The RWE Energy Group owns the Immerath church. Actually, it owns the whole village – or what is left of it. Seven years ago Immerath, not far from Aachen, had 1,500 inhabitants; today only around 30 souls hold strong.

As of 2017 the whole village will probably disappear into the giant pit that excavators are creating in the surrounding landscape. Here lies the open-air mining facility Garzweiler-II, with a perimeter of 45 kilometres and a depth of 230 meters. The owner, RWE, plans to extract brown coal up until 2045. By that time, twelve villages will have perished in the giant pit.

Paradox

The German government usually takes care of its citizens. And so it did with those of Immerath. A couple of kilometres from the old village, a new town has been built, called “Neu-Immerath”, including a new modern church. But it still seems odd that a country that is praised by the whole world for its ecological and progressive energy policy relies on coal as a major energy source, when it is by far the most polluting fossil fuel around.

“That is indeed a paradox”, says Christian Hey, secretary-general of the influential German Advisory Council on the Environment. The investments in coal are a constant worry for the board. Because of the lignite issue, Germany might fall short of its ambitious climate goals – cutting its carbon emissions by at least 40 per cent by 2020.

Perverse side effects

When nuclear reactors went into meltdown in Fukushima after the 2011 tsunami and earthquake, Chancellor Angela Merkel decided that Germany would step out of nuclear energy by 2022. At the same time, the country had to make a big leap forward on renewable energy. The aim is to reach 40 to 45 percent of renewable energy by 2025. And by 2035 that figure should be at least 55 percent.

But one of the perverse side effects of that decision was that coal became popular again. In 2013, 45 percent of German electricity production was generated by burning this highly polluting fuel, the highest rate since 2007. CO2 emissions, which had gone down by 27 percent between 1990 and 2011, went up again.

Does this mean that the famous Energiewende, a policy that made Germany a world leader in renewable energies, is not delivering the intended results? Christian Hey shakes his head and states that “it remains a wise decision. In the long run it will provide long-term advantages for climate and the economy”.

The renewable energy sector in Germany has undoubtedly made huge progresses. “A third of all electricity is currently coming from sustainable sources. That is four times more than fifteen years ago”, Hey says.

Citizens participation

According to Rainer Baake, under-secretary of state for energy transition, this success is also due to citizens’ participation. Germans showed not only great interest in participating in this effort, but they were also invited to invest in local projects. That is why half the production of sustainable electricity is owned by individuals, and not by private companies.

Citizens were also encouraged by a generous subsidies system. Local producers of solar and wind energy were promised fixed prices and priority access on the electric grid. Investing thus became almost riskless.

“The faster the production of sustainable energy grew, the bigger the subsidies flow became”, says Hey. But subsidies were financed by taxpayers and small and medium businesses. Both saw their energy bills skyrocket. The Institut der deutschen Wirtschaft, the national institute for the German economy – a think-tank financed by German companies – estimates that the energy policy costs €28.2 billion a year. It means the average German family pays an extra €270 euros per year.

Meanwhile “green investments” are slowing down. Reaching the 2025 target of 45 percent sustainable energy would need large wind farms to be built. Many Germans are not in favour of this scenario.

And that is not the only problem. Wind and solar energy cannot be stored in batteries: they have to be distributed through the grid when produced. The German electricity distribution network is not ready for that.

But at the same time, many Germans do not want giant power lines over their heads and homes. Angela Merkel stated that those lines should be underground as much as possible. And that comes with a cost: an added €3 to €8 billion on top of the already estimated €32 billion for the renewal of the distribution grid.

Money issues

More and more politicians are moving away from the Energiewende, deterred by the high price tag. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung calculated that since 2011 €100 billion has

already been invested and another €280 billion is still to come.

Christian Hey nevertheless continues to believe in the success of the Energiewende. “These are teething problems. The path is clear. It only requires some political courage to follow it consistently”, he says.

In Immerath Bruno Migge is taking photos of the abandoned houses. He snorts when we mention the Energiewende: “I cannot call green a government that allows whole villages to disappear in deep pits…”