What Germany can learn from the Nordic Energiewende

October 23, 2012 | 00:00

What Germany can learn from the Nordic Energiewende

The German government belatedly seems to realise that it may have been a mistake to pursue its Energiewende and nuclear phase-out without involving its neighbours. At a recent German-Nordic conference in Berlin, German Environment Minister Peter Altmaier said he regretted the unilateral course his country had taken. He proposed setting up an international club of countries going renewable and called for more cooperation between Germany and its neighbours to ensure the success of the Energiewende. The Nordic countries, which are much further advanced on the energy transition than Germany, appear eager to extend a helping hand. The most important secret to their success? "We trust in trade with one another." Reporter Paul Hockenos reports from Berlin.

Geothermal power station in Iceland (c) Thinkstock

The Nordic countries have been at the business of renewable energy longer than Germany - and they have a lot to show for it. In fact, proportionally their supplies of renewable energies surpass those of the Germans hands down; their energy prices are lower; and most of them export clean energy. In Berlin on October 15-16 Germans and Nordics met at the Nordic Embassies in Berlin for the two-day conference "The Energiewende - Is there a Nordic Way?" organized by the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) Potsdam and the Nordic embassies. There the participants from the private sector, government, NGOs, and academia discussed their experiences, distilled best practices and lessons learned, and explored tighter cooperation. At a time when Germany's transition to renewables has encountered unexpected obstacles, the Germans were eager to hear how the Nordics explain their experiences.

The moniker Energiewende, or energy transition, belongs to the Germans, not the Nordic countries (Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Finland). Perhaps this is unfair as the Nordic experience with renewable energy, energy efficiency, electromobility, and transnational grid systems dates back further than that of the Germans, in some cases as much as decades.

A quick look at the numbers show the Nordics out in front by lengths. Norway with its abundant hydro resources (high lakes and heavy rain/snow fall) already boasts a over 60 percent share of renewables in its energy mix, far beyond the 35 percent target that Germany hopes to achieve by 2020. Iceland's geothermal riches, combined with hydro, also put it in an elite category; it already runs on 98 percent clean energy. Sweden and Denmark started their transitions in the aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis and today have renewably generated electricity supplies of 48 percent and 40 percent respectively. While in Sweden the main power source is hydro, in Denmark the lion's share of that capacity comes from on- and off-shore wind power. Denmark's goal is to have its electricity, heat and transport sectors all 100 percent renewable by 2050.

Just to get an idea of how far they are ahead of the rest of the continent: The EU target for 2020 is to establish a 20% share of total energy consumption from renewable sources; it is currently at 12 percent while the Germans have recently breached the 25 percent mark for electricity.


But does the Nordic model have anything to pass on to Germany and other renewables-minded countries transitioning to zero-carbon economies? The question is particularly pressing in light of the fact that the Germany's Energiewende has come under heavy fire of late. The recent announcement from the government that the renewables surcharge would go up by 47 percent next year, adding to customers' energy bills, has stoked debate about the transition's tempo, direction, and costs. A revamping of Germany's seminal Renewable Energy Law could happen before the year is out.

Before this discussion got underway, however, there was a lively debate over whether there is a "Nordic Way" in terms of energy in the first place. The fact is that the Nordic countries approach their energy resources and policies in very different ways. Neither Norway nor Iceland, for example, are in the EU, and thus not subject to EU regulation or benchmarks. Sweden and Finland have nuclear power, while Norway and Denmark are staunch opponents of nuclear. Norway has enormous wealth in fossil fuels, which none of the others do. Finland is a net importer of energy while Denmark and, of course, Norway are exporters. The Scandinavia's energy supply looks more like a smorgasbord than an einheitsbrei.

Nevertheless, the conference participants, not least Germany's Environment Minister Peter Altmaier, agreed there was a Nordic Way that Germany - and not only Germany - could learn from it. "There's definitely a Scandinavian way and it's one that Germany can learn from and borrow from just as we have benefited from the Nordic countries' experiences in social security, gender politics, health insurance, sustainability, and elsewhere," he said. "And perhaps there were mistakes made, too, that we can omit," he said, adding that Germany has tried to do in a few years what some of the northerners had been at for much longer. The Scandinavians, he said, have managed to address climate targets, expand renewables, and reduce energy imports while at the same time growing their economies. This is what Germany has to do, too, he said, though perhaps at a slower pace than the one it's taken so far.

International club

Altmaier used the conference to introduce one of his newest ideas, namely better cooperation and coordination of countries in the process of phasing out nuclear energy and fossil fuels in favor of renewables. An "international club" of countries going renewable, he said, could rally support for the

"It was not possible to discuss the consequences of such a decision with Germany's neighbors. Now is the time for that"
process in the developing and emerging world, as well as getting renewables higher up on the international agenda. He called for more cooperation while admitting - and apologizing for the fact - that German acted unilaterally when it reversed policy on nuclear power and declared the Energiewende in the aftermath of Fukushima: "It was not possible to discuss the consequences of such a decision with Germany's neighbors. Now is the time for that," he said. Among other aspects, he referred explicitly to more cooperation within Europe and between Germany and the Nordic countries on grid networks and technology transfer.

In fact, the integration of the Nordic countries' electricity network in the common Nordic electricity market was one of the best of the best practices that the Scandinavians felt they could pass on to the Germans and the rest of Europe. After all, the Nordics' thorough-going integration has kept prices low, a burning issue currently in Germany as the costs of the Energiewende grow. "It is unthinkable that we Scandinavians could have come so far with renewables were it not for our close cooperation," said Peter Lund of Finland's Aalto University. "We've gone across our borders to integrate our markets and this is what the rest of Europe has to do, too," he said. "This smart management of assets is what makes our electricity prices so low."

Esa Hyvärinen of Finland's Fortum Corporation agreed that the key to the Nordic experience is the way the common Nordic electricity market "exploits the opportunities in every country to the maximum. In Norway and Sweden there's an abundance of hydropower, which is flexible. Denmark has the wind and we (Finland) have nuclear and thermal power," he explains. "So when it's wet, we're covered by Sweden and Norway, and when it's dry the power flows in the other direction, from Denmark eastward. Thus we don't need extensive back-ups systems here. Not everyone has to have 120 percent capacity. We trust in trade with one another." Hyvärinen underscored that the Scandinavians' geographical and energy supply diversity was ultimately to its advantage, just as Europe's diversity could be to its advantage in creating an all-Europe market and grid connections.

Local ownership

The Scandinavians also have other experiences that they posed at best practices. The Danes, for example, underscore energy efficiency, a field that they've been at the forefront of for 25 years. Energy savings and efficiency - facilitated with the aid of "green taxes" - has made it among the world's most energy efficient nations.

Another best practice in Denmark is locally owned wind power that exploits the flexibility of district heating cogeneration plants. The problem of fluctuating supply can be solved by means of a combination of heat storage heat pumps linked to the country-wide district heating infrastructure. Around 60 percent of homes in Denmark use district heating, which is an inexpensive, environmentally friendly way to heat buildings and that enables large-scale use of renewable energy as well as energy efficiency through cogeneration.

A 2008 Danish law stipulates that any onshore wind power project developer should offer at least 20% of the shares to locals. (In contrast, the offshore parks are still mainly owned by distant corporations.)

A 2008 Danish law stipulates that any onshore wind power project developer should offer at least 20% of the shares to locals
This local ownership model, explained Frede Hvelplund of Aalborg University, has been especially instrumental in winning local acceptance for the inland turbines - and it has reduced costs through the cogeneration of electricity and heat, too. Local community-based cooperatives are at the forefront of the energy transition there. "The localities profit this way and so does the environment. And it's played a big role in winning people over to wind power," said Hvelplund. The Danish experience, he says, shows that active energy policies targeting greater efficiency can expedite economic growth and the reduction of dependency on fossil fuels at the same time.

Green battery

Iceland was keen to share its experience with geothermal power, another potentially cost-saving measure. Of course, noted Bjarni Bjarnason, the director of Reykjavik Energy, Iceland is blessed with an enormous amount of geothermal potential. But, he said, other countries, too, especially northern Germany, can make much more use of geothermal sources than they do. The technology and actual extraction is easy enough: drilling about 1.5 kms into the ground. A city like Schwerin north of Berlin could heat all of its homes and buildings with the geothermal sources beneath it. Poland, Croatia, Hungary, and other countries could also benefit by exploiting their subterranean thermal resources. Iceland, he also noted, is currently debating whether it wants to export its surplus energy wealth to Northern Scotland and continental Europe via undersea cables, an option with clear implications for Germany.

The director general of Finland's Ministry of Employment and the Economy, Esa Härmälä, sang the praises of his country's use of biomass, which constitutes two-thirds of the country's renewable energy production. Finland, a country with only 5.4 million people, has forests that covers 86 percent of the country's area, the largest forested area in Europe. But southern Germany, he noted, has just as much forest and could use it for heatings and electricity generation.

The idea of Scandinavia as Europe's "green battery" was also bandied about. Norwegian hydropower could play a vital role in Europe's, and particularly Germany's, renewable energy plans, explained Leiv Lunde, the director of the Fridtjof Nansen Institute in Lysaker, Norway. He called hydropower "the ideal balancing power for renewables" as it is readily available in contrast to the intermittent nature of wind and solar. An energy partnership with Germany, he said, "would look a lot like the one we've got with Denmark. We export to Denmark when its wind power is low, and when their wind parks are producing at high levels, they send it our way. An arrangement with Germany could work the same way and benefit both parties."

Moreover, half of Europe's pumped hydro storage capacity lies in Norway. Using this capacity could be another way in which Germany could address supply intermittency. New pumped-storage power plants together with existing reservoirs could contribute to securing a reliable energy system.


As open-minded as many of the German participants were, many had reservations about making too many explicit parallels between Germany and its northern neighbors. For one, in contrast to the Nordics, Germany is a densely populated country with 82 million people. Nor does it have the natural resources that Scandinavia does, like the vast forests in Finland or the high lakes in Norway. Ferdi Schüth, director of the Max Planck Institute for Kohlenforschung, said that Germany's use of biomass is about as high as it can be, namely around 1.5 percent. "We're currently using biomass to its maximum potential," he said.

Moreover, the use of onshore wind power for co-generation in Denmark, for example, works only with district heating. Dörte Ohlhorst of the Free University Berlin noted that in Germany district heating has a market share of only 14 percent in residential buildings. The Danish model might be relevant elsewhere, but would have only limited application in Germany. As for Norway's storage capacity there are doubts about its total capacity and when it could be ready for use.

The Germans and the Nordics, however, discovered that there was more to talk about than energy supply alone. "Both Germany and the Nordic countries are facing some sort of transition when it comes to the future of energy", said Ulrich Mans, an analyst at IASS Potsdam. "Their societies and economies are changing along with a change in their broader energy systems. This means that many of the issues that need to be decided - be it on policy or local level - pose similar problems, whether the affected parties are Norwegian fishermen or German farmers."

The Nordics felt that there was less conflict over the energy transitions in their countries than there was over the Energiewende in Germany today. "Why isn't it possible to build a new power line in Germany,

"Why isn't it possible to build a new power line in Germany, when it is possible in Iceland, in Norway, in Sweden -  even in Poland? Why is Germany so complicated?
when it is possible in Iceland, in Norway, in Sweden - even in Poland? Why is Germany so complicated," asked Hafsteinn Helgason of EFLA Consulting Engineers from Iceland. Helgason and others felt that the purposes of their Energiewenden in Scandinavia had been better communicated to citizens than has been the case in Germany. The Nordic peoples understood why additional transmission cables had to be laid and why they were paying "green taxes." Citizens have to be informed not only about the benefits, but also about the costs of these transitions.

It's doubtful that all the advice and insights of the Nordics provided the Germans with a silver bullet (or bullets) to get its Energiewende back on track. Yet, from the German perspective, it was reassuring to learn that they weren't out on their own, embarked on a quirky sonderweg that only they are taking. The Germans may have coined the term Energiewende but they didn't set out on the path to a renewable future all by themselves. The Nordic and German countries have a lot to learn from one another - and indeed the rest of Europe can learn from both of them.


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