Generating policy for the energy transition

Dania Röpke, MPP 2010, shepherds Germany's Energiewende through a legislative period.

Dania Röpke’s office is at the epicentre of Germany’s biggest policy project of a generation – the Energiewende, or energy transition. As the Private Secretary to State Secretary Rainer Baake in the German Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, she works with Baake and his ministerial staff to replace fossil fuels with renewable energies and reach Germany’s climate targets. Dania acts as chief of staff, fielding the day-to-day affairs of high-level policymaking – from managing staff to providing political and strategic advice, to making sure communications reflect the ministry’s messages. She was ranked “Top 40 under 40” working in the public sector by the German business magazine Capital in both 2015 and 2016.

Dania joined the office in 2014, just three years after the government embarked on its commitment to run the German economy largely on renewable energy by 2050. In 2016, renewables like sun and wind already made up over 30% of Germany’s electricity mix, but the Energiewende goes much further. Germany is exiting nuclear power, working towards sharply cutting carbon emissions, and expanding the transition from the power sector to transport and buildings as well.

Dania studied political science at the Freie Universität Berlin and then graduated from the Hertie School and the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) with a dual Master of Public Policy and Public Administration in 2010. She then became a policy advisor at the German Wind Energy Association. In 2012, Dania joined the German Ministry of Environment, Nature Protection and Nuclear Safety, where she worked on the market integration of variable renewables like wind and sun and the reform of the German electricity market. This led to her current job in the economics ministry. Around 20% of Hertie School graduates pursue public sector careers.

Having a goal in mind and shaping policies that fit

“We are running into a climate catastrophe and it will cost many lives unless we act now. The earth will still be here even if it gets hot, but we won’t,” Dania said. “This is why I wanted to contribute to making the German energy transition a success and to show that it can be both an ecological and economic success.”

Just how the world’s fourth largest economy weans itself from fossil fuels onto renewable energy has been closely watched in other parts of the world, Dania notes. She says she hopes other countries will be encouraged by Germany’s efforts and learn as much from its successes as from its mis-steps.  

Dania says her studies at the Hertie School gave her both the methodological and economic tools to perform in her job.  “It helped me to question standard procedures and to approach topics not dogmatically, but to have a goal in mind and see which policies would fit best.” She started her job shortly after the last federal elections, which meant she was able to see policies through an entire legislative period.

“We put up a 10-point agenda at the beginning of this term,” Dania says. “Some politicians may find it dangerous to lay out what you want to do, because then you can be held accountable. We thought making policies transparent and measurable outweighed the risks. And we were right: we have now successfully completed 95 percent of the projects, and the other 5 percent are ongoing. Even journalists who have written sceptically of the energy transition admit that it is well planned and executed,” she says. Among the accomplishments are a major reform of the Renewable Energy Sources Act, which introduced a bidding system for renewable energy support, and the largest electricity market reform in Germany since the liberalisation of the energy market in the 1990s.

In creating new policies, Dania also helped change how the government works within the European Union. “We regularly invited our “electrical neighbours” to Berlin, consulted them on our national policies and discussed where a more European approach was useful,” Dania says. They agreed, for example, to cooperate on the security of supply, meaning fewer power plants in Europe and benefits for consumers and climate. “In the past, our European neighbours had often felt German energy policy was conducted unilaterally and they greatly appreciated that we initiated the Berlin energy dialogue to strengthen the European internal energy market.”

As the energy transition progresses, Dania’s job is constantly changing. “The greater percentage of renewables we have in our mix, the more the challenge shifts from support policies and cost issues to system integration of renewable energy and the effective coupling of the electricity, heating and transport sectors. I’ve been working on the German energy transition for seven years, but it’s never the same.”



Hertie School explainer: What is the Energiewende?

Germany’s Energiewende, or energy transition, is a government-mandated project to create an environmentally sustainable and economically viable energy supply. It includes electricity, transport, buildings and heating, and relies on a mix of decentralised renewable power production, efficiency measures and digitalisation to manage demand. The key goals are to produce 80-95 percent of all power with renewables and cut carbon emissions by at least 80 percent by 2050 compared to 1990, and completely exit nuclear power by 2022.

The Energiewende became official policy in 2011 under Chancellor Angela Merkel, after Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster catalysed a decades-old public debate over atomic power. This massive structural change has been praised for its bold vision in tackling climate change and unlocking innovative technologies, and sharply criticised for its high cost and trouble meeting ambitious greenhouse gas emission targets, despite huge investments in renewable power borne largely by consumers.

Subsidies passed on to consumers have paid for wind and solar power that has expanded faster than the infrastructure needed to transport it. Shutting down nuclear plants and the pressure to exit dirty brown coal, the main source of electricity production until now, has taken a toll on Germany’s big four utilities, which some say were slow to respond to the impending changes. And critics worry that it will be difficult to run a highly industrial economy on fluctuating power like wind and sun.

But the change has also sparked innovation, such as in photovoltaics, battery storage and efficiency technologies, and has spawned thousands of jobs in new businesses. Polls show that 80-90 percent of the German public views the Energiewende favourably, and there is a high level of citizen participation in rooftop-mounted solar arrays and other projects. But some observers worry that failing to meet emissions reduction targets, such as the 2020 target to cut emissions by 40 percent over 1990, could whittle away at this enthusiasm.