There are several words in the English language that have their origins in German, such as blitzkrieg, hinterland, and kaput. The most popular of them, however, is perhaps ‘kindergarten’, which is an amalgamation of ‘kinder’, which means children, and ‘garten’, which is garden. While every society has educational facilities for young children, German kindergartens emphasize learning outdoors in the woods or other natural, open spaces. The idea of the kindergarten spread globally—even if other societies do not exactly practice it the same way.
Energiewende is one such German word that encapsulates both an idea and, more recently, a global process—even if, like ‘kindergarten’, countries interpret it differently. The term refers to the transformation of an energy system towards more efficient, simpler and cleaner sources of energy.
In Germany’s case, the Energiewende is a cocktail of policies in Germany that purports to make the economy more energy efficient and wean it off coal and nuclear energy, in favour of renewable sources such as solar, wind and hydropower. The country thus wishes to respond to the dual concerns of climate change and nuclear safety.
A global history of Energiewende
Germany, of course, is not the first country to have a transition plan, nor is its transition plan the most aggressive. However, the world is watching Germany with keen interest as it has a large and innovative manufacturing sector and wishes to transition away from both coal and nuclear, unlike many other economies where the transition plan is primarily away from coal.
This is also the first time in human history that such a massive transition is being planned by policy over concerns on environmental degradation. Among the first ever uses of external energy was by our ancestors when they began to use fire about 800,000 years ago. Half a million years later, about 300,000 years ago, ancient man began to use fire to cook. This simple innovation made food more palatable, safe and easy to digest, thereby leaving precious resources within the human body for other functions, notably mental tasks. With more blood available for brain functions the human brain evolved eventually making humans owners of the largest brains in the animal world (as a proportion of body size).
Since the first uses of fire, every subsequent transition of energy source by humans has been borne out of convenience and cost economics. For hundreds of thousands of years, humans primarily used wood and other such biomass fuels for lighting, heating and cooking. A major transformation took place in early 11th century, when pioneering businessmen began producing and selling coal as a viable alternative to wood. Although coal was first used thousands of years prior to that, it began its journey into the mainstream, so to speak, of human life only in the 1200s, when artisans and blacksmiths in London began using it as fuel.
Coal provided far greater energy content than wood, thereby making it useful in a host of applications. It also complemented the development of various kinds of technology, including the steam engine, which led people and therefore science and technology to travel further than it ever had. This transition from biomass to coal was the first great energy transition – or the First Energiewende.
Technological advances, economic progress, colonial plunder, wars, discoveries, the spread of literature, trade and several other facets of civilizational evolution and progress were either made possible, or their scopes were expanded due to the transition of the global economy towards coal. The adoption of coal also had an unlikely effect: it ended up saving forests, as it helped to replace wood as the predominant source of energy.
Yet another transition took place many centuries later, when petroleum began to go mainstream. The first petroleum product to have found a mass market was kerosene, which was adopted for lighting purposes after the Civil War in the U.S. in the 1860s. In fact, kerosene replaced whale oil, thereby mitigating the hunting of sperm whales. In the 1900s, owing to hustling pioneers in the USA and a co-evolving automobile industry, oil took off as a transport fuel, this despite initial scepticism. In 1867 B. F. Isherwood, Chief of the Bureau of Steam Engineering in the US Navy said,
“It appears that the use of petroleum as a fuel for steamers [ships] is hopeless; convenience is against it, comfort is against it, health is against it, economy is against it, and safety is against it. Opposed to these the advantages of the probably not very important reduction in bulk and weight, with their attending economies, cannot prevail.”
He – and others who held this view – were proven spectacularly wrong only a few decades later, as oil quickly become the dominant fuel in the shipping, air and land transport industries. Oil had various advantages over coal. It had greater energy density, it was easier to store and handle, combusted more uniformly, and gave off less ash and emission. Importantly, oil injection could be controlled far better than coal, which often required manual input. This growth and dominance of petroleum was the second great energy transition – or the Second Energiewende.
Petroleum also found great applications in various other industries such as chemicals and textiles, which quickly turned it into a strategic fuel—a matter of policy, especially military. This energy source quickly captured the collective imaginations of militaries and political leaders globally, both in order to win wars and to grow their economies. Many petroleum producing states were brought to socio-economic ruin due to the pervasive nature of the industry.
Nuclear energy emerged in the early 20th century, first in theory and then in experimental form. British physicist Ernest Rutherford in 1904 wrote, “If it were ever possible to control at will the rate of disintegration of the radio elements, an enormous amount of energy could be obtained from a small amount of matter.” In the decades that followed, advancements were made in the understanding of nuclear physics first in Germany, and then in the U.S.
The world truly entered the nuclear age in 1942 when physicist Enrico Fermi successfully demonstrated his nuclear reactor.
Of course, nuclear energy was also to be weaponized to devastating consequences in Japan towards the closing stages of World War 2. Nuclear energy was to emerge from this horror in 1951, when it was used to generate electricity for the first time in the United States. Although dangerous when used irresponsibly, nuclear energy seemed to hold a great promise—to revolutionize how humans used energy.
People made wildly optimistic projections, with some forecasters predicting a utopia of a clean economy with plentiful energy for all applications and users. After quick growth in the 1960s, the nuclear industry had to slow down in the 70s and 80s due to the lack of public approval following a few accidents, and the resulting political opposition to it. Although there was renewed global interest later as new nuclear reactors made nuclear energy safe, the nuclear industry is still seen to be struggling again today.
In all these years, Germany too had become an economy run on coal – it was the world’s 8th largest coal producer until recently. It built a leading high technological industry during the second world war on the backs of the Nazi party’s ambitions. The industrial tradition carried on after the world wars, as Germany rebuilt its economy on the backs of complicated engineering and quality production. This also led to severe environmental degradation in industrial clusters.
Later in 1969, Germany’s first commercial nuclear power plant was built, and within a few decades, nuclear energy was contributing to nearly 20% of its electricity supply. This new source of energy was seen as a solution to the localised environmental destruction caused by coal use. In the recent years, the repercussions of fossil fuel use have also entered the political mainstream, as knowledge of climate change has trickled down in German society.
The power rebels
While Germany wanted to go big on nuclear energy at one point, an energy revolution was brewing in certain pockets of the country. Even though the Fukushima accident of 2011 has been perceived to be a turning point in the German government’s policy, it is by no means the starting point of Germany’s own latest Energiewende.
That story has roots going back several decades and has its underpinning in democratic activism.
Well before 2011, there was 1986. One spring morning in the town of Chernobyl in the Soviet Union (now Ukraine), disaster struck. In this town, there existed a nuclear power plant built by the Soviet government for the twin purposes of generating power and nuclear weapons. The reactors in Chernobyl and other parts of the Soviet Union in that era were built to be large, and were constructed in haste to meet the political expediencies of the
Cold War era. As a result, there were serious design flaws. For instance, compared to the “Scram” emergency systems in western reactors that took 3 seconds to shut down in case of an emergency, the Soviet “Rapid Emergency Defense” system took 20 seconds to shut down, an eternity in comparison.
On that fateful day of the 26th of April 1986, one of the reactors at the Chernobyl plant was to run a safety experiment. Due to design flaws and the lack of qualified nuclear engineers at the site at that moment, there was an explosion that killed 30 people on site instantly, according to Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters by James Mahaffey.
The Soviet government, embarrassed by the event and steeped in Cold War paranoia, did not initially inform the global community of the accident. However, Swedish nuclear scientists detected high levels of radiation that they could not explain. When questions were asked, the Soviet government eventually admitted to the disaster three days later.
In Germany, which is more than a thousand kilometres away from Chernobyl, the news was initially reported with composure. There was no sign of large scale public panic. However, in the following days, government officials began confiscating fruits and vegetables. Children were ordered indoors. Naturally, citizens began to wonder if something was wrong.
This sense of citizen alarm was especially acute in the Black Forest region of Germany, as a radioactive cloud approached the region. People realized that there was something to be concerned about as weather reports started reporting radiation levels, and as they saw officials take radiation readings in their region.
One resident of a town called Schönau placed an advertisement in a local newspaper which started with the words, “Who is worried about the future of their children after Chernobyl; who wants to do something and doesn’t know what?” A total of seven people responded to this advertisement and together, they formed a group called “Parents Against Nuclear Power”, with a goal to reduce German dependence on nuclear power.
This fledgling group, not energy engineers but school teachers, a doctor, a policeman and a forester – argued that the way to do this would be to reduce power consumption. They took this idea to the local power company, but were met with ridicule. The company claimed that this could not be done and would cause financial losses. So Parents Against Nuclear Power took matters into their own hands, and held a competition in Schönau, giving incentives – such as discounts at local stores – to reduce electricity consumption. As a result of this, electricity consumption in the region fell 20%: the programme was a success!
Naturally, this did not please the local power company. So, they responded by suing this group of parents. Media coverage took their story to a wider audience. This group of parents started being called the Power Rebels.
In 1990, the Power Rebels decided to take over the power grid from the local power company and set up their own renewable energy plants in order to be in control of their energy choices. When they approached the local government to buy out the power company, they were told to present a detailed plan of what they would do. At this juncture, they needed technical expertise on the team. Which came in the form of a volunteer from another town who had heard about the Power Rebels in the media. This volunteer – an engineer – prepared a 500 page feasibility report that has stood the test of scrutiny and time.
In order to buy the grid and control their own energy choices they also needed to win two referenda in the town. The two referenda were held in 1991, and the Power Rebels won both after some frantic local campaigning. The real challenge, however, lay ahead: they now had to raise a multi-million deutsche mark sum to buy the company.
They used donated advertisement space to run a nation-wide campaign with the tagline “Ich bin ein Störfall”, which translates (non-literally) to “I am bringing down the system”. The campaign was a success, and the Power Rebels received donations from across Germany. They took control of the company in spite of strong opposition. As academics Craig Morris and Arne Jungjohann write in their book Energy Democracy, the power utility had “lost this war in every conceivable way: hearts, minds, data, facts, (and) analyses”.
The group of concerned parents, comprising schoolteachers, a policeman, a doctor and a forester, had bought out the local power company. The Chernobyl incident had triggered an energy revolution over a thousand kilometres away from the accident site.
Football on the streets
Those who lived through the 1970s in Germany remember when they could play football on the roads on Sundays because cars had been banned. These car-free Sundays were not a result of conscious choice – but a forced outcome of oil shocks.
Like with Fukushima and Chernobyl, the issue began far away from home – in distant Middle East, where Israel had gone to war with Egypt and Syria, with U.S. support in 1973. Miffed with America’s role in the region, the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) decided to stop supplying oil to the U.S., and eventually cut production by up to 25%. This led to oil prices skyrocketing from $2.9 a barrel to $11.7 a barrel, making it unaffordable to most other oil importing nations as well.
German consumers felt this impact in the form of oil price hikes, panic buying of oil, vehicle bans, rising unemployment and an economic slowdown. While West Germany had more consistent supplies of oil because they did not impose price ceilings or quotas, the German public at large understood immediately that excessive reliance on energy imports presents risks to the economy and their ways of life.
In its aftermath, Germany intensified efforts to make internal combustion engines more efficient, thereby consuming less energy. The International Energy Agency headquartered in Paris was created in 1974 in the aftermath of the oil crisis, and they mandated a 90-day reserve stockpile of oil for member nations, although Germany already had begun stocking oil a few years prior to the formation of the IEA.
Today, the reduction of energy imports continues to be one of the transitional concerns of the country and has found its way into the Energiewende narrative.
“We said no”
While the 1973 Oil Crisis exposed the country to the risks of reliance on energy imports, another event that started in 1971 within Germany proved to be the birth of the anti-nuclear movement. It was not only the first time ever that the construction of a nuclear power plant was blocked in Germany, but also in the world. In fact, about five years later, there were anti-nuclear protests in New Hampshire in the U.S. inspired by the events in Germany.
It started in the south-western German town of Breisach, which sits right on the border with France. The state government had identified a spot close to this town for a nuclear power plant. Just across the border, France had already started constructing a nuclear power plant for domestic use.
The plant near Breisach was expected to create new jobs and meet future energy demand in the region, and therefore had political backing. Local farmers however rose up in opposition because, believe it or not, they feared the plant would increase water vapour and rainfall. A protest was organised and eventually 65,000 signatures were collected as part of an anti-nuclear campaign run by a local pharmacist and army reservist. The protest worked, and the site of the proposed nuclear power plant was shifted 20 km north to a village called Wyhl – and this is where things would eventually turn very messy.
When protests were taking place in Breisach in 1973, the mayor of Wyhl quickly stepped in and offered the state government an alternate site for the Breisach plant. He did so without informing or consulting his citizens. This was, however, a rural community that had been devastated by World War II. The experience had left the community sceptical of large industries and wary of any encroachment of local autonomy. Little wonder that they felt betrayed by their mayor.
A campaign much like in Breisach was organised, which led to the collection of 90,000 signatures. While this itself did not stop the construction of the plant, a referendum on the issue was agreed upon, to be held in 1975. In the run up to the referendum, local radio stations and newspapers carried several pro-nuclear messages. Further, the police was used to intimidate protestors. Many of them had their phones tapped, homes searched, and many were charged under public order laws.
A public meeting held for the referendum itself broke into pandemonium as scientists invited by the anti-nuclear group were denied an opportunity to make their case, even as the state government made its pro-nuclear pitch.
The referendum was held amid this chaos, in which 692 votes were cast. The mayor and state government were left feeling vindicated, as 55% people voted for the nuclear plant, versus only 43% against.
Not accepting this verdict on grounds of a compromised referendum meeting, the anti- nuclear group organised an “occupation” of the construction site. Protestors began to swell, and the government responded by trying to remove them by force. Boats, police dogs and helicopters were all used by local police in this effort. The occupation ultimately numbered some 28,000 protestors as per police estimates. Many protestors were charged, and if found guilty, they could have landed in prison for years.
By then, the protest had morphed: it was no longer just a protest against nuclear energy, but also against government high-handedness. The ruling government was no longer perceived to be in touch with the people. The police chief ultimately came out openly against the government’s high-handed strategy against its own people. The protests were soon replaced by negotiations. To begin with, all charges against the protestors were dropped.
The battle moved to court, where lawyers and subject matter experts debated all issues related to the power plant. In 1977, the lower court ruled in favour of the protesters. This victory was short lived, as in 1982, this decision was overruled by an appeals court. And once again – just like that – protesters occupied the nuclear plant site.
In no mood to continue the stand-off, the government eventually decided to cancel the project. In the words of Craig Morris and Arne Jungjohann, the authors of the book Energy Democracy, “the proponents of nuclear energy had won the court case but lost the argument.” German historians, they say, believe that the Wyhl and other protests that followed “turned former subjects to active citizens.”
In Wyhl, to this day there exists an inconspicuous three foot tall stone tablet. It has the date 18 February 1975 and the words, “nai hämmer gsait”: “we said no.”