Why the Energiewende

Energy security

Renewables reduce Germany's dependency on energy imports, making Germany less vulnerable to unpredictably fluctuating prices for fossil fuels and to political influence from abroad.

Energy security reflects the availability of affordable energy. Demand for energy is increasing in a growing number of emerging countries – especially those with large populations, such as China and India – and may outstrip supply, which could eventually lead to considerable price hikes. Germany is especially vulnerable here because it imports so much of its energy.

In addition, as the world saw in the 1970s when OPEC restricted its oil supply to certain countries, energy imports can dry up for political reasons overnight. A few years ago, Russia discontinued its natural gas supply to Ukraine, which also affected downstream western European countries. The recent armed conflict in eastern Ukraine has only worsened the situation. The more energy a country gets from within its own borders, the less vulnerable it is to such political disruptions, for which it may not even be responsible. A diversification of energy carriers also means a diversification of producing countries.

For the foreseeable future, oil prices are expected to remain quite low relative to expectations a decade ago, when there was more talk of "peak oil." In addition to higher oil and gas production in the United States, oil prices could remain low internationally if electric vehicles began to replace cars running on gasoline and diesel. In addition, demand for coal is slumping worldwide, leading to relatively low prices on international markets for that energy source as well.

In western Europe, Germany is by far the largest importer of gas from Russia. What's more, Germany only produces around 15 percent of its own natural gas, importing roughly 40 percent from Russia.

In the winter of 2011-2012, Russia even reduced imports to Germany by as much as 30 percent because Russians were consuming so much gas themselves during a long cold spell. While Germany does have sufficient storage reserves to cover such gaps, domestic production of renewable gas will make supply more reliable.

Much has been written about Germany's reliance on coal, gas, and oil from Russia, but the dependence goes in both directions. Russia cut off supplies to Ukraine when the Ukrainians insisted that the "friendship price" agreed between the two countries should be continued. Germany pays the market price for energy from Russia. The plummeting prices for these fossil resources has hurt the economies of exporters. In return, these low prices can make investments in renewables less attractive; governments must ensure that the clean transition continues even as the move away from fossil resources drives down their prices.

Renewables and energy conservation can reduce the dependence of countries that consume energy on countries that provide energy resources. Over the past few decades, this dependency has constantly increased. Reducing it would also promote global peace; after all, wars over resources and the "oil curse" are directly related to the problems that many politically fragile regions face.

Renewable energy can consist of numerous small, distributed units, but it can also consist of a small number of large, central plants. In the latter case, the power stations can be gigantic solar arrays in deserts or large wind farms on coastlines. The former Desertec project, which aimed to set up large solar power plants and wind farms in Mediterranean countries (including northern Africa) to generate electricity for Europe, is one example showing that renewables need not always be distributed. Proponents of Desertec said the cost of such large-scale electricity would be lower, economic development would be stepped up in relatively poor countries, and power generation would be more reliable because the best sites would be chosen. The project was discontinued, however, in 2014, at least as a concerted effort to export renewable electricity to Europe. Yet northern Africa continues to pursue renewable energy projects for domestic consumption. It remains to be seen whether renewable power would continue to be exported from northern Africa to Europe if there were political turmoil.