At first glance, the efforts to find solutions to what is probably the toughest political challenge just now appear somewhat unspectacular: a meeting room, a dozen or so experts, some maps on the wall – and a pin board on which Patrick Graichen is attaching cards about the “transmission price”. In actual fact, Graichen, formerly a longstanding section head at the Federal Environment Ministry, is one of Germany’s leading experts on practical questions of energy policy, and decision-makers from renowned institutions – utility companies, consumer associations, unions, ministries at federal and state level, and universities – have assembled in the meeting room. Here, at the offices of the Agora Energiewende in Berlin’s Rosenstrasse, they are discussing the framework conditions that have a major bearing on the energy transition.
Making an economic success story of Germany’s transition to renewable energies
By 2050, Germany’s goal is to switch its electricity production more or less completely to renewable energies and to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases by 80 to 95 percent as compared with the country’s 1990 levels. This timescale and the ambitious targets make the energy transition one of the world’s most forward-looking undertakings – a project for an entire generation. If it proves possible to entirely restructure the energy system of the world’s fourth-largest economy and make it an economic success story, this will be extremely motivating for other countries around the world.
What are the objectives?
Switching to renewable energies will be possible in a number of different ways. The Agora Energiewende intends to highlight various scientifically founded and calculated paths and make clear the consequences that each would entail. It is then up to politicians to decide which path is best.
How will this be achieved?
Proven expertise forms the technical basis for Agora’s work, for which a research budget and a network of scientists are available. Decision-makers from Germany’s federal and state governments, business and civil society leaders, academics and other information disseminators meet regularly – they make up the Council of the Agora. In addition, public workshops, conferences and meetings to discuss the relevant issues are held.
How is the project organized?
Agora Energiewende is a branch of the non-profit Smart Energy for Europe Platform (SEFEP) gGmbH founded by Essen-based Stiftung Mercator and the European Climate Foundation. The European Climate Foundation is a joint initiative of several large and internationally-active foundations from Europe and the United States and aims to counter the risk of global warming.
Two hours earlier, we’re in the office of Patrick Graichen, Agora’s director. We ask what the name Agora actually stands for, and learn from Graichen that it refers to the central point of assembly in an Ancient Greek polis where citizens would come together to discuss politics and wrangle over solutions to social problems. The name of the institution, which was launched in 2012 by Stiftung Mercator and the European Climate Foundation and will receive 14 million euros in funding up to 2017, is apt: experts will meet here to discuss not only today, but also in the future. Time and time again, the Agora Energiewende will invite specialists to workshops, conferences and meetings where they will talk about how Germany, a leading industrialized country, can be supplied predominantly with renewable energies. One permanent body is the “Council of the Agora”, which is made up of around 25 decision-makers from politics, society and industry. The Council meets every three months to discuss the future challenges of the energy transition.
So is it in fact possible for Germany to be supplied predominantly from renewable energy sources? “There is broad consensus, in society as a whole and across party lines, that we want to do something to counter climate change”, says Graichen, an economist and political scientist – first and foremost by using cost-efficient energy from wind and solar power. Germany has already decided that it will phase out nuclear power by 2022 and reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80 to 95 percent by 2050. As Graichen explains: “It’s no longer a question of whether we wish to implement the energy transition, but how.”
It is the “how” that is causing the problems, however: how can the energy transition be implemented in technical terms? Who will invest how much? And how can the interests of the various stakeholders – such as utility companies and consumers – be reconciled in a way that is fair? These are complex questions that a government is hardly in a position to answer on its own without expert and independent advice. “Our aim is to arrive at a common view of the problem, to understand our various options and to discuss political alternatives – on a basis that is scientifically well founded”, explains Graichen, who describes the Agora Energiewende as a “think tank and political workshop”. Initially, work will focus solely on the question of electricity, assuming that once solutions have been found for this sector, it will be possible to tackle the other two major energy sectors – heating and transport – more easily.
The meetings of the experts take place in an atmosphere of mutual trust. All scientific reports and findings are published, and a large number of public events are held. “Everyone should have the chance to understand what prompts us to draw our conclusions”, emphasizes Graichen. The Agora Energiewende is no back room affair. Public relations is in any case an important part of the work of the 15 staff members – most of whom are scientists in areas related to the issue at stake: experts in the political and social sciences, economists and natural scientists. They are much in demand by the media when the advice of independent experts is needed. “We translate what are often fairly complex matters into language that people can understand”, explains Graichen, meaning that journalists are able to work with the information. What is important is for the general public to be given information that they can process so that the discussion can take place on a correct and factual basis.
The Agora Energiewende also enriches the debate about the German energy transition on an international level. After all, neighbouring countries whose electricity grids are connected to the German grid will be directly affected when Germany’s electricity generation fluctuates more than in the past because production has been switched to wind and solar power. “The energy transition will only work if it is embedded within the European context”, stresses Agora’s director. Three senior associates of Polish, French and Austrian origin have thus been engaged with the specific remit of informing decision-makers and media in cities such as Warsaw, Prague, Vienna, Brussels and The Hague.
Assuming Germany’s energy transition is a success, it will indeed serve as a role model for many other countries, given that climate change is very much a global problem. “If we manage to entirely restructure the energy system of the world’s fourth-largest economy and make it an economic success story, this will be extremely motivating for other countries around the world”, says Graichen. As he adds: “We have no choice but to achieve its successful implementation.”
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