Even though Germany is way out in front on renewable energy, the transition to a clean energy economy requires more than just the existence of a steady supply of green energy. There has to be demand, too, especially from individual customers.
Germany's energy sector has been liberalized for over a decade. But German consumers have been slow to replace their gas and electricity companies (mostly the old giants that still rely on fossil and nuclear-generated power) with clean energy alternatives. In total, only 10 percent of German households have switched to 100-percent renewable energy providers such as Greenpeace Energy, Lichtblick, Naturstrom, and Elektrizitätswerke Schönau. Admittedly, the clean power options are still somewhat more expensive than their traditional counterparts, but not by much—and the price difference is narrowing.
In response to Fukushima, just like after the 2009 accident at the Krümmel reactor near Hamburg, there was a rash of defections from gas and electric companies with nuclear holdings. "The providers with nuclear in their portfolios were punished," says Sascha Müller-Kraenner of the Nature Conservancy. But the effects of Fukushima did not last long. After peaking sharply in the months following the disaster, the switching rate returned roughly to its former average.
According to a recent survey, 58 percent of Germans could imagine switching from their current energy providers. One in five would "consider" a green-power alternative. So, why don't they do it?
The main reason Germans do not switch providers is still fear. "For years the big utilities waged campaigns explicitly designed to instill this fear. They implied that you could wind up with no power at all if you tried to switch," Greenpeace Germany's Sven Teske told me. "Thus many people have trouble trusting a new company."
"It's often the case with these rogue suppliers that there's lots of fine print and special deals that aren't really deals at all when you read the very fine print", explains Melanie Ball of the NGO ausstieg-selber-machen, which promotes renewable energy alternatives to nuclear.
"What will change the equation", says Green MP Hans-Josef Fell, "and at the same time boost the Energiewende is the further fall in prices of renewables. More people will switch when they're cheaper than the alternatives. But the current government is blocking this."
Greenpeace's Teske says, "We need both sides of the equation, the supply and the demand side to make the energy transition work. We need to beef up renewable energy capacity, which means maintaining the feed-in tariff for many years to come, and also to expand the green power market as much as possible."
Keep in mind that the feed-in tariff makes renewables a privileged part of the energy supply whether consumers, business, or industry ask for it or not. Nevertheless, the demand from below, if accelerated, could help push the Energiewende along.
See Paul Hockenos's own blog on Germany's energy transition Going Renewable
Lead image: Green Energy via Shutterstock