Robert Habeck: Germany's First and Only Minister for the Energiewende

December 5, 2013 | 00:00

Robert Habeck: Germany’s First and Only Minister for the Energiewende

It’s no coincidence that Schleswig-Holstein is the site of Germany’s first Energiewende ministry (the office’s full title is the Ministry for Energiewende, Agriculture, and Environment). The gusty northern reaches of the republic, long known for its milk cows, are today a potent source of wind power. Nearly 3,000 turbines boast over 3,400 MW of capacity, enough to cover 50 percent of the region’s power needs. This will increase to 4,500 MW by 2015, should all go as planned. By 2020, the state could generate three times as much electricity as it requires. The fact that Robert Habeck is the first Energiewende minister in Germany is only one of the attributes that makes the 43-year-old, Baltic-Sea native stand out.

Robert Habeck (c) Olaf Bathke
Germany’s first Energiewende minister is also head of the regional Green party here, a doctor of philosophy, punk-rock aficionado, and author of a dozen books – from children’s stories to theoretical tracts. The father of four boys (all bi-lingual German-Danish) cites the late Czech poet and president Vaclav Havel as his foremost political inspiration.

A novice to politics just four years ago when he entered the Schleswig Holstein legislature, Habeck’s out-of-the-box thinking and charismatic style have turned him into a nationally known figure. But his priority, he underscores, is his home state, Schleswig Holstein, a wind-swept isthmus between the Baltic and the North Seas that connects northern Germany to Denmark. In 2012, the Greens came to power in this sparsely populated state of just 2.8 million together with a senior coalition partner, the Social Democrats, and the little party of the Danish minority.

"We in Schleswig-Holstein want to be the forerunners and make the Energiewende a success," Habeck tells visitors to Kiel, the state’s capital city north of Hamburg. One of the new government’s first moves was to double the territory upon which wind turbines could be erected. With wind power, Schleswig-Holstein can cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 80 to 95 percent by 2050, he says. “It’s already on the way.”

Habeck tells EER that an Energiewende ministry makes sense. “Look at how conflicted the last [federal] government was,” says Habeck. “There was constant fighting between the economic planning and environment ministries. One ministry responsible for energy issues is a practical solution.”

Too Much Wind

Traveling through Schleswig-Holstein’s northern landscape and visiting its quiet seaside towns, one is awed by the gigantic wind parks that dominate the inland right up to the Danish border. These aren’t just any wind parks, they’re overwhelmingly Bürgerwindparks (citizens wind parks), which were planned, financed and are operated today by local communities.

The management of this abundance of wind power is Schleswig-Holstein’s problem – and now Habeck’s. On super windy days, many of the wind parks have to be shut off – there’s simply too little high-voltage grid to handle this volume of green electricity.

“It was obvious that we needed several new transmission lines to transport this volume to the rest of the country, in particular to industrial regions in southern Germany,” says Habeck, a handsome man with short brown hair and square jaw. Photos often show him with a windbreaker and jeans rolled up to his knees, wading through the soggy sands of the Wattenmeer, the tidal flats that at low tide stretch for miles into the North Sea.

For Habeck, the Energiewende is more than an economic or infrastructure project, it is a sprawling, open-ended experiment in democracy. “The expansion of the grids are a task and challenge to our whole society. This is why the public must play a central role.

“The expansion of the grids are a task and challenge to our whole society. This is why the public must play a central role.”
This way everyone can participate in the Energiewende.” This experiment, however, has proven hard to transfer from the wind parks to the transmission grids. Plans to lay over a thousand kilometers of high-voltage lines have run into fierce opposition on the ground, not least from conservation-minded citizens. Currently, Schleswig-Holstein is initiating three new transmission corridors: one along the length of its west coast; another linking Germany to Norway (NordLink); and a third heading south to Bavaria and Baden-Württemburg (SüdLink). Because the latter two can run underground, they are not at the center of the storm.

The shortest of the lines, the150-kilometer, 380-kV west coast cable, however, must travel over land, an eye sore that some of the resident northerners do not want (in their backyards). “Sure there are conflicts, lots of them,” says Habeck, who has been booed out of town hall meetings. “We could just go ahead and say we’re going to do this Energiewende anyway. But these are conflicts we can defuse. In the long run, it saves time.”

And, make no mistake, time is of the essence. SüdLink, acknowledges Habeck, has to be fully operational by the time the last German nuclear reactor goes offline in 2022.

The idea behind the citizens grid was to win acceptance by enabling local residents to partake in it. For one, there’d be town hall meetings to discuss prickly issues. Also, shares would be sold, local investors putting up 15 percent of the total cost of the 210 million euro project. Yet shares in the west-coast citizens grid, offered by the grid operator TenneT, did not sell well. According to insiders, private financial experts couldn’t recommend that their clients with moderate capital invest in something so long-term and speculative.

”The idea of the citizens grid was different from the wind parks in an important way,“ explains Sina Clorius of Windcomm, a business development agency dealing with wind power. “People aren’t going to have a voice in the decision making and operation of the grid, just the investment.”

Despite the muted enthusiasm for the investment scheme, the west-coast cable is going forward. “A lot of people in this region own parts of the Bürgerwindparks,” says Clorius. “The new grid is in their interests.” Construction won’t begin until 2015. This, at least, is more than past Kiel governments had to show for years of wrangling.

At the wind parks along Wattenmeer National Park, Habeck seems to have won the respect of the wind power branch, for the moment at least. “Of course, the creation of a ministry for the Energiewende raised expectations here,” explains Jess Jessen, director of the Osterhof wind park along the Danish border. “Habeck in an honest, hard-working minister. His intentions are good but sometimes I wonder if he really knew what he’s getting into. Visions are one thing, implementing policy is another.”

Schleswig-Holstein’s onshore wind power may be its big selling point today,

Schleswig-Holstein’s onshore wind power may be its big selling point today, but Habeck is not alone in envisaging the region as invaluable to the nation-wide Energiewende in other ways as well
but Habeck is not alone in envisaging the region as invaluable to the nation-wide Energiewende in other ways as well. For one, the NordLink cabling to Norway will provide a vital option for storing electricity. One of the technologies ready-to-go is pumped-storage hydroelectric. Norway’s high-altitude fjords are so ideal for the purpose that some observers see Norway as “Europe’s battery“ of the future. Norway could store many thousands of megawatts of electricity for Germany. What’s needed is 600 kilometers of high-voltage power line along the floor of the Baltic Sea, which will take years to engineer.

And then there’s the enormous potential of offshore wind power, so far one of the Energiewende’s underachievers. Between Germany’s two seas, Schleswig-Holstein should be in the cat bird’s seat. Yet, so dismal have the results of offshore been – and so spectacular the success of onshore and solar PV – that critics argue that offshore is an unnecessary and expensive lark.

Habeck disagrees. “It’s right now to scale back the goals set for offshore,” says Habeck, referring to the plans of Germany’s incoming administration. “We may not need it to get Germany to fifty percent clean electricity. But to get to a hundred percent we will definitely need it. And that’s our goal.”


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