The challenges of the German enery transition with Andreas Kuhlmann
“The Energiewende — or let’s rather say ‘energy transition’ — is in transition itself.”
Interview by Anne-Sophie Garrigou
Andreas Kuhlmann is the Chief Executive of the German Energy Agency (dena), working on Germany’s Energiewende and dena’s new initiative, the “Start Up Energy Transition” that, in his words, aims to “bring pioneers and enablers of global energy transition together, and to establish an international network of companies, start-ups and sustainability-conscious organisation.
Hello Andreas Kuhlmann and thank you for taking the time to meet us today. You have been the Chief Executive of dena since 2015. How did you find yourself in this position? What is your story?
I started working at dena in July 2015, and I was very excited to get this opportunity. Climate change and the energy transition have always been important topics for me: fascinating challenges, everything but easy. Working for dena is a chance to really focus on concrete projects and burning questions at the interface between politics and the economy. And there’s a great team here at dena.
I myself am a physicist. I worked on carbon cycle issues and, as a student, I measured CO2 from a clean air station in Alert, Canada. I remember figures [at] around 350 ppm. Now we are above 400. A graph with this climate change fever curve hangs in my office — just to remind everybody that something really is going on.
My grandfather worked underground — ‘unter Tage’, as we say in German — in a coal mine in the Ruhr district. My father worked as an electrician. And now I have the chance to be part of history, shaping the energy transition with dena. Before this, I was Head of Strategy and Politics at the German Association of Energy and Water (BDEW). And before that, I was able to gather a lot of experience in different positions — in Brussels, at the German Bundestag, and in government. I also worked at the German Embassy in Stockholm for two years. A great city, nowadays even for startups.
For our readers who are not from Germany, or who don’t know about it, can you explain what the ‘Energiewende’ is, and why it is so important?
Is there really anyone out there who doesn’t know about the Energiewende? Then we really have to work harder at telling people about it (just kidding!) The word ‘Energiewende’ refers to a major change in our energy system. It started at some point in the 1990s, when a few people had the idea of producing energy from wind and solar power instead of nuclear. A real push came around 2000. Germany passed the feed-in tariff law known as the Renewable Energy Sources Act , which made it much easier to connect alternative electricity to the grid. At the same time, Germany decided to abandon nuclear power for the first time. So, in the beginning, the energy transition was mainly about taking wind and solar power out of their niche, and getting rid of nuclear power. We started with about 5 per cent renewable energy in the electricity sector, based on hydropower. Now we are at about 35 per cent!
But things are changing. The Energiewende — or let’s rather say ‘energy transition’ — is in transition itself. Wind and solar have grown up and bringing more of them into the grid is still important. But the really innovative and interesting question today is: how do we get all these decentralised components connected and make something really smart out of it? Digitalisation and decentralisation are the driving forces. More and more smart companies and smart ideas are springing up. Fascinating! A good place to be. In other words: if you’re smart, come to the country of energy transition! Or work on the energy transition in any of the other countries, all over the world, who signed the Paris Agreement.
What is the role of dena in helping to achieve the energy transition?
Unlike other national agencies, we are a company, not an administrative body. Our shareholders include the government, but also partners from the financial sector, such as KfW Bankengruppe. We identify important issues and trends in energy transition, and work on studies and projects with all kind of stakeholders in Germany and abroad, especially in China. In general, our main concerns are energy efficiency in all sectors, and systemic issues related to the energy transition.
We are currently focusing very strongly on innovation in energy transition. We want to show that there are major changes and new opportunities ahead. We can see very interesting new players and business models in the energy transition. And we want to help develop the right conditions to make them successful. That’s why we’ve just started a global project: Start Up Energy Transition. A global startup award that aims to create a global network focussing on innovation in energy transition. More than 70 partners from more than 20 countries are already supporting this project. If you want to know more, visit startup-energy-transition.com.
In an interview last year, you described dena as an ‘agency for applied energy transition’. What does this mean?
The description ‘agency for applied energy transition’ fits many of the things we do pretty well, because we work on concrete projects and therefore gain lots of experience, which we can share with our stakeholders in politics and industry. Very often people complain about complexity and other issues related to energy transition — sometimes with good reason. But we also want to show the things that are already working very well. Sometimes there’s a lack of success stories. We want to identify them and spread the word around. At the same time, there’s more to dena than this. We are also an important think tank and mediator in energy transition.
You said that as energy transition progresses, the challenges change. How, exactly? And how does it affect your role?
Today Germany has the most diversified energy supply system in the world. And energy transition has long since ceased to be something that only concerns energy providers. It’s a project that interfaces with the most varied sectors and branches of industry. That makes it exciting, but also complex. We want to build bridges for the various players, and identify fundamental issues. What is the current position of the regulatory and legislative framework in Germany? Is it sufficiently favourable towards innovation, or are there things we need to change? What effect does it have on the existing infrastructure — not just on electricity grids, but also on gas networks, remote heating networks and so on? And what form should an efficient electricity market take — one that satisfies all these new demands and makes new business models possible?
What is the role of the general public in the energy transition?
The more progress we make with the energy transition, the more important the role of ordinary citizens becomes. At the beginning, it was more or less ‘only’ about wind and solar power, and opposing the four big energy industry companies in Germany. These four big companies have undergone massive change. They no longer exist today in the same form as back then. Today, it’s much more about the way we live.
The products of the future might no longer be electricity, coal, gas or oil but heat, light, mobility and other services. How these products are created is up to creativity of those shaping the energy transition. The main thing is that it’s carbon neutral. The energy transition is getting ever closer to people — via their housing, heating, cars and electrical devices.
But as well as this, the expansion of wind and solar power, and the associated power supply lines, is becoming increasingly visible. So visible that, in many places, we’ve reached the limits of tolerance of the people living there. What’s more, where outdated structures are being dismantled — for example, in the coal industry — there, too, people play an important role. We have to ensure that the transition to the new world of energy takes a socially acceptable form. That’s already no easy job in Germany, but in other countries on this planet it’s even more complicated. We should take this seriously, and exchange our experiences.
How is the energy transition transforming the labour market?
Old jobs are disappearing, new ones appearing. This gives rise to complicated wealth distribution issues. But basically I’m confident. New jobs are being created everywhere — in industry, skilled trades, the energy industry, engineering firms and the IT sector. But we can also see that education and further training must be given a stronger focus on the energy transition. If we want the many skilled tradespeople in Germany to install new, efficient and innovative technologies for their customers, they must also be in a position to do so. Managing this process isn’t all that easy.
According to you, what is the next step that the German government should take to succeed in this energy transition?
A lot of things have already been set in motion, but here and there we could afford to be more courageous. We will have to increase our efforts in the field of energy efficiency even more. Energy efficiency is a driver of innovation, but all the same it’s often very sporadically distributed. There’s still too little being done in the transport field, but that will change. As well as this, we must consider whether the regulatory and legislative framework we constructed during the first phase of the energy transition will still support what we have in mind for the future. On this point I have my doubts, and want to bring this question more to the forefront.
Can you tell us what the ‘Climate Protection Plan 2050’ is, and what its main objectives are?
It is an attempt to set out how, in our present view, we can achieve the goals of our climate policy. And these are very ambitious: 80 to 95 per cent less CO2 than in 1990 by the year 2050. For me, the Climate Protection Plan is a living document. It doesn’t conclude the discussion, it’s only the beginning. To describe 2050 solely in terms of today’s technologies is not enough. We still don’t know what new technologies and ideas will appear — many of them, perhaps, in the form of new approaches. We should therefore be open towards innovations and new ideas. However, the Climate Protection Plan and the debate surrounding it can afford an important framework. I think that every country should concern itself with such a project, but at the same time remain open and friendly towards innovation. In the case of the global energy transition, there can be no 30-year master plan. We need the commitment of people like the readers of ‘The Beam’, because they want to make those things that lie ahead of us even better.
Why is it so important that governments worldwide create incentives for investment and encourage innovation?
Without innovation everything comes to a standstill. And we can’t stop anthropogenic climate change with a standstill. However, not every innovation brings about progress. If someone develops a platform that makes entire professions obsolete, simply in order to get rich by employing far fewer staff — who are also perhaps precariously paid — they are not contributing to global progress. It’s only progress when it benefits human beings: those who are already here in this world, and those who are still to come. Being involved in climate protection is a rewarding type of commitment. Selling shoes on the internet — well, I hope your readers want to do more with their lives than this.
Interview by Anne-Sophie Garrigou