BerlinWhen Russian troops invaded Ukraine in the early hours of February 24, Germany woke up to an unpleasant reality: Russia is its top energy supplier, providing more than half of its natural gas and coal supplies and a third of its crude oil. In exchange, Germany sends Russia over $200 million per day—money that is now helping finance an invasion that Germans find intolerable.
Last month German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, a leader of the Green Party, which entered a coalition government last fall with Prime Minister Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats, pledged that Germany would stop importing oil from Russia by the end of 2022, and wean itself off Russian natural gas as soon as possible. In the short term, that may mean finding alternative suppliers for fossil fuels, including the United States.
But in the long term, the crisis has only reinforced Germany’s determination to get off fossil fuels entirely, and to accelerate the Energiewende—the clean-energy transition it began some 30 years ago. The government has announced plans to give up coal entirely by 2030, eight years earlier than the target set by the previous government. It now aims for Germany to get 80 percent of its electricity from renewable energy by then, up from the previous goal of 65 percent—and nearly double the 42 percent share it supplied in 2021.
A package of legislation announced last month and expected to pass this summer would increase subsidies for renewables and slash red tape that has slowed such projects in the past.
“What has changed now is everyone realizes we need to ramp up renewable capacity even faster,” says Matthias Buck, Europe director at Agora Energiewende, a think tank that focuses on the energy transition. “The war is making it very clear that if you want to control your own fate, it’s better to prioritize renewables and end reliance on fossil fuels.”
Germany is not alone: France, long reliant on nuclear reactors for 70 percent of its power needs, has promised a major push for more renewables. During his recent re-election campaign, French President Emmanuel Macron pledged that France would be “the first major nation to abandon gas, oil, and coal.” Austria, even more dependent on Russian energy than Germany, is pouring money into subsidies for renewable energy. Even Poland, one of Europe’s heaviest coal consumers, is investing heavily in offshore wind.
In Germany, the Ukraine war has added an energy security argument to the climate crisis as a way of convincing people of the urgent need for an Energiewende. “We’re pretty far along, but not as far as we should be,” says Kathrin Henneberger, a Green Party parliament member and former climate activist.
An unhealthy dependence
Until the war began, Germany was leaning ever more heavily on Russian energy, particularly natural gas. It’s hard to escape reminders of the country’s reliance on gas: In Berlin, the smokestacks of a natural gas-fired power plant punctuate the skyline less than two miles from the parliament building, the Bundestag; the capital even still lights some of its streets with 20,000 old-fashioned gas streetlamps. A network of pipelines 317,000 miles (511,000 km) long crisscrosses the country, delivering gas to houses, factories, and power plants.
For decades, almost the entire German political establishment bought into the idea that it was all right and even strategically wise to import most of its gas from Russia. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it has been racked by recriminations.
“We all knew Putin was no defender of human rights. We all knew we were filling his war chest,” Henneberger says. “The knowledge was there, but Germany still made itself more and more dependent over the years. Now, all of a sudden, people have realized that was a terrible idea.”
Her party and its partners in the new coalition government are now making good on pre-invasion promises to ramp up support for renewables, in an effort led by another Green Party leader, economics and climate minister Robert Habeck. The draft legislation would declare that renewable energy is “in the overriding public interest and serves public security”—which sounds anodyne, but will make it easier for renewable projects to push past legal and environmental challenges and obtain permits.
The legislative package includes more concrete incentives as well. Going back to the roots of the Energiewende, it will encourage citizens once again to deploy rooftop solar or erect community solar plants; new commercial buildings, meanwhile, will be required to include solar panels. The federal government is also pressuring some German states to relax laws that bar windmills within a kilometer of existing buildings—which in this densely settled country have made it increasingly hard to site new turbines.
Lawmakers hope all these changes, combined with steadily sinking prices for solar and wind installations, will make it possible to double onshore wind power generation by 2030 and quadruple solar power. Offshore wind will also be expanded dramatically.
The problem with gas
To the extent that these plans were in place before the war in Ukraine began, they depended on Russian natural gas—it was to allow the country to close emissions-heavy coal-fired power plants while it built up its renewable sector. That concept is now being called into question.
“Natural gas was seen as a bridge into the clean energy future,” Buck says. “That bridge has broken down. That’s reshaping the discussion.” Germany has already frozen the approval process for an $11 billion pipeline from Russia called, Nordstream 2, that was nearly completed when Russia invaded Ukraine.
Now even die-hard environmentalists are discussing keeping coal plants open past the agreed-on 2030 target—but only in a short-term crisis, Henneberger says: “We’ve made a long-term decision to move away from coal, and that can’t change.”
A return to nuclear power, she says, remains off the table too. Germany decided a decade ago, after the Fukushima disaster in Japan, to phase out its existing nuclear plants. The last three are to be switched off by the end of this year.
Thus Germany’s only option to replace Russian natural gas over the next few years is to find new natural gas suppliers—and to push even harder to move to renewables.
Not just about electricity
The Energiewende is farthest along in the electricity sector, but the war in Ukraine has also spotlighted the work still needed in other sectors—transportation, manufacturing, heating—to get Germany to its goal of net-zero emissions by 2045. Experts say public opinion is shifting, perhaps making more ambitious steps possible in the near future.
Take the idea of introducing a speed limit throughout the Autobahn network, where drivers bombing along legally at 100 mph remain a common sight. The issue is as divisive in car-crazy Germany as gun rights are in the U.S.
“Before the war, Germans were 50/50 on the idea,” says Volker Quaschning, professor of renewable energy systems at the University of Applied Sciences in Berlin. “Now two-thirds say it’s a good idea. The same goes for the use of fossil heating or diesel cars, or the installation of more wind power. There has been a big change in public opinion.”
At the same time, Quaschning points out, Germans haven’t been asked to sacrifice much—yet. “We say we like Ukraine, but if gasoline is 2.50 [euros] per liter, opinions will change again.”
Fortunately, public support for the energy transition is rising just as renewable costs are dropping. And while Germany and other European countries continue to import Russian gas, it’s getting more and more expensive; shifting to other suppliers, including the U.S., means shipping natural gas in liquid form, which costs still more. “Even before the war, prices were rising in the European energy market,” says Simone Peter, the head of the German Renewable Energy Federation and a former head of the Green Party. “The new government saw a huge opportunity.”
Meanwhile, after years of subsidizing renewable energy, wind and solar electricity are now cheaper than power generated with fossil fuels. “The technology is so cheap that globally, renewables are competitive,” Peter says. “Investors are moving in that direction, even those from oil- and coal-producing countries.”
Other parts of German energy demand will be trickier to satisfy in the short term. Half of German homes use natural gas for heating. In advance of the next winter season, ongoing efforts to equip houses with electric heat pumps and enhanced insulation are taking on new urgency. Starting in 2025, the government plans to require buildings to use mostly renewable energy for heating.
“We need a heating transition, too,” Henneberger says. “That alone could save us a lot of gas.”
Preparing for winter
Another game-changer might be a sudden shutoff of Russian gas supplies—either imposed by EU countries as a sanction on Russia, or by Russia as a way to lash out at Europe for supporting Ukraine. It has already cut off Poland and Bulgaria.
“We’d face an enormous social and economic crisis if the energy were shut off tomorrow,” Peter says. “I think the appeal for energy savings is going to get more intense in the fall….When you know a gas embargo means your household is going to freeze, it focuses your mind.”
So far, politicians have been reluctant to impose energy-saving requirements on voters, like the car-free Sundays seen in the 1970s or a national campaign to turn down radiators. In a poll by the German magazine Der Spiegel last month, only 49 percent said they’d be willing to make sacrifices in order to cut off Russian energy supplies. But in the end they may not have a choice.
“Our assumption that it doesn’t matter where we import our fossil fuels from has been proven wrong. In hindsight, we can see it was wrong to put such confidence in Russia as a reliable partner for Germany and other European countries in this energy transition project,” Buck says. “But we’re always smarter in hindsight.”