 2015a). Demand for electricity was more or less constant; therefore the growth of renewables (mainly wind, photovoltaic and biomass) caused a decline of the old capacities. As the potential for biomass is limited and only minor price reductions occurred, the 2014 EEG amendment almost completely suspended the expansion of biomass use.

The growth of renewable energies was driven by broad consent from civil society. This consent is, to a large degree, an active one, meaning that many people are engaged in establishing and maintaining energy cooperatives, house owners install PV-panels on their roofs, and farmers participate in the Energiewende. Some communal utilities have acted likewise. In contrast to these developments, for a long time the Big Four saw renewable energies only as a threat to their traditional business (for some good reasons). But in the late 2000s, the companies’ boards had to realize that the future will be renewable and, if they wanted to survive, they had to start investing in renewables by establishing green subsidiaries. These developments explain why, in 2012, 46% of the ownership of Germany’s renewable power-generation was in the hands of private citizens and farmers, 14% was owned by project developers and the industry, 13% by institutional investors, 7% by regional/municipal utilities and only 5% by the Big Four (Agora Energiewende 2015b: 9).

The Big Four, as core actors of the grey hegemony project, found themselves in a delicate situation. They had to exploit their capital that was bound up with the centralistic fossil-nuclear energy regime and at the same time they had to respond to the Energiewende. In the late 2000s, the grey actors focused on expanding the lifespan of their nuclear power stations by starting an aggressive campaign that was coordinated by the Atomforum (a corporate pressure group). The campaign succeeded. In 2010 the new conservative-liberal government extended the running time of the power stations although there was huge discontent within civil society and juridical doubts about the formal correctness of the decision. But after the Fukushima catastrophe in March 2011, Chancellor Merkel had no other option than to dramatically shift the line of the government and to enforce a plan to phase out nuclear energy by 2022. The struggles around the use of nuclear energy in Germany right now turn only on the question of storage and funding. The Big Four seem to admit that there is no window of opportunity to extend the runtime anymore. At the same time Merkel proclaimed her new Energiewende. She suggested that it was her project even though it was initiated 30 years earlier and she only modified the feed-in system in a corporate-friendly direction. Nonetheless she was successful in establishing a public narrative that it was her achievement.

Parallel to the nuclear conflicts, at the beginning of this decade, capacity payments were developed as a kind of rescue channel for the increasingly unprofitable power stations. The core argument of the business associations BDEW and VKU that push for capacity markets is that they were necessary to maintain the “security” of supply in spite of higher shares of “volatile” renewables feed-in. This issue is, in contrast to the struggles against nuclear energy, not a highly politicized topic. As the energy-intensive German industry is highly skeptical of capacity mechanisms and due to significant overcapacity in the market, there is no obvious need for capacity mechanisms. This insight is shared by the current Minister of Economy, Sigmar Gabriel, who opposed the introduction of capacity payments in face of intense lobbying pressures. So far the grey spectrum has not been very successful in defending their old business model.5

But against this background, and by arguing that the EEG was too expensive and a threat to the competitiveness of the German industry, a campaign to “Stop EEG, make the Energiewende” (EEG stoppen – Energiewende machen) was launched by the Initiative for a New Social Market Economy (Initiative Neue Soziale Marktwirtschaft), a campaign-oriented think tank financed by business associations. The campaign started in 2012 and aimed to slow down the energy transition and push it in a more “market-conforming” direction by suspending the feed-in-tariffs and “integrating” renewables into the market. The Minister of the Environment, Peter Altmaier (CDU)—a close ally of Chancellor Merkel—took up the argument about the costs of the energy transition, arguing that the total costs of the Energiewende could add up to one trillion Euros (Faz 2013). In addition, the grey forces argued that the Energiewende was driving energy poverty. Thus they were able to significantly weaken popular support for the transition. Against this background, the EEG amendments in 2012 and—under the current Grand Coalition (of the CDU/CSU and the SPD)—2014 provided strong incentives to decelerate the energy transition by sharp declines in reimbursements and partially turning away from the guaranteed feed-in tariffs (introducing instead feed-in premiums and tenders). At the same time, the conditions for expensive off-shore wind parks were improved and the excessive reliefs for the German industry were untouched.6 In slowing down the Energiewende and pushing it in another, more centralized direction, the grey actors had some successes that corresponded with a positive but now more skeptical view of the Energiewende within civil society.

As already mentioned, the green spectrum was relatively successful in defending the EEG, although some concessions had to be made and parts of the original green spectrum started to question the FiT system. Among others, the think tank Agora Energiewende, which was led by Rainer Baake, a former Green Secretary of State, pleaded in 2013 for a stronger integration of renewables into the market (Agora Energiewende 2013). These shifts reflect the rapid development of renewables. But the proponents of FiTs have lost ground for several reasons. For example, its most important proponent, Hermann Scheer, died in 2010. Nonetheless, there is still broad support for the Energiewende; the forces within the green spectrum that orient towards a decentralized energy system have partly reoriented themselves and established the “Citizens Energy Network” (Bündnis Bürgerenergie) in 2014, a new platform for strengthening and connecting existing initiatives.

As the project to phase out nuclear energy—after decades of struggles—has achieved relative success, a new project has developed over the last few years: the coal phase-out. The share of hard coal (or anthracite, more energy-dense and less polluting) in the German electricity mix was about 18.2% in 2015, lignite coal contributed 24% (Agora Energiewende 2016: 9). While hard coal is now almost all imported, lignite coal is abundant in Germany. RWE, with its coal district in the Rhineland, and Vattenfall, with its coal district in the Lusatia, are materially locked into the coal path. As lignite coal is highly carbon intensive and air pollution is a very serious problem, there is a strong sense of urgency to phase out coal by 2030. There is a broad consensus within civil society that the carbon reduction targets that were proclaimed by the German government should be fulfilled (-40% by 2020, at least -80% by 2050) and a coal phase-out is the easiest way to get on a less carbon intensive path. Thus, there is a good chance to succeed in this issue as well. With all these changes, the Big Four face a serious challenge. E.ON and RWE especially suffered from big deficits in recent years. Therefore, they are fighting even more aggressively to defend their supremacy. Thus the battle is not yet won.

As has been illustrated, there have been important successes in the struggles for the Energiewende that rested upon a strong environmental movement and decades of activism. However, from our perspective there are also two serious shortcomings of the Energiewende. First, up to now, it is not much more than a Stromwende (electricity transition) as opposed to a broader energy transition. While the share of renewables within electricity generation is over 30% in 2015 and will continue to grow in spite of the newly established hurdles, the share of renewable energies in total energy consumption is only around 12%. This indicates that there have been extremely weak advances in the other energy spheres of heating and transportation, which are still almost exclusively dominated by fossil-energy sources. This does not to speak to the agricultural sector and the fact that—regarding grey emissions—the world export champion Germany (in monetary value) is a net importer.7 This clearly indicates that Germany is very far from being a green superpower. The second shortcoming is that the social character of the Energiewende only partly breaks with the prevailing class relations and follows to a large extent the logic of ecological modernisation. The ecological movements in Germany have always had their social basis mainly in the middle classes and so has the Energiewende. There are different possibilities for capital and homeowners to benefit financially from the Energiewende and a very large part of German industry enjoys reliefs  while benefitting from declining stock market electricity prices8 (Arepo Consult 2013).

For left movements, the challenge is to strengthen approaches that are based on new ownership models, especially public-ownership models, and to make the Energiewende attractive to the most marginalized sectors of society as well as the trade unions.

Strategies towards a comprehensive socio-ecological transformation

There is a twofold challenge for emancipatory actors fighting for a “real” Energiewende and a fundamental socio-ecological transformation (Brand et al. 2009, ISM 2011, Haas and Sander 2013). On the one hand these actors can be seen as part of the green hegemony project. In this position, it is their task to join forces with the ecological actors against the grey project and to radicalize the green hegemony project in an anti-capitalist direction. The severe crisis of the German power companies could be utilized to further delegitimize and destabilize them. On the other hand, the progressive forces must intervene in the future design of the Energiewende to transform it into a comprehensive project of profound socio-ecological change. In this process, the balance of forces within the green project has to be shifted and new actors—like trade unions, tenant initiatives, and unemployed workers and grassroots groups—have to be integrated into the green alliance via common struggles, campaigns and political projects. They must prevent their project from being integrated into a program of ecological modernization (Mol et al. 2009, Jänicke 2012) and must push it beyond capitalist constraints.

There are several promising starting points for such work. First and foremost, the sine qua non for a comprehensive socio-ecological transformation is to extend the described electricity transition to the spheres of heating and transportation. Indeed, the federal government launched a scheme for the promotion of renewable energies to supply heat a couple of years ago.9 But the incentives are not strong enough to replace the previous fossil-fuel forms of heating with new approaches based on renewables. Moreover, the existing structures in this sphere are even more persistent than the ones in the electricity sector. A new act would be needed to press ahead with renewable heating. Small-scale approaches on the household level and renewable supply by public utilities especially should be promoted. In contrast to the long tradition of movements and actors in electricity policies, there are neither agile grassroots initiatives nor assertive pressure groups to transform policy toward heating. However, a promising example is the successful struggle against the so-called Moorburgtrasse in Hamburg. The Swedish state-run utility, Vattenfall, planned to build a district heating pipeline to make its new hard-coal power plant, Moorburg, profitable. The designated pipeline would have caused a trail of destruction in the centre of Hamburg. A grassroots initiative, Moorburgtrasse stoppen, backed by broad support from civil society, was able to thwart the pipeline, provoking a considerable loss for the fossil-fuel utility.10

A similar picture can be drawn in transportation. The big automotive companies like Daimler and Volkswagen (VW) still bet on CO2-intensive combustion engines that are patronized by all German governments and continue to be in demand by motorists. In the meantime, there are some hybrid cars in the streets and the government commenced a program incentivizing the purchase of electrically-powered automobiles. Its objective is to increase the number of electric cars to one million by 2020. The program is not really accepted by consumers though. Furthermore, electric cars do not challenge the fundamental structures of the automotive society that wastes a lot of resources, plasters the entire country with a dense web of streets and motorways, makes cities a hostile place to live, and, not least, claims many people’s lives due to air pollution and accidents. Nonetheless, not only the grey forces but also many actors of the green project focus on electrification of automobiles (Paterson 2007, Wolf 2009).

In contrast, public transport is generally viewed as too expensive and neither attractive nor extensive enough. Massive traffic reduction is needed together with an urban design for short distances and a traffic model that generally affords bicyclists and pedestrians right of way. Some progress has been made in matters of a bicycle-friendly city in smaller towns like Oldenburg or Münster in the last years. But there is still a long way to go. Furthermore, public transport must be extensively promoted as tramways, buses, subways and trains have to run more frequently and new lines have to be established especially in urban peripheries and in rural areas. Not least, free public transport could be a concept that combines ecological and social objectives and adumbrates the vision of a post-capitalist mobility. European cities like Hasselt (Belgium), Tallinn (Estonia), Manchester (UK) or Toulouse (France) have had positive experiences with this approach though problems of implementation remain.11

In Germany there is a whole slew of initiatives for alternative traffic concepts. Initiatives fight against the extension of motorways. The association Allgemeiner Deutscher Fahrrad-Club12 (general German bicycle club) lobbies for bike-friendly policies, and regular “critical masses” of cyclists appropriate the streets for a short period of time in many cities. Progressive pressure groups like Bürgerbahn statt Börsenbahn13 (people’s rail instead of stock market’s rail) promote a passenger-friendly railway and resist attempts to further privatize the German railway system (Wolf 2006).14  Some initiatives fight for social tariffs in municipal public transport or even for a free system. There have been campaigns and actions for free local mass transit especially in Bremen, Hannover, Hamburg, Berlin and Tübingen (Sander 2010, Die Linke im Bundestag 2015). Around 2010 there was a broad and strong-willed movement against an extensive and absurd project to reconstruct the central railway station in Stuttgart called “Stuttgart 21” (Spiegel Online 2010). Admittedly, the corrupt elites triumphed in the end in this case (Lieber 2011).

All these struggles should be encouraged and linked in a common fight for a just and comprehensive energy transition. Renewable sources for heating and transportation constitute major sites of political contestation. Even in the relatively successful sphere of electricity transition this contest continues, as opposition to the green hegemony project has recently gained some ground. In this light, environmentalists need to take a number of steps to defend the electricity-transition — and broader energy transition — against the attempts of the grey coalition to slow down the development of renewable energies and to channel them into a corporate-friendly and market-oriented project.

Only big business benefits from huge offshore wind parks, supposedly market-compliant tenders, and exemptions for heavy industry. Hitherto existing FiT schemes and their basic principles should be re-established, as they are the only guarantee for a massive roll-out of and rapid changeover to renewables. For this purpose, the recently introduced limits to the extension of wind and solar must be withdrawn and the targets for renewable energy must be increased. Green actors should ensure that first and foremost local and small-scale technologies are promoted and are controlled by a variety of small owners. The exceptions for the industry should be drastically reduced as a first step.

The feed-in tariff scheme must be preserved until an entirely new design for the electricity market is devised – a project that technocratic think-tanks, policymakers and lobbyists already have begun to debate (Agora Energiewende 2012). The ecological left should intervene in this controversy and advocate a design that is based upon wind and solar, addresses the intermittency problem (caused by the fluctuation in the availability of sunlight and wind) by new means (especially new storage technologies), and completely abstains from coal and nuclear power. Even though ecological actors are forced into a serious defensive position by the power companies and their allies, attempts to coalesce the numerous non-corporate operators of renewable energies and the growing number of energy cooperatives into a collective political subject must be intensified. The Bündnis Bürgerenergie (Citizens’ Energy Alliance) could potentially be a strong force in this regard.

One of the core reasons for the inability of the green actors to counter the advance of the grey coalition lies in their failure to find a sound answer to the social question: electricity costs were at the centre of conflicts around the energy transition in recent years. The grey actors succeeded in attacking renewables by accusing them of having caused a massive explosion in electricity prices. In fact, power companies and big industry are to blame for rising prices as well (Becker 2011). Hence their deceptive arguments must be publicly unmasked (Rosenkranz 2012). Nonetheless they were so successful in discrediting green energies because the social question remains an exposed flank of the green project. As yet, environmentalists have no plausible answers and no effective strategies to address these problems (Sander 2015). The social problems reveal certain limits to the green project in its conventional form, its strong middle- and upper-class bias, and its restriction to ecological targets. The origins of the green project in the middle-class-based environmental movement may explain this bias. It is true that the rising costs of renewables result in higher energy prices for households and thus contribute to energy poverty. On the other hand, rich households benefit disproportionately from renewables (Techert et al. 2012). Left intervention into energy policies therefore requires a sound green strategy against social inequalities in energy supply.

The general purpose is to enforce electricity for everyday needs as a human right for all inhabitants. Therefore prices must be regulated in a different way. First of all, the offering of social tariffs to poor households should be generalised to all utilities. Currently, only a few utilities have these in their portfolios. Furthermore, every corporation would have to pay the same amount of money for one kilowatt hour and a public body should supervise the setting of prices – this was the case during the Fordist period of economic regulation in Germany. New policies must be invented that afford poor households the ability to participate economically in the growth of renewable energies. For example, landlords could launch community-based renewable energy projects on the roofs of industrialized buildings, from which all tenants of the house can benefit. To push such policy-level changes forward, new grassroots political practices would need to emerge, which are capable of addressing the question of energy poverty and inequality and of achieving noticeable improvements for those who are most affected. The pressure groups of the unemployed, the tenants and the consumers already do a good job in providing advice and immediate support.15 Yet these efforts should be connected to ecological struggles and a more confrontational public praxis.16 Regrettably, there are few examples of grassroots initiatives standing up against energy poverty. Some consumer groups have organized boycotts against the increase in gas prices by utilities in recent years.

While the question of prices was essential in the last election period, the debate about the future of the coal industry has been gaining importance since the new federal government took office in 2013. This dispute is an important political arena for the future shape of energy supply. In particular, the emergence of a coal phase-out as a new political project has been gaining momentum in recent years (Agora Energiewende 2016). Now it is up to the emancipatory forces within the environmental movement to intervene in defining this project and ensuring a rapid and comprehensive exit from coal dependence. This is especially the case because lignite is extraordinarily CO2-intensive and coal-fired power stations are a major economic cost for the big utilities. An abrupt exit from coal could accelerate the downturn of the already stumbling companies. Crucial steps necessary for a coal phase-out on the policy level are to prevent capacity or forward markets (which compensate corporations for investment in capacity years into the future), to stop all coal-burning power plants that are under construction or in the planning stage, and to prohibit the opening of new lignite opencast pits. Environmental NGOs and citizens’ initiatives have been successful in blocking the building of more than a dozen coal-fired power stations in recent years.17 In the end, the utilities were only able to connect a few new plants to the grid. However, some incomplete projects remain which might still be completed.

The essential battlefield of the struggles around coal has been the lignite industry and especially its opencast mining pits in the Rhineland (West Germany) and in Lusatia (East Germany). Though the coal industry is suffering from a severe crisis, there are still plans to open a number of new pits. The spectrum of the anti-coal movement is quite broad. Fortunately, there is a long tradition of small but persistent local resistance within the regions in question. Beyond that, left-wing grassroots groups started to organize annual climate camps there following the failure of protests at the 2009 UNFCCC-summit in Copenhagen. In the camps some hundred activists discussed the power structures in energy politics in numerous workshops, developed practical alternatives, and above all started direct actions against the pits, the plants and the rail tracks connecting them.18 Furthermore, some anarchists started to occupy the “Hambacher Forst,” a virgin forest close to the lignite opencast pit “Hambach” in the Rhineland that RWE further deforests year in and year out to support mining operations. To sabotage this ecological destruction, the activists have barricaded themselves in tree houses and have burrowed tunnels under the forest soil.19  Again and again they have been attacked and evicted by the RWE security and police officers with a disturbing amount of violence.20

In 2015 these struggles reached a new stage when the different groups and factions of the German climate movement joined forces in the newly created campaign Ende Gelände.21 Anarchist groups, the Interventionist Left, ATTAC, some progressive NGOs, and degrowth activists coalesced into a new alliance. In August 2015 more than a thousand activists started from the “climate camp” close to the small city of Erkelenz in the Rhineland for a civil disobedience action. They swarmed through the fields and were able to breach the police and the RWE-security lines of defence by flooding through the officers. Climate-activists thereby managed to enter the apocalyptic pit and to prevent the operation of the gigantic excavators. The campaign was a huge success for the movement and experienced broad and positive attention from abroad and from the German public. Jürgen Döschner, a journalist with the German public broadcaster WDR, played a crucial role in legitimizing and popularizing the campaign when he supported the environmentalists in several commentaries and articles.22 Ende Gelände was able to intensify the conflict against coal and to appeal to a potentially sympathetic part of the progressive middle classes, which had already been made politically aware by decades of anti-nuclear protests. Motivated by their success, the groups involved in Ende Gelände have already organized a spring-time action in Lusatia.

Still, some open questions and challenges for the radical environmentalists remain: how can the campaign effectively contribute to a faster transition from coal on the state-level? How can it socially broaden the struggles for climate justice and bring them back into the cities? Not least the question of the workers’ future must be at the heart of any comprehensive left strategy towards a coal transition. The anti-coal movement must find a satisfactory answer to how the socio-ecological transformation could be linked with a social perspective for the workers employed in the fossil industries and the residents in these regions. Unfortunately, trade unions rather act as an obstacle in the current conflict over the future of the coal industry as they try to adamantly defend the jobs of all employees in this declining sector. The background is that the unions traditionally had a strong base in the coal industry and therefore were able to achieve relatively good labour conditions and high wages. In order to achieve a broad consensus for a green future, environmentalists must be able to convince workers that a socially sound and personally desirable life beyond coal is possible. It is therefore helpful to engage with the concept of a just transition in order to win the unions, the employees and the residents over to a socio-ecological transition (Bullard 2011, Candeias 2011). What is needed is a conversion of the old dirty industries and companies to a new ecological economy, which creates well-paid and meaningful jobs with decent conditions of work for the former coal-workers, a regional value-added tax revenue, and, not least, a healthy environment. For this purpose, a comprehensive and coherent program has to be launched, which offers substantial public funding and includes a re-training scheme for the workers.    As a first step, pilot projects serving as exemplary showcases must be established within the most affected areas to demonstrate what just transition could mean in practice. In this respect the partial deindustrialization of the Ruhr is a negative example of how a market-driven process leads to unemployment, poverty and shrinking cities. In contrast, especially regions like the Rhineland and Lusatia must become role models for a working program of change. Regrettably, hardly any positive examples can be found in the previous history of industrial change. In fact, “just transition” is rather a discourse of critical scholars, progressive NGOs and farsighted trade unionists. The debates initiated for example by ATTAC or the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation are promising starts but more is needed. Therefore, one of the crucial challenges for environmentalists is to dedicate themselves to this question, to develop intelligent concepts, effective campaigns and practical examples and to form new alliances with sympathetic actors among the workers and within their unions. Indeed, the concept of the think tank Agora Energiewende (2016) for a long-term coal phase-out comprises a “Structural Change Fund” for a social transition in the affected regions. Yet this is only a first step.

Another problem is the bad labour conditions within most of the green enterprises like Enercon, the German market leader in the construction of windmills, or the declining German solar industry. Low wages and union-busting are widespread within the renewable energy sector. Against this background, it is understandable why trade unions focus on defending the ecologically dirty but socially decent workplaces in the coal industry and regard the new technologies with suspicion. Hence it is even more important to speak up for better conditions in the green enterprises. In this context the organizing campaign of the metal industry trade union IG Metall in the wind sector is an encouraging development. For example, it has been able to achieve the establishment of workers’ councils against the fierce resistance of green capital (Dribbusch 2013). The attempts proposed so far are all auspicious possibilities for strengthening emancipatory strategies in energy politics. But what they lack is an idea that helps to forge the currently disparate elements into a coherent and compelling narrative.

Energy democracy as a common narrative and praxis

The concepts of energy democracy and energy sovereignty could help to interconnect the manifold struggles in the field of energy policies and create a generalizing narrative for the separate demands (Mueller 2012, Weis et al. 2015). Developing these concepts must therefore be a major objective for all emancipatory forces within the environmental movement. In this context the socialization of the whole power supply should be an orienting perspective. That means all persons involved or affected must have the chance to collectively and directly take part in decision-making in the production and supply of energy.

More and more households have installed PV panels and a growing number of green energy cooperatives have been founded in recent years. Ordinary people have thereby been able to individually or collectively control their own means of production. That is why the previous feed-in tariff scheme must be defended and new policies launched to encourage such attempts. Only the FiT system can give households, which have a limited amount of capital available, the predictability and the incentives required to invest in PV. Yet all these attempts are hampered by a structural limitation: they address the non-corporate operators as bourgeois and not as citoyens.23 A finite number of individuals control an infrastructure that actually concerns everybody and gain a private return just by owning the assets. What is more, predominantly well-to-do households have the renewable energies at their disposal and thereby grow even richer.

In view of these restrictions, democratized public and municipal utilities are a more promising path to accomplish energy democracy. Irrespective of their class-background and on the basis of their inalienable civil rights, all citizens could formally participate in the configuration of energy policies. This is why the many recent attempts at remunicipalization are crucial. Often local politicians take the initiative in bringing privatized utilities back under public authority. In other cases, citizens’ action committees speak up for a legal nationalization or prevent a planned privatization of a public utility (Matecki and Schulten 2013). For instance, a local alliance in Hamburg won a referendum forcing the municipal government into remunicipalizing the grids. The initiative Unser Hamburg – unser Netz (Our Hamburg – our grid) started a petition for a referendum in 2011 to get the local grids for electricity, gas and community heating back under public authority. These had been controlled by the big utilities Vattenfall and EON. Despite the SPD government’s fierce campaign to defend the capitalists’ interests, the alliance was able to win the referendum in 2013.24

Even when a utility is under public authority, it is still hard for the public to effectively take a hand in its operation, as political forces within the state try to retain control, and the structures of the representative bourgeois state obstruct any attempt to directly impact state policies in a democratic way (Poulantzas 2014). Therefore, a radical democratization of the energy supply is needed. “Sacramento Municipal Utility District” (SMUD) is cited in many debates in Germany as an example of a relatively democratic public utility. While there are many progressive energy cooperatives in Germany, there is unfortunately no instance for a democratic public utility. That is why the case of the Berlin roundtable on energy (Berliner Energietisch) is so significant. This initiative launched a popular petition for the remunicipalization of the local grid and for the reestablishment of a public utility in the German capital (Blanchet 2015). Since the beginning of the 21st century, the Vattenfall corporation has controlled the production, distribution and sale of energy in the city. As the concession contract for the local grid was due to expire in a few years, a range of environmental NGOs, anti-globalization initiatives, radical left groups and individual party activists decided to establish the roundtable on energy in 2011. The alliance set itself the target to accomplish a social, ecological and democratic power supply, to be put into effect by means of a local law that the citizens of Berlin could hold a vote on. This act comprised a number of ground-breaking mechanisms for participation that transcended the customary representative democracy and provided the opportunity to go beyond the mere nationalization of a local utility and to proceed to its socialization and thus a radical democratization of state apparatuses.

The roundtable gained strong approval within the population, civil society and the media. The left-wing party Die Linke actively supported the campaign on the city and district level. On the basis of this encouragement, the alliance’s activists successfully completed the two required phases of collecting signatures. Had they won the referendum at the end of 2013, the city government would have been forced to comply with the people’s demands. Unfortunately, the instrument of direct democracy exhibits some serious limitations, particularly since several potent means for obstructing the referendum are at the government’s disposal. In this case, the government and especially the ruling SPD substantially supported Vattenfall and fought side by side with the bourgeoisie against the grassroots campaign. It scheduled the referendum at a difficult time enabling only around 600.000 citizens to vote on the roundtable’s law even though there was near-consensus in favour of the law among Berlin’s population; it had nearly 85 percent support but not enough actual voters. The initiative just missed a necessary quorum as not enough voters took part in the poll. Though the referendum formally failed, the roundtable was still a very successful campaign not least as it was a positive example of how to combine a general demand for socialization with a practical struggle that effectively can be won. The emancipatory forces succeeded in confronting Vattenfall as an abhorred representative of the grey capital faction, and initiated a shift within the green project towards a socio-ecological transformation.


In the competition between the grey and the green hegemony projects, recent decades have witnessed a massive rise of renewable energies and green capital factions. To counter this green ascendance, the grey forces launched different strategies to defend their business model that strongly relies on centralized nuclear and coal power plants. Recently, the question of a coal phase-out has been at the core of energy-related conflicts.

We have shown that there are particular shortcomings of the current Energiewende as it is limited to an electricity transition and only partially challenges the dominant ecological and societal relations. Emancipatory strategies therefore need not only to support the green project’s struggle against the grey forces, but also to aim at a transformation of the green project itself. Progressive actors should extend the electricity transition to the spheres of heating and transportation; they must also seek an amplification of the Energiewende beyond its capitalist constraints. The task of the emancipatory forces within the environmental movement must be to weave all the struggles presented above into a comprehensive project of socio-ecological transformation which could open a perspective for a green socialism. The concept of energy democracy could coalesce these attempts. For this purpose, the struggles of social movements are crucial. But critical scholars and their analyses can also play an important role. The combination of these efforts throughout civil society is vital to break down bourgeois hegemony and constitute a counter-hegemonic future project.


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*We are grateful to Nino David Jordan and the editors for useful and positive feedback.

1. A FiT guarantees priority access to the grid and a stable remuneration for the supplied electricity from renewable energies. The expenses for the FiTs arising within the EEG are raised by a charge to all final consumers, with German industry enjoying generous relief.

2. The Stadtwerke and its association VKU play a specific role. Apart from two exemptions they do not have shares in nuclear power stations but as some made huge investments in fossil power stations, be it electricity only or cogeneration of heating and power, VKU pushes for capacity mechanisms and a slowing down of the Energiewende. That is why we add the VKU in its majority to the grey project.

3. The BDEW (Bundesverband der Deutschen Energie- und Wasserwirtschaft) represents the four huge energy companies as well as the public utilities whereas the VKU (Verband Kommunaler Unternehmen) represents only the public companies. The BDI (Bundesverband der Deutschen Industrie) is the most important voice of German industry. While the trade union IGBCE (Industriegewerkschaft Bergbau, Chemie, Energie) represents a lot of workers in electricity intensive branches, Verdi (Vereinte Dienstleistungsgewerkschaft) organizes a lot of workers within the four big companies and the public utilities.

4. RWI (Rheinisch-Westfälisches Institut für Wirtschaftsforschung), EWI (Energiewirtschaftliches Institut an der Universität zu Köln), IW (Institut der deutschen Wirtschaft).

5. Still, there is no schedule for a coal phase-out, and the decision to close several old coal plants until 2020 is a “golden handshake.” Nonetheless, the Big Four are in a very defensive position.

6. The relief for German industry from the EEG apportionment is around five billion Euros per year. Arepo Consult (2013) estimates that in 2013 the total subsidies for German business regarding energy and emissions were around 16 billion Euros.

7. Germany exports around 25% of its carbon emissions to foreign countries via exported goods. At the same time, the imported emissions add up an additional 40%. That means that a consumption-based calculation leads to a carbon footprint that is around 15% above the production-based calculation, see Lee (2011).

8. Stock market electricity prices are constituted via the merit-order procedure. Additional feed-in of electricity from renewable sources without marginal costs causes shrinking stock market prices.







15. See for example:

16. See for example:


18. and





23. Karl Marx differentiates between these two terms. While the bourgeois acts as an egoistic proprietor of means of production in the capitalist market economy, the political citoyen can act collectively and cooperatively with his own kind as a member of the political community (Marx 1971).



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