Energy transition Bavaria's Power Play

Germany's states are rounding on Bavaria's leader after he reversed a decision to build new power lines, potentially compromising the country's transition to renewable energy.
All power to Bavaria.

Being popular outside Bavaria, where his center-right Christian Social Union reigns supreme, has never been a major concern of state premier Horst Seehofer.

So colleagues in the the CSU's sister party, Germany's ruling Christian Democratic Union, usually give Mr. Seehofer a pass when he throws a parochial wrench into national gears or undertakes unilateral actions.

But not any longer. Prominent CDU politicians are heavily criticizing Mr. Seehofer’s blockade on the construction of new power lines, which they see as an obstacle to completing Germany's much-cherished transition to 100 percent renewable energy sources.

“All of the states have agreed to the planned lines,” Stanislaw Tillich, premier of the neighboring state of Saxony, told Handelsblatt. “Mastering the energy transition is a pan-German task for all of us, the federal government and the states, the business community, economy and the people.”

Reiner Haseloff, the CDU state premier of another of Germany's 16 states, Saxony-Anhalt, is also concerned by Mr. Seehofer's actions. “We need the grid expansion, and urgently, because the last of the nuclear power plants will be closed down in 2022.”

We need the grid expansion, and urgently, because the last of the nuclear power plants will be closed down in 2022. Reiner Haseloff, Prime minister, Saxony-Anhalt

Currently, nuclear power plants are the backbone of energy supplies, especially in the south of Germany, where Bavaria is situated. When they are closed, energy must be produced either by new natural gas or coal power plants, or delivered to the south over additional power lines from northern Germany. The power grid lacks the capacity to accomplish this.

“We produce green energy in Saxony-Anhalt that we can’t pass on at certain times, so the plant’s production must be reduced,” Mr. Haseloff said. This makes no sense, he noted, because it results in unnecessary costs and happens only because there are too few lines to the industrial regions in southern Germany.

Armin Laschet, head of the CDU in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, said Mr. Seehofer must take responsibility. “Bavaria agreed two years ago to the Grid Expansion Acceleration Act that laid out the construction of the lines,” he said. “We don’t need 16 energy transitions, but a national consensus that involves burdens for all of the states besides Berlin and Hamburg.”

Mr. Seehofer shocked listeners last fall when he declared construction of new “electricity highways” across Germany – approved by the Bundestag, the national parliament, and the Bundesrat, the legislative body representing the states at the national level – contradicts Bavarian interests and must be reexamined.

He then established a Bavarian “Energy Dialog,” which ended earlier this month. Ilse Aigner, Bavaria’s minister for economic affairs, media, energy and technology, summarized the results: Of three planned north-to-south energy routes, the state government believes only one is required.

Huge question marks hover over even this concession. Mr. Seehofer recently said no decision about the energy demands of the next decade need to be made at the moment. When the last nuclear power plant closes in 2022, he said, Bavaria will tap into new natural gas-fired power stations for power and, in the best-case scenario, may achieve energy self-sufficiency.

Companies fear Mr. Seehofer’s “lone wolf” actions will drive up electricity prices.

Mr. Seehofer proposes the use of subsidies to build the gas-fired power plants, a plan Saxony thinks is preposterous. “I am against plans that can result in an increase in costs for energy users,” Mr. Tillich said, adding that gas power plants are only a solution if they can operate without subsidies.

Thomas Strobl, head of the CDU in Baden-Württemberg and vice chair of the national party, agreed. Building gas power plants in the south while spreading costs nationwide won’t work, he said. It would be more sensible to use electricity from renewable energy sources in the north, deliver it to the south and use existing conventional power plants as reserves.

“This way the energy transition remains affordable,” Mr. Strobl said.

Meanwhile, businesses in Bavaria are uneasy about the course Mr. Seehofer is taking, with companies fretting about the availability of a reliable, cost-efficient energy supply.

Officially, businesses remain on the sidelines, lest they fall foul of the state government. But behind closed doors, they are forcefully speaking their minds. At one company, Mr. Seehofer’s proposal has been called an “energy policy rampage” that is incomprehensible.

map Planned High Power Lines-01 grid electricity energiewende energy shift transition

There are growing complaints that the Bavarian leader is acting like a populist and doesn’t have the courage to confront the Bavarian people with reality. A reliable energy supply is indispensable, especially for the high tech companies in the south.

Even the briefest of blackouts in the energy supply would endanger complex production processes. Companies also fear Mr. Seehofer’s “lone wolf” actions will drive up electricity prices.

Everyone is now waiting for Chancellor Angela Merkel to put her foot down. She’ll get the opportunity this Tuesday when the top leaders of Germany's ruling coalition will gather for a crisis meeting at which construction of the power lines will be on the agenda.


Daniel Delhaes is a Handelsblatt editor focusing on politics, Klaus Stratmann is an energy correspondent. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected]