History of the Energiewende

The oil crisis

The oil crises lead to the first energy efficiency policies.

The oil crises of 1973 and 1979 also got people thinking about how energy supply could be changed. For the first time, Germany realized the economic risk of rising energy prices and that, as US President Jimmy Carter told Americans in 1977, “Conservation is the quickest, cheapest, most practical source of energy. Conservation is the only way we can buy a barrel of oil for a few dollars.”

In Germany, conserving energy was also found to be a way of reducing dependency on imports of raw materials. Some of the steps taken in Germany were short-lived (such as the ban on Sunday driving) or had limited effects (such as the implementation of daylight saving time). Nonetheless, the foundations were laid for a new policy of efficiency. Germany's Economics Ministry launched the first campaign, which was entitled "Conservation – our best source of energy." An important step came in 1976, when Germany passed the Energy Conservation Act, which set forth the first requirements for building insulation: "Those who construct buildings must design and install insulation so that preventable energy losses for heating and cooling are avoided in order to conserve energy." Even today, the current Conservation Act still begins with this first sentence of the original law.

On June 27, 1980, the Bundestag's Inquiry Commission on Future Nuclear Energy Policy made most of its energy policy recommendations under the heading of "promoting energy conservation and renewable energy." Suggestions for the transport sector included "adopting rules for limits on specific fuel consumption in vehicles" and "speed limits on the autobahn."

These proposals led to a lively, controversial discussion among the general public starting in 1982. In the end, the German government was only able to put a stop to the strong public demand for further changes by forcing the automotive industry to install catalytic converters, which can only run on unleaded fuel, thereby forcing oil firms to sell unleaded gas. In 2000, the European Union banned the sale of leaded gasoline altogether. These steps may have helped reduce pollution, but they did not improve energy conservation.

Since 1982, there have been repeated attempts to water down conservation policy. For instance, in the 1990s the tile industry opposed the use of thermal transmittance coefficients to determine the need for additional insulation. Another controversy concerned the obligation of owners of existing buildings to replace old boilers and insulate heating lines even when no other renovation was planned. Nonetheless, the basic idea of conserving energy resources has remained a part of German policy and become even more widespread since the 1970s.