As president of the association, you fight for renewables. How do you contribute in private life?
I’ve had green electricity service for many years from a supplier active in building new renewables capacity. At home we have a rooftop solar thermal system and an electric car. It’s worth taking advantage of the rebate Germany is offering to buy a clean, efficient, and quiet electric car. Also, I travel by train within Germany and enjoy biking.
Are policymakers equally exemplary on a macro scale?
Unfortunately not. Their actions are too often dominated by dilatory debates and timidity. Policymakers need to understand that climate targets and economic progress aren’t mutually exclusive. Twenty years ago Germany enacted the Renewable Energy Sources Act, which paved the way for good progress in the electricity industry. Unfortunately, we long since ceased to be a renewables pioneer. Germany is currently ranked 20th in the World Economic Forum’s Energy Transition Index. We need to become much more ambitious again, including in heating and mobility.
Germany holds federal elections on September 26, 2021. What will the new government need to change?
First, I very much hope that the hesitancy and prevarication stop. I recommend that all political parties listen to Joe Biden’s inauguration speech, which advocates economic modernization that’s simultaneously socially and environmentally oriented. Germany needs to remove the market barriers for renewables and accelerate the expansion. In addition, the reduction in wholesale electricity prices resulting from renewables growth – particularly solar and wind – needs to be passed on to consumers. Policymakers must create a fair electricity market design that no longer focuses on large power plants, but is instead decentralized and citizen-oriented.
Where has the hesitancy so far come from?
The mistaken belief that economic growth can only be powered by fossil energy. Yet the energy transition will create thousands of secure jobs, trigger billions of euros in investment, and enhance domestic value creation. Moreover, we need to strengthen German industry with regard new climate-friendly technologies in order not to be left behind internationally. The new U.S. administration wants to replace the government’s entire fleet of 645,000 vehicles with electric vehicles. That’s just one example. If the United States really embraces climate protection, that will be a huge challenge for European industry. Other countries, including China, are also increasing their pace. Germany has already experienced having much of its solar industry relocate to other countries, and recently there have been big losses in the wind industry. Most batteries are manufactured in Asia, and other countries are ahead in digitalization. This is a debacle for Germany and Europe. Europe must now position itself for the future so as not to fall behind.
Is the perceived lack of public acceptance of renewables slowing things down as well?
German policymakers fear public opposition to renewables projects. But that’s their own doing, since they haven’t adequately made the case for renewables. They could do much more to communicate the positive effects, involve citizens and municipalities, and portray the energy transition as a winning issue. Experience shows that acceptance is much higher where people have been involved in the process.
In other words, more citizen-based energy?
That’s definitely an important aspect. Citizen cooperatives, homeowners, and farmers used to own 50% of Germany’s renewables capacity. Now that figure is just 40%, which is having a negative impact on public acceptance. Of course, big players are also needed, for example to build offshore wind farms and to expand infrastructure. But I’d like to see citizen participation well above 50%.
You’re a microbiologist and thus a scientist: do policymakers pay too little attention to scientific findings with regard to energy issues?
The Corona pandemic is showing the importance of science’s role in advising policymakers. I’d like scientists to be just as involved in climate policy. After all, in the long term the climate crisis is far more dramatic than the Corona crisis.
Speaking of scientific facts, you’re very active on Twitter, including engaging with critics.
I believe that using social media can help propel the energy transition. After all, there’s a lot of good news to spread. I also like lively debate and am happy to respond to questions from people, including those who disagree with me. But not with climate deniers and people refuse to accept scientific facts. They don’t deserve my time or interest.
Where would you like to see Germany in ten years?
To again be a pacesetter in renewables. I’d like renewables to provide at least 80% of Germany’s electricity and to power significantly more heating devices and vehicles. I hope that renewables will finally be seen as an opportunity. I’ve visited many production, science, and research facilities in the past 20 years. The wealth of ideas makes me very optimistic. If policymakers dare to unleash renewables, a great deal is possible.
Simone Peter, who holds a doctorate in biology, worked for the Eurosolar trade association and the Agency for Renewable Energy before serving as environment minister of Saarland from 2009 to 2012. From 2013 to 2018, she co-chaired the Bündnis90/Green Party. In March 2018 she became president of the German Renewable Energy Association.