“THE SWITCH TO RENEWABLES IS LIKE PERFORMING OPEN HEART SURGERY”

German environment minister Peter Altmaier on high electricity bills, the refrigerators in his basement, and his own energy.

By Julian Kuper & Sebastian Kempkens

Mr Altmaier, your father was a miner and your mother a nurse – how did they react when they suddenly had to spend €60 more a year on electricity?

The biggest item in household budgets was and still is the heating bill – by which I mean either heating oil or district heating. It’s precisely because I come from a modest background that I’m very unhappy about the rising electricity prices. We all knew that the switch to renewables was going to cost something, but I’m sure that a price rise of this scale could have been avoided if policymakers had taken the appropriate measures in good time.

But it was not avoided. You recommend enlisting the help of an energy adviser to explain how we can save electricity – has one been to your house yet?

As a minister I am fortunate enough to regularly come into contact with people who know about this sort of thing. I have already learnt a lot – for example, I discovered that the heating pump in my house is a huge power guzzler and that if I replaced it with a new one, I could save 80 percent of the energy it uses. I now also know that my old fridge and freezer, which I bought 20 years ago, use vast amounts of electricity – and if I do not defrost them regularly, they waste even more. This is all common sense, but I didn’t use to think about these things at all in my day-to-day life. That has changed now that I’m environment minister.

So are you getting rid of the power-guzzling appliances?

Well, the thing is, I bought a new kitchen four years ago with an energy-saving fridge-freezer and put the old appliances in the basement, where I’ve kept them running for the time being. Only now have I realised what effect this has on my electricity bill and my energy consumption. I’m going to get them taken away soon.

So you are learning new things all the time. That means your appointment as environment minister has already led to small electricity savings.

Everyone can make a difference by making little changes to their daily routine. For example, I often used to leave my computer on overnight so I didn’t have to boot it up the next morning. These aren’t the sort of things where people should be forced to act one way or the other, but they’re worth talking about. They help you to knock your electricity bill down to size.

“The switch to renewables is like performing an open heart surgery.” Environment minister Peter Altmaier at work (Foto: Bundesumweltministerium)

But can the general public really be expected to take the transition to greener energy into their own hands?

No, they can’t be expected to do that. We also need to offer advice and concrete support, particularly for low-income families. I’m currently discussing this issue with welfare associations, utility companies and lots of other organisations. We must ensure that the transition to greener energy costs less on the whole. This includes sticking to the original plan for the expansion of renewables – which was to take place over a period of 20 to 30 years. This will mean that the costs don’t all come at once and that electricity prices are kept at a tolerable level.

It looks as if the switch to renewables could soon cause problems for the Christian Democratic Union – particularly in the 2013 general election. Why can’t you put an end to the electricity price debate?

Switching to renewables is not exactly child’s play. It’s rather like performing open heart surgery on the economy. But we have one year until the election to prove that we can do better than a SPD-Green coalition.

Although you have a reputation as a self-made man who has taught himself, it is still only relatively recently that you took office. Can you always understand the flood of information that comes your way from the energy sector?

Yes, I’ve learnt the ropes pretty well and I have an overview of the sector. Now my aim is to present this wealth of information to the public in a way that they can understand. For example, the faster we force the transition to renewable energy, the more costs we will incur in a shorter time period. This is a principle that can be understood by anyone.

The threat of an SPD-Green coalition is not your only problem. As environment minister you are often caught between politicians, lobbyists and the public – they all want something from you. How can you keep a clear head?

I really like cooking – I find it relaxing and it helps to break up the day-to-day life of political routine. I like inviting colleagues around. It’s not about the food being particularly fancy or impressive, it’s about the fact that politicians can sometimes see things with more clarity when they are in a relaxed, private setting rather than in some back room somewhere. By providing this kind of convivial setting, I hope to make a small contribution towards keeping politics straightforward and human.

Have you ever considered inviting the various key players in Germany’s switch to renewables one by one to the Altmaier house? Perhaps you can tempt them over to your way of thinking.

I’ll let you in on a secret: since I’ve been environment minister, I haven’t had the chance to cook for anyone; I’ve just had too much work. All the same, I’m hoping to find time over the next few months to have some people over. But it doesn’t have to have anything to do with the switch to renewables.

You joined the Junge Union, the youth organisation of the Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union back in 1974. The energy situation looked quite different back then. What did you think about nuclear energy as a young man?

Back then, just like now, I was neither a supporter nor an opponent of nuclear energy. It was just one of several types of energy, as far as I was concerned. I always felt that it would be difficult for Germany to go it alone in phasing out nuclear power.

And did the Fukushima disaster change your opinion?

Since the Fukushima disaster I have come to the realisation that nuclear energy no longer has a future because it has been the most controversial political and social issue. Therefore I am now quite certain that it was right to phase out nuclear power. I also believe that we’re making the right type of transition with our energy sources – we’re not simply replacing nuclear energy with coal and gas, but are making the switch to renewable energies. I believe that this has been the right decision, also from the perspective of sustaining and developing technological progress in Germany.

One thing is certain, stressful weeks lie ahead for you. Where do you get your energy from?

I derive the energy I need for my political work from being motivated by this very difficult but tremendously exciting project. There are many government departments that are much bigger than the environment ministry and that have a lot more money but, with the switch to renewables, we have a project that is simply crucial for Germany. That’s what spurs me on.

 

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