Germany’s Energy Transition

10 May 2024

Book Review: Stephen Gross, Energy And Power: Germany in the Age of Oil, Atoms, and Climate Change, Oxford University Press, 2023

Image Credit: Oxford University Press


Achieving a new energy transition is at once necessary for the future of humankind and among the most daunting political challenges it has ever faced. In his timely new book, Stephen Gross shows how such transitions have repeatedly occurred in one particular national site – postwar Germany, which navigated numerous moves across energy regimes: from coal to oil, nuclear, natural gas, and renewables. The impetus behind these shifts was seldom environmental concerns, however. Well before climate change was even widely understood, energy had become a major site of struggle in West Germany, as an array of competing actors renegotiated the meaning of economic and political security in the Federal Republic.


Gross’s important book achieves two major aims. First, it offers a new framework for understanding postwar German history, putting the unique German path across multiple energy regimes alongside other narratives of the post-1945 era: democratization, the economic miracle, Vergangenheitsbewältigung, and so on. Second, it offers a national case study of the political and distributional negotiations that make energy transitions possible.  In other words, this is both a careful history and one with portable findings. 


Gross even offers a typology of the forces that determine whether and how energy transitions occur: first, the markets and prices that shape consumption and production; second, the states that see energy policy more in terms of strategic rivalries and domestic politics than market forces; and third, the private actors – both businesses and social movements – that lobby for the status quo or for change. On top of these forces, Gross layers three factors that, at least in the German case, facilitated these transitions: first, the ability of political actors to link energy issues to other concerns; second, the forging of effective coalitions; third, the articulation of compelling visions of the future to hold them together; and fourth, the outbreak of crises that add urgency to their demands.


The first energy transition in postwar Germany, from coal to oil, was enormously disruptive, occurring in a protracted fashion over the 1950s and 1960s. While Germany had no oil majors, it did have powerful coal cartels in the Ruhr, which faced two crises in the early years of the Federal Republic – the first caused by the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 (a major and understudied global economic event) and the second in 1958, caused by the overproduction of coal as cheap foreign oil flooded West Germany. These crises made energy a highly politicized domain from the Federal Republic’s birth, as the looming collapse of the Ruhr coal industry threatened the specter of political and social crisis. Even among the arch doyens of the ordoliberal establishment, such as West German Economics Minister Ludwig Erhard, the stakes of energy appeared too high to be left to market forces alone, forcing political intervention in energy prices to ensure the republic’s stability. 


As Ruhr coal began to decline, fueling intense political conflict through the 1960s, West Germany became more reliant on foreign sources of oil. This created a new anxiety, as old concerns about the strategic vulnerabilities caused by German import dependence returned to the fore. This helped set the stage for the rise of nuclear, as a new hyper-technocratic coalition of government officials, scientists, and firms gambled West German growth and security on the creation of a major nuclear sector – a kind of consolation prize for a country that never created an oil major.


But the rise of nuclear was temporary and incomplete: it never allowed West Germany to escape its dependence on foreign sources of oil, and it kicked off a powerful anti-nuclear movement, which achieved unique strength in West Germany alongside a rising Green Party. By the 1980s, the supposed future of West German energy was being eclipsed; then Chernobyl happened. (It took Fukushima to kill it fully.) Meanwhile, dependence on Russian natural gas, which had begun in the 1960s, continued to accelerate through the 1980s and ’90s. During these same years, the growing embrace of renewables left Germany, as Gross puts it, with “two different energy systems”: one from sun and wind and the other from Russian fossil fuels. As the book went to press, the two were locked in fierce struggle.


The extent to which the trajectory of German energy changed completely in 2022-23 is not – through no fault of Gross’s – dealt with here. The book concludes at a moment of potentially epochal change: just after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (which comes in for brief treatment at the end), and just before renewables reached an important milestone: in December 2023, the German government announced more than half of the country’s energy was provided by solar and wind. In early 2024, Berlin, taking a cue from Washington, and with the approval of the European Commission, announced 4 billion euros in subsidies for heavy industry that embraced green energy, reflecting a growing European willingness to experiment with measures besides carbon pricing.


To the extent that one can speak of “lessons” from history, the ones provided in Gross’s book are clear: energy transitions are made possible through deft navigation of coalition-building, political entrepreneurialism, and corporatist bargaining. They involve compelling visionaries but just as much horse-trading. Crisis helps; markets are always political; and energy cannot be divorced from strategic calculations. His story is far from triumphalist: social movements are depicted here as only one among a set of actors that produce change, including profit-hungry, competition-quashing corporations. At the same time, movements and ideas matter – a lot. Gross’s book also offers a powerful case study of how energy tends to break standard molds of political economy. One of its particular strengths is its subtle re-narration of the history of German ordoliberalism. Even at the moments of ordoliberalism’s supposed dominance, Gross shows how energy could never be fully subsumed into the imperatives of neoliberal policies and ideas. 


Energy and Power is a book that should be read, keenly, by historians of twentieth-century Europe as well as by anyone interested in understanding the forces likely to shape domestic politics, around the world, in the twenty-first.

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