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Enjeux territoriaux de la transition énergétique

Current issues and challenges in the geography of energy in Germany

Enjeux et défis actuels de la géographie de l’Énergie en Allemagne
Helge Conrad et Gerald Staacke
p. 26-45


Après la catastrophe nucléaire de Fukushima, le gouvernement fédéral allemand a décidé de mettre en œuvre ce qu’il a nommé l’« Energiewende » (la transition énergétique). Cette dernière implique que l’Allemagne sorte de l’énergie nucléaire d’ici 2022 et qu’elle renforce le développement des énergies renouvelables. Ces décisions politiques impliquent de nombreux défis pour la production et l’utilisation de l’énergie sur ce qui constitue le plus grand marché de l'énergie en Europe, et créent des conflits avec les États voisins. Cet article analyse les lois et les règlements les plus importants pour le secteur de l’énergie, la politique énergétique au niveau de l’Union européenne, les effets de la transition énergétique aux différentes échelles et les acteurs clés de la gouvernance dans le processus de la transition énergétique.

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1. Introduction and statement of problem

1Rising energy prices, the massive changes in the cultural landscape or global conflicts over resources are just some of the issues that have made a scientific study of energy necessary again. If the search for energy resources, as one of the central issues for geologists, was an important field of research for geographers for over 100 years, research taking a Humanities-based approach only developed after the oil crises of the 1970s. This is covered in Germany, where no autonomous energy research is being conducted, by a very wide range of subjects with their own research focus. For many decades now, for example, these have included chemistry or engineering and, since the 1990s, economics and human geography.

2One important area of research in the past few years has been governance research, which is to be the basis for what follows in this article. As a special form of active management, governance has two sides which need to be considered. One is the participation of all relevant players on all scales of the provision and use of energy. The other is the specific rules covering the exertion of power and influence. In addition to all the ways in which people deal with one other, this includes legislation, directives and plans as a formalized form of governance. In Germany a special role is played in this respect by the Renewable Energy Sources Act, for example, which is the central instrument in the energy transition, the so-called “Energiewende”. While geography already has a highly coherent governance perspective, this is not the case for energy theory.

2. Theoretical approach to the geography of energy

3There are many research initiatives and working groups in the field of geography which are looking at the phenomenon of the geography of energy and which are driving the development of a theoretical foundation. Of particular importance for human geography is the working group devoted to research into the geography of energy at the German Geographical Society. Here there are annual meetings of the relevant scientists who are studying the phenomenon of energy research within the field of geography. What is emerging in the initial stages is a common foundation for dealing with the issue of energy, which Johannes Hamhaber [2010] summarizes as follows and which forms the joint approach to the geography of energy so far:

  • Energy is used as a resource and defined as such.

  • Energy is at the interface between a natural and a social system.

  • Energy is fundamental to the ability of all human societies to function.

  • Obtaining and using energy are both economically and politically relevant processes and are therefore controversial.

  • Energy has social and environmental consequences on all scales

4In the field of (applied) geography, all the spatial impacts of energy are being studied. Wolfgang Brücher [2009] provided a good basis for this with his play on words from “Energy from Space” to “Energy to Space” and back again. In this, he describes both the change undergone by energy systems over the course of time and their impacts. In the pre-industrial phase, energy was produced essentially from the kinetic energy of humans and animals. As they needed food for this, which was grown on large spaces, it can be described as “energy from space”. There already existed individual sources of energy which were relevant, in our understanding today, but these (e.g. windmills and watermills) were very land-intensive. With industrialization and, in particular, with the development of the conventional energy sources coal and oil, it was possible to extract these sources at just a few points in the world and then transport them to the places where they were needed and were used. This is why the term “energy for space” is used for this period.

Figure 1 – Paradigm shift in energy research

Figure 1 – Paradigm shift in energy research

Source: KAUSCH, P., BERTAU, M., GUTZMER, J. & MATSCHULLAT, J. (Ed.) (2011) – Energie und Rohstoffe, Heidelberg, Springer Spektrum, p. 152 (modified on the basis of BRÜCHER, W. (2009) – Energiegeographie. Wechselwirkungen zwischen Ressourcen, Raum und Politik, Berlin & Stuttgart, Bornträger)

5Currently, a hypothesis is being advanced claiming that we are in a further transition that will result in the use of renewable energies. In view of the relatively low productivity per unit of area [cf. Smil 2010, p. 113 ; Smil 2015, p. 205] that these energies have, it is now possible to talk again of “energy from space”. This phase cannot, of course, be compared with the pre-industrial phase and represents a fundamental paradigm shift (see Figure 1).

6The energy transition is facing sizeable long term challenges, which Vaclav Smil [2010] summarizes as follows: “Five reasons explain the challenge: the overall scale of the coming shift, be it on the global level or in the world’s largest economies; magnitudes of renewable energy resources and their surprisingly uneven distribution; the intermittent, and to a significant degree unpredictable, nature of most renewable energy flows; lower energy density of the fuels produced to replace solid and liquid fossil fuels; and, perhaps most importantly, substantially lower power densities with which we can harness renewable energies” [Smil 2010, p. 108].

7Vaclav Smil [2015] points out that the world’s population will live predominately in large agglomerations and megacities in the future [cf. Smil 2015, p. 250]. Contrary to this global trend, these tendencies and related problems don’t exist in Germany, seeing as Germany lacks a real megacity and the population distributes equally all over the country. Nevertheless, the demand for electricity within the large, concentrated industrial locations takes place centrally in contrast to the decentralization trend of renewable energy [cf. Smil 2015, p. 255]. This means that spatial tensions between the production and consumption of energy appear. This trend can be seen even in Germany. Based on their natural conditions, the favorable locations for the production of renewable energies are in the North German Plain, while the large industrial complexes are located South Germany. That’s why an expansion of the extra-high voltage routes in north-south direction is necessary, which in turn requires a long planning period. To speed up these planning and authorization procedures, the Grid Expansion Acceleration Act has been adopted. The Federal Network Agency is responsible for implementing the act (see below).

3. The importance of energy for Germany

3.1. Facts, figures and institutions

8In the process of energy transition Germany is of interest not only because of its fundamental paradigm shift, shown in Figure 1, but also in view of the fact that the German energy market is the largest in Europe. Around 2,500 terawatt hour per annum (TWh/a) of final energy are consumed in the fields of electricity (approx. 20%), heat (approx. 50%) and fuels (approx. 30%) [cf. Umweltbundesamt 2014]. Most conventional power plants are geared to the urban agglomerations where the energy is consumed. The only exceptions are the lignite-fired power plants in central Germany, which are located close to large coalmines and from which electricity has to be transported to the centres of consumption (see Figure 2). The location of renewable energies is entirely different. They are distributed all over Germany, with wind energy being concentrated on the north German plain and photovoltaic energy in the south of Germany. These two forms of energy are geared to the natural potentials available.

9In addition, there are in Germany a number of important institutions for energy regulation and the energy industry. These include, most notably, the European Electricity Exchange (EEX) in Leipzig or the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in Bonn.

Figure 2 – Distribution of power generation in Germany

Figure 2 – Distribution of power generation in Germany

Sources: UMWELTBUNDESAMT (Ed.) (2015) – Karte Kraftwerke und Verbundnetze in Deutschland,​bild/​karte-kraftwerke-verbundnetze-in-deutschland & BUNDESINSTITUT FÜR BAU-, STADT- UND RAUMFORSCHUNG (Ed.) (2012) – Erneuerbare Energien im Raum,​BBSR/​DE/​Raumentwicklung/​EnergieKlimaschutzpolitik/​Projekte/​Archiv/​Erneuerbare/​EE_im_Raum.html;jsessionid=2EFE6AD88CB411058BDD2BEE3486376D.live1042?nn=1037294

3.2. The history of the energy transition

10Recently the debate on energy policy in Germany has been shaped by the energy transition, which can be seen in both a wider and a narrower sense. Essentially, the term “energy transition” refers to the changeover from conventional forms of energy like coal and gas to renewables like wind and solar energy. This is also a global phenomenon, though with differing time horizons. Because Germany has rejected nuclear power and has a relative scarcity of resources, it has opted to take a special path. At the beginning of the new millennium the German coalition government of Social Democrats and Greens decided on a complete exit from nuclear power and pressed ahead with a massive expansion of renewable energies. However, this approach was revoked, at least in parts, by the Conservative/Liberal coalition government in 2010. After the catastrophe in the Fukushima reactor on 11 March 2011, the same government declared that there was to be a definitive exit from nuclear power, following a six-month moratorium, as well a complete changeover to renewable energies. So what is to be understood by the term “energy transition” in the narrower sense is the shutdown of all nuclear power plants by 2022, as well as the expansion by that time of renewable energies in the field of power generation. Lignite, a relatively abundant resource in Germany, is a technology which will bridge the gap during the energy transition.

11Germany at large accepts that an energy transition with all its implications presents one of the most important projects in the 21st century. Therefore objectives tend to be long range, and are only specified in detail within select areas of the power supply industry, particularly those regarding the generation of electricity. For example, electricity from renewable energies shall progressively increase its share to 80% of electricity generated by 2050 [cf. Section 1.2 sentence 2 of the Renewable Energy Sources Act]. Energy from renewable energy sources shall represent at least 18% of the final energy consumption by 2050. Consequently, shares of renewables in both the heat generation industry, not explicitly detailed, and the fuel sector, determined by EU blending quotas, will be significantly lower than 18% [Renewable Energy Sources Act, Section 1.3].

12A transformation of the energy sector at a more rapid pace is considered unrealistic. Similarly, path dependencies of certain technologies are unpredictable. There is particular focus in Germany to put one million electric automobiles on the streets by 2020. If electric propulsion was adopted at scale, then the demand for fuel would decrease considerably within a few decades; at the same time the demand for electricity would increase substantially. Thus the current objectives of the Renewable Energy Sources Act would be rendered obsolete at this point, but the energy transition, defined as a complete transition towards energy from renewable sources, could become more achievable.

3.3. Merit-order problem through renewable energies

13Electricity is traded on an exchange (see above). Renewable energies are an exception to this. This is due to the fact that they are sold outside the trade carried out on the exchange because of the compulsory purchase scheme for power generated from renewables. However, the high proportion today of electricity produced from regenerative sources – more than 20% – influences pricing at the exchanges, sometimes to a considerable extent. It also gives rise to the question of which types of power plant can still be operated profitably. This is called the merit-order effect and it determines which types of power plant are brought into operation in which order (see Figure 3).

Figure 3 – Merit-order effect of renewable energies

Figure 3 – Merit-order effect of renewable energies

Source: Author’s illustration

14This order is based on economic principles: the marginal costs of the resources or, from a technical point of view, of the ramp-up / ramp-down times for the power plants. Accordingly, nuclear and lignite-fired power plants, almost continuously in operation, are the cheapest. Anthracite and gas-fired power plants, which can be brought into operation as and when required, are more expensive. Renewables upset this effect as they make gas-fired power plants – needed for covering peak loads – unprofitable. This necessitates fundamental adjustments in the energy market. Using two existing examples, it is shown in the following where the challenges posed by the energy transition lie for the established energy market and for neighbouring countries such as France.

15In Germany it is the capacities offered in particular by gas-fired power plants that are needed for absolute peaks in demand, although nowadays they are often no longer competitive. Two measures are used as a reaction to this. Firstly, some thought is being given to maintaining these gas-fired power plants and financing them through state subsidies. Secondly, work is being done on making other power plants more flexible. The biggest problem is the speed with which a power plant’s output can be increased or decreased. Coal-fired power plants in particular are promising in this respect. As a result of technical developments it is now possible to operate coal-fired plants at a similar speed to that of gas-fired ones, which means that coal-fired plants, too, can absorb peak demand. As this example shows, the energy transition is making technical adjustments necessary in other fields of energy and is leading to a faster pace of innovation in the energy sector overall. The hope that politicians, research and business currently have is that, long-term and globally, Germany can carve out for itself a technological lead. As the energy market is linked up to neighbouring countries via the grids, any errors arising in the system will have an effect on these countries too.

16As a result of the way that renewable energies are used in Germany, they have to be fed into the grid – completely regardless of whether the electricity is consumed or not. It is in the nature of things that some forms of energy have production peaks which can be predicted. Photovoltaic systems, for example, produce most electricity in the midday period – which is good, because this is the time with the highest electricity consumption. The production of electricity from wind energy, on the other hand, is more difficult to predict. Also, not always the same amounts of electricity are consumed. Across Europe, less electricity is needed during the night and at weekends. If there is one day during a weekend which is especially sunny and windy, then so much energy can be fed into the grid from solar and wind power sources that electricity requirements are met in their entirety. As statutory requirements forbid any power plants to be disconnected from the grid, steps then have to be taken which can lead to major conflicts with neighbouring countries. First, all possible power plants operating with conventional forms of energy are shut down – which can be done with coal and gas-fired plants. Nuclear power plants can only be shut down and started up again over a period of several days, which means that they stay on grid. If, then, there is still too much electricity being produced, the price for it falls on the exchange. This may go on until the price is negative. A good example of this is what happened on 17 August 2014 (see Figure 4). In this case, an additional amount of up to € 50 per megawatt hour (MW/h) had to be paid when purchasing electricity. This electricity is fed into the European grid and exported to neighbouring countries. If power plants in these countries likewise have relatively inflexible capacities, the grid comes under pressure. A good example of this is provided by France, which itself consumes less electricity on a Sunday, provides part of its electricity production through inflexible nuclear power plants, and is burdened with cheap electricity due to the German Renewable Energy Sources Act (see below). In consequence, the French electricity grid is heavily impacted. The result of all this is the critical view which neighbouring countries have of Germany’s energy transition and, in particular, of the feed-in priority included in the Renewable Energy Sources Act.

17There is, in principle, another solution to any overproduction of electricity, other than feeding it into the grid and paying money for this. Using storage facilities, electricity can be “stored” and fed into the grid when it is needed and prices are correspondingly high. The classic storage facilities are pumped-storage power plants [cf. Buchan 2012, p. 27], but these have only low capacity levels of just a few hours, which means only day/night imbalances can be adjusted. For a whole country, and for a period of several days, the storage facilities currently in existence in most European countries are completely inadequate. All the pumped-storage power plants in Germany, for example, would be able to guarantee the country’s electricity supplies for just half an hour [cf. Alsheimer 2013, p. 89]. On a smaller scale, one possibility is to connect a few thousand disused car batteries in series and use them for storage purposes – although this would be enough for only a few hundred households.

18Over and above this, there are some experimental approaches currently being tested which have a geographical slant. Currently, for example, attempts are being made to convert disused underground caverns so that, in times of high levels of electricity production, air can be compressed into them. When required, the air is released and drives turbines. However, two fundamental problems have arisen here so far. Firstly, the stability of the caverns – as well as of the constant addition and removal of air under high pressure – has not been tried and tested. And secondly, the turbines ice up when the air is released into them and the pressure drops. Investigations are also being carried out to see whether the gradients in disused lignite-fired power plants can be used for new pumped-storage power plants, working with open reservoirs or pipe systems. Currently, the most promising approach is power-to-gas technology, in which excess electricity from renewable energy sources is used for electrolysis processes, with the aim of storing the energy contained in substances. Water, for example, is split up into its constituent components, and the hydrogen is converted to methane, using carbon dioxide, and is fed into the - very well developed - natural gas network, which then becomes a storage facility. At locations where there is a need, the natural gas thus produced can be converted back to electricity using gas-fired power plants. In addition, the gas could be used for the provision of heating.

Figure 4 – Electricity production and spot prices in calendar week 33 in 2014

Figure 4 – Electricity production and spot prices in calendar week 33 in 2014

Source: FRAUNHOFER INSTITUTE FOR SOLAR ENERGY SYSTEMS ISE (Ed.) (2014) – Electricity Production and Spot Prices in Germany 2014,​en/​downloads-englisch/​pdf-files-englisch/​data-nivc-/​electricity-spot-prices-and-production-data-in-germany-2014.pdf

4. Governance for the geography of energy in Europe and Germany

4.1. Legislation and regulations

19Any comprehensive governance theory is based not only on the interaction between the players involved, but also on the general conditions within which the players act. In addition to the market conditions already described, it is legislation which plays a central role. In Europe and Germany there are laws and regulations which play a key role in shaping the energy business. The most important as far as the energy transition is concerned are the following:

  • EU Emissions Trading System: Defining the upper limits for CO2 emissions by means of certificate trading is designed to protect the climate and to promote energy efficiency technologies in power plants. However, the prices of CO2 certificates have dropped sharply over the past few years.

  • The Renewable Energy Sources Act (Act on the Development of Renewable Energy Sources): This Act includes three mechanisms: the feed-in priority for renewable energies, the guaranteed remuneration for renewable energies, and the lack of any capping as a means of helping industry and promoting technological development. Because of the way it works, it competes with the system of CO2 certificate trading.

  • Energy Industry Act (Act on the Supply of Electricity and Gas): This Act contains the essential regulations covering pipeline- and grid-based energy supplies in Germany. From this can be derived, amongst other things, the three goals of energy policy: security of supplies, economic efficiency and environmental compatibility. The Federal Grid Agency has the function of regulating the energy market.

  • Energy Grid Expansion Act: This Act, influenced by the Guidelines for Trans-European Energy Networks (TEN-E), includes the actual projects aimed at expanding the high-voltage lines in Germany.

  • Grid Expansion Acceleration Act: This Act was introduced because of the long planning horizons and the high level of pressure to construct new grids. The aim is to speed up planning processes. Responsibility was devolved to the Federal Grid Agency. Certain review processes and opportunities for taking legal action have been speeded up or have been cancelled.

20The Renewable Energy Sources Act has turned out to be a particularly relevant piece of legislation for the energy transition and it has been modified several times in the 15 years of its existence. As a result of the Act, individual sectors of industry – such as the photovoltaic industry a few years ago – have been promoted particularly strongly and have enjoyed a rapid development [cf. Staacke 2009]. A reduction in remuneration rates – made necessary because of high costs – pushed these sectors into a crisis in 2009. The last amendment to the Renewable Energy Sources Act saw further reductions in remuneration for more sectors of industry, as well as a cap on overall remuneration, in order to achieve the goal of a coordinated expansion corridor. As a result of this, bio-energy is currently undergoing a crisis.

4.2. Energy policy at all levels

4.2.1. European level

21At the European level, the EU provides a legal framework for the energy policy of the member states [cf. Gawel & al. 2014, pp. 175f.]. Article 194 I of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union lists four energy policy objectives for the EU:

  • Ensuring that the energy market functions,

  • Guaranteeing security of energy supplies in the EU,

  • Promoting energy efficiency, energy savings and the development of new and renewable energy sources, and

  • Promoting the interconnection of energy networks.

22In its energy policy the EU can act on this legal basis and achieve the objectives set out in Article 289 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, doing so through ordinary legislative procedures by means of directives, guidelines or resolutions [cf. Pollak & al. 2010, p. 112]. According to the proviso regarding national sovereignty in Article 194 II of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, the measures necessary for this do not affect the right of any member state to decide for itself on the conditions for the use of energy resources, on the choice between different sources of energy and on the general structure of energy supplies, which means that competences regarding energy policy continue to remain principally with the member states [cf. Gawel & al. 2014, pp. 175f.].

23Under the title of “An Energy Policy for Europe”, the European Commission presented an energy action plan for the EU as early as 2007, thus influencing the energy policies of individual states. The goals for the EU formulated in this action plan, covering the period up to 2020, are, firstly, a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 20% compared with 1990; secondly, a reduction in total primary energy consumption by 20%; and, thirdly, an increase in the share of renewable energies in the energy mix from 7% to 20% [cf. Kommission der Europäischen Gemeinschaften (Ed.) 2007]. This energy action plan was accepted by the Council of the European Union in March 2007 [cf. Rat der Europäischen Union (Ed.) 2007, p. 13]. These so-called 20-20-20 goals were adopted in the Emissions Trading Directive (2009/29/EC), the Renewable Energies Directive (2009/28/EC) and the Energy Efficiency Directive (2012/27/EU) [cf. Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft und Energie (Ed.) 2015]. If the “20-20-20 goals” are broken down to the level of individual European member states, we arrive at the following picture for Germany:

  • By 2020, Germany will be obliged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 31 to 35%, although in 2007 the German government itself set a target of -40% by 2020 [cf. Geden & Tils 2013, pp. 24f.].

  • According to the Renewable Energies Directive (2009/28/EC) an expansion target of 18% is envisaged for Germany by 2020 [cf. Anhang 1 der Richtlinie 2009/28/EG]. Current figures show that up to 2013 renewable energies in Germany achieved a share of 12.4% of gross final consumption of energy (EU average: 15%) [cf. Eurostat (Ed.) 2015].

  • On the basis of Article 7 of the Energy Efficiency Directive (2012/27/EU), member states are obliged to reduce their annual final energy sales by 1.5% p.a. from 2014 to 2020. In order to ensure that these national savings targets can be achieved, the German government has drawn up a National Energy Efficiency Plan which provides for a mix of instruments including information and advice, support programmes, regulatory legislation and incentive systems [cf. Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft und Energie (Ed.) 2014, pp. 12-18].

24In view of both the long investment cycles in the energy business and the difficulties the EU has in finding an internal position as regards upcoming international negotiations on climate change, the European Commission produced a Green Book in 2013 on EU Energy and Climate Policy [cf. Geden & Fischer 2014, p. 5]. It was on this basis that the EU Commission presented specific proposals last year under the title “A Framework for Climate and Energy Policy for the period 2010-2030”. These proposals provide for a reduction in CO2 emissions in the EU of 40% by 2030, compared with 1990 levels, and an increase in the share of renewable energies in energy consumption in the EU to at least 27%. This latter target, however, is binding only at EU level, whereas the member states are to make their own national commitments in this respect by 2020 on the basis of their current targets for renewables [cf. Europäische Kommission (Ed.) 2014a, pp. 6f.]. In the summer of 2014 the EU Commission also presented a proposal for an ambitious energy efficiency target of 30% by 2030 [cf. Europäische Kommission (Ed.) 2014b, p. 17].

25On this basis, the European Council adopted a “Framework for Climate and Energy Policy until 2030”, in which the above-mentioned targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing the share of renewables in energy consumption in the EU by 2030 were decided on. It includes an indicative target for improving energy efficiency by 27% by 2030, which is to be reviewed by 2020 with a view to increasing the figure to 30%. However, no nationally binding targets will be derived from the targets for renewable energies and energy efficiency at EU level, which means that it is possible for member states to define their own higher national targets [cf. Europäischer Rat (Ed.) 2014, pp. 2-6]. Severin Fischer [2014] talks here of a “renationalization of energy policy”.

4.2.2. Planning at national level

26The question for German planning policy at national level is whether support should be given to a centralized or to a decentralized expansion of renewable energies. Both alternatives have advantages and disadvantages as regards availability, land use, participation and prosperity, though these can be combined only to a limited extent in many places. There is no question that photovoltaic systems on the roofs of private houses can co-exist with large-scale wind parks in the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. A much more important question that needs to be addressed is how any expansion of individual sources of energy is to be undertaken. Which is better – a large number of wind parks (with or without the financial involvement of local populations), or single offshore wind parks in the hands of established energy companies? Is a large number of solar energy systems on housetops better than a few large photovoltaic parks on open spaces, e.g. redeveloped former military sites? As these simple examples illustrate, the grid/pipeline networks play a decisive role, with absolutely no difference for biogas production and the natural gas network, or for wind and solar. German regional planning has a variety of instruments for managing the energy transition. One important one is drawing up and implementing general principles for spatial planning, currently being revised (see Figure 5).

Figure 5 – General principle “Managing land use” for spatial planning (draft version)

Figure 5 – General principle “Managing land use” for spatial planning (draft version)

Source: MINISTERKONFERENZ FÜR RAUMORDNUNG (MKRO) (Ed.) (2013) – Entwurf. Leitbilder und Handlungsstrategien für die Raumentwicklung in Deutschland 2013 (MKRO-Beschluss vom 03.06.2013), s.l., p. 21

27As can be seen from the map, the question of whether the energy transition will result in centralized or decentralized energy supplies is a difficult one to answer. At first glance, the map gives the impression that, from the point of view of planning, a centralized expansion is preferred, consisting of large offshore wind parks in northern Germany with transmission lines going to the south of the country. One thing to note, however, is that the figure is problematic on the scale shown: the map alone is not meaningful, and an explanatory text needs to be added. This text says that “regional climate and energy concepts […] are to be supported by regional planning, and any results relevant to a region are to be integrated into this regional planning” [Ministerkonferenz für Raumordnung (MKRO) (Ed.) 2013, p. 19]. The implementation of this plan is therefore strongly criticized by many academics working in the field of spatial sciences, who call for a general principle for spatial planning specific to the energy transition [cf. Priebs 2014].

4.2.3. Planning at federal state level

28Because of Germany’s federal structure with 16 states, there are 16 planning authorities in the country, one in each state. Because of the great importance of renewable energies, however, they are embedded in the planning undertaken by all states in the country and account for a significant part of this planning.

29In addition to the active planning of conventional power plants which, as for example in the case of coal-fired plants, are of importance, a key role is played by the effects of the energy transition on regional consumption. The federal states frequently play a mediating role and stipulate target corridors for individual districts for the expansion of renewable energies. In addition, types of area and landscape are defined in which such an expansion is to be either promoted or not carried out at all.

4.2.4. Planning at regional and municipal level

30It is at the regional and municipal planning levels that the energy transition is most important of all. In line with the principle of subsidiarity, the lowest possible level is responsible for planning, which means that the energy sources are ordered by their importance for the area. Photovoltaic systems and bio-energy are accordingly approved at municipal level, subject to the relevant legislation. Because of the height of wind turbines alone, wind energy nowadays has an importance beyond local borders and is subject to regional planning, which identifies suitable areas and restricts the use of wind energy exclusively to these areas. In the case of photovoltaic systems in open spaces it is assumed that such systems are the least marketable and react most strongly to the remunerations laid down in the Renewable Energy Sources Act. In the current version of the Act, for example, remunerations are restricted to landfills and areas alongside motorways and railways. In this connection, bio-energy is the most difficult to handle as influence can be brought to bear only on the approval for the installation(s) given by the regional planners. The largest part is accounted for by agricultural use (especially for growing maize) which cannot be influenced but is subject to good professional practice on the part of farmers.

31On these levels, the difference between formal energy planning, based on legislation, and informal planning becomes especially clear. The former covers all plans for which extensive implementation is compulsory. This means that a regional plan is drawn up and established for all regions, and preparatory land use plans and, if necessary, binding land use plans are also drawn up for the municipalities. All these planning documents contain, so far as they are affected, statements relating to the development of energy resources in the individual areas. The main task of these plans is to ensure that the area is organized in an orderly way and to ensure the compatibility of certain uses with one another and the minimization of competition between them. Very often, informal energy plans are drawn up in order to point out specific development routes for individual regions and define targets for further development. In this connection there is one special feature in Germany which came about more by chance than anything else. The German Ministry of the Environment started an initiative, the main purpose of which was to have plans drawn up in the municipalities and regions to minimize CO2 emissions in the form of climate protection plans. In addition, there were to be climate change managers in towns and municipalities. Both these measures are being funded by the German government, but in the plans they require targets to be developed which are easily measurable. This has led to the municipalities drawing up the climate protection plans, with these plans primarily containing measures relating to energy, as climate protection is strongly linked to changes in individual behaviour and this would mean defining targets which could not be at all easily measured. Therefore there are practically no energy plans within the framework of informal planning; rather, the measures are to be found almost exclusively in climate protection plans. Over and above this, and as part of a promotion of regional economic development, many regions are drawing up plans for energy independence – frequently inappropriately described as “energy self-sufficiency”. The aim is to produce, in purely mathematical terms, as much energy as is needed in the region, especially in the fields of electricity and heating. The most frequently mentioned time horizon for this is 2050.

4.3. Players

32For the development of good forms of governance as part of the energy transition, there are a few key groups of players with specific functions in this process. These are as follows:

33Politicians: Politicians create the legislation, the plans and the overall conditions for the energy transition. Also, it is in the process of political negotiations that decisions are made on which technological paths are to be taken and funded, and which are not. Among the most important players in this group are the German Ministry of Economics and Energy, their counterparts at regional state level, and political institutions at municipal level.

34Business: Business provides the financial and manpower resources for the energy transition. The most important players in this group are the four big energy suppliers E.ON, RWE, EnBW and Vattenfall, as well as the large grid operators. In addition, and as a result of decentralization, the importance of regional business players – in particular municipal utilities – is increasing. The new developments meant that, in addition to the energy suppliers, some new companies were set up which today cover a large part of the renewable energies sector in Germany.

35Public institutions: These include on the one hand the regulatory authorities, in particular the Federal Grid Agency, and on the other hand those institutions which fund research such as the German Research Foundation or the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Because of the influence they have, they can stipulate the direction in which certain developments should go – without actively influencing the energy transition themselves.

36Research: Research takes on an important role not only because the relevant technology has not yet been fully developed, but also because of the uncertainty involving spatial and economic processes connected with the energy transition. In addition to research undertaken at universities, research done outside of universities is also strong in Germany. Important names here are the Fraunhofer Society and the Max Planck Institute. Also worthy of mention is the research and development carried out in private industry, in large companies such as Siemens, or in numerous small and medium-sized enterprises and start-ups, especially those in the photovoltaic sector. They play a key role in bringing developments to market.

37Society: Looking at governance, there are two aspects which are of special significance at this point: acceptance and participation. On the one hand there is a broad consensus that an anthropogenically influenced climate change is happening, that the production of energy is a decisive contributory factor, and that new forms of energy supplies must be found. Mostly, however, people’s acceptance of this ends in their own neighbourhood – the phenomenon known as NIMBYism (“Not in my backyard”). On the other hand there are new opportunities for broad sections of society to generate income and share in profits in the wake of the energy transition.

5. Conclusion

38With its energy transition Germany has a special role within the EU which poses numerous challenges for the country, but at the same time also offers opportunities. For example, the German government has to find answers to two questions: firstly, the lack of profitability and competitiveness shown by gas-fired power plants; and secondly the higher utilization levels of the climate-damaging coal-fired plants which are being used as a substitute for nuclear power plants to cover base load. In this connection, the question arises of whether lignite, which is mined in a land-intensive way, should be seen as a bridging technology for the energy transition or not.

39A further challenge which Germany has to face is the potential for conflict with its neighbours, which will arise as a result of the expansion of renewable energy sources and the feeding of any excess production of electricity into these neighbouring countries’ grids. This can lead to problems not only regarding the stability of the grid systems there, but also, and in particular, how any excess supply of electricity impacts on the market. The German government must also lobby for the energy policy it has embarked on vis-à-vis the new energy policy objectives the EU has drawn up, which permit a larger national scope for action than before.

40Last but not least, Germany’s energy policy must deal with the challenge that public acceptance in the country of any expansion of electricity grids as part of the energy transition mostly ends in people’s own neighbourhood (the NIMBY phenomenon). At the same time, an expansion of the grid system gives regional planners the chance to put into practice new opportunities for participation by the public.

41For German business, the energy transition provides an opportunity to gain a technological advantage over other countries in grid, power plant and storage technology, as well as in the field of renewable energies.

42In addition, the energy transition provides opportunities for science and research in Germany to re-position themselves in the field of research into the geography of energy. As the energy transition has many facets, it does not make sense, in researchers’ eyes, to look exclusively at the expansion of renewable energies, the distribution of locations of potentials for natural energy or any thematic involvement in planning processes. An integrated view of things, as made possible by the governance theory, links up the many individual points into one system and ultimately enables us to take a comprehensive view of the phenomenon of energy.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1 – Paradigm shift in energy research
Crédits Source: KAUSCH, P., BERTAU, M., GUTZMER, J. & MATSCHULLAT, J. (Ed.) (2011) – Energie und Rohstoffe, Heidelberg, Springer Spektrum, p. 152 (modified on the basis of BRÜCHER, W. (2009) – Energiegeographie. Wechselwirkungen zwischen Ressourcen, Raum und Politik, Berlin & Stuttgart, Bornträger)
Fichier image/jpeg, 916k
Titre Figure 2 – Distribution of power generation in Germany
Crédits Sources: UMWELTBUNDESAMT (Ed.) (2015) – Karte Kraftwerke und Verbundnetze in Deutschland,​bild/​karte-kraftwerke-verbundnetze-in-deutschland & BUNDESINSTITUT FÜR BAU-, STADT- UND RAUMFORSCHUNG (Ed.) (2012) – Erneuerbare Energien im Raum,​BBSR/​DE/​Raumentwicklung/​EnergieKlimaschutzpolitik/​Projekte/​Archiv/​Erneuerbare/​EE_im_Raum.html;jsessionid=2EFE6AD88CB411058BDD2BEE3486376D.live1042?nn=1037294
Fichier image/jpeg, 640k
Titre Figure 3 – Merit-order effect of renewable energies
Crédits Source: Author’s illustration
Fichier image/jpeg, 260k
Titre Figure 4 – Electricity production and spot prices in calendar week 33 in 2014
Crédits Source: FRAUNHOFER INSTITUTE FOR SOLAR ENERGY SYSTEMS ISE (Ed.) (2014) – Electricity Production and Spot Prices in Germany 2014,​en/​downloads-englisch/​pdf-files-englisch/​data-nivc-/​electricity-spot-prices-and-production-data-in-germany-2014.pdf
Fichier image/jpeg, 228k
Titre Figure 5 – General principle “Managing land use” for spatial planning (draft version)
Crédits Source: MINISTERKONFERENZ FÜR RAUMORDNUNG (MKRO) (Ed.) (2013) – Entwurf. Leitbilder und Handlungsstrategien für die Raumentwicklung in Deutschland 2013 (MKRO-Beschluss vom 03.06.2013), s.l., p. 21
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,4M
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Helge Conrad et Gerald Staacke, « Current issues and challenges in the geography of energy in Germany », Bulletin de l’association de géographes français, 93-1 | 2016, 26-45.

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Helge Conrad et Gerald Staacke, « Current issues and challenges in the geography of energy in Germany », Bulletin de l’association de géographes français [En ligne], 93-1 | 2016, mis en ligne le 22 janvier 2018, consulté le 24 avril 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/bagf.772

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Helge Conrad

Collaborateur scientifique à l‘Université de Münster, Institut de géographie, Chaire du développement régional/local et d'aménagement du territoire, Heisenbergstraße 2, 48149 Münster (Allemagne) – Courriel : helge.conrad[at]

Gerald Staacke

Collaborateur scientifique à l‘Université de Münster, Institut de géographie, Chaire du développement régional/local et d'aménagement du territoire, Heisenbergstraße 2, 48149 Münster (Allemagne) – Courriel : gerald.staacke[at]

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