The German government will more closely oversee the country's move from nuclear power to renewable energy, Chancellor Angela Merkel said Wednesday — a mammoth 10-year project for Europe's biggest economy that has been going slowly so far.
Merkel said she will be meeting with all of Germany's 16 state governors twice a year to take stock of the transformation's progress and shortcomings, stressing that everything must be done to avoid blackouts and ensure affordable energy.
Critics, including Germany's main industry lobby group, have faulted the government for a lack of coordination and demanded better, permanent oversight for one of Merkel's most challenging projects.
In a major policy shift, Merkel announced that the government is drafting laws which would pay utilities not just for the electricity their gas- or coal-fired power plants produce but simply for having them available in times when renewable energy sources aren't sufficient.
Merkel, who spoke after meeting with state governors, said Germany's energy switchover was "a great task" and added that "we want it to succeed."
Merkel's center-right government decided to speed up shutting down Germany's nuclear reactors following Japan's Fukushima nuclear disaster last year. But its progress since on putting in place the infrastructure to cope with a massive increase in renewable energy hasn't always lived up to expectations.
Merkel last week fired her environment minister, who had just led her party to a disastrous state election defeat. She declared then that a "new beginning" was needed at the ministry to master the energy switchover.
Wind, solar and other renewable energy sources currently account for some 20 percent of Germany's electricity production and are set to produce a third of it within a decade, reaching 80 percent by 2050.
One technological challenge is to ensure the electricity grid's stability, avoiding blackouts.
Currently, energy from renewable sources has priority over power produced by fossil fuel plants, leaving those often operating below their capacity. However, those conventional gas- or coal-fired plants are crucial to keep the country's power supply functioning because they can produce electricity even when there's no sun or wind.
Utilities have complained that their conventional plants' profitability is too low because they are forced to operate below capacity, which might eventually force them to shut down the plants for good.
That has now prompted the government to make plans for a so-called capacity market — essentially, paying utilities for keeping their production capacity from conventional power plants ready to jump in when renewable energies do not suffice.
"We have to harmonize the expansion of renewable energies with the necessity of conventional power plants that are also needed," Merkel said.
The BDEW lobby group of German utilities welcomed the government's move. "It is reassuring that there is unanimity on the importance of conventional power plants," it said in a statement.
Germany switched off permanently the eight oldest of its 17 nuclear power plants last year following the Fukushima disaster. The country was still a net exporter of electricity in 2011, and its greenhouse gas emissions decreased 2 percent last year from 2010 despite its increased reliance on coal- and gas-fired plants.
Juergen Baetz can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jbaetz