Current patterns of production and consumption in Europe are concerning, emphasising the urgency to meet the European Union’s (EU) green deal goals for the future. Hereafter, we use Germany’s energy transition as a best practice example for the union, yet highlighting a partial success regarding the social pillar of sustainability. Germany’s leading role benefits the EU and its goals—greater energy efficiency, renewable energies, and an affordable EU energy supply13.

Germany’s sustainable energy transition follows a green economy model29. From 2000 to 2019, we noticed an exponential increase in the country’s share of renewable energy sources (RES): from 2.80% to 17.48% 30. With one of the highest productions of RESs in Europe, the country produces 25.7% of Europe’s wind energy and produced 40.32% of its electricity through RES in 2021, compared to 6.20% in 2000. Their emission of greenhouse gases (GHG) is also expected to keep decreasing in the future14 .

Since 1985, Germany has used 63% less energy to produce one unit of GDP, 2.58 kWh/$ in 1985 to 0.96 kWh/$ in 201630 , and still increased their use of RES and decreased their use of fossil energies. How did they do it? First, we share some broad data about the EU’s consumption and production of energy to understand how current patterns are not sustainable. I then explain the unsustainability of such patterns, the challenges states face, and what an energy transition implies. In the third part of this article, I examine Germany’s energy transition, focusing on its monitoring, energy efficiency, and research and development schemes used to increase RES’ share in its energy mix. Finally, I raise some criticisms about this transition and points states should consider while attempting such policies.

I. Current patterns of consumption and production


The EU primarily consumes fossil fuels. The sustainability of overall consumption is, therefore, more than doubtful. In 2000, the Union’s energy consumption was composed of: 19% coal, 42% oil, 20% gas, 13% nuclear, 5.56% hydropower, 0.33% wind, <0.01% solar, and 0.20% of other renewables30. We see clear negligence in the use of renewables. In 2020, the EU reduced its consumption of coal, slightly decreased oil use (-5%), and, most importantly, increased the use of RES such as solar, wind, and hydropower30. Fossil fuels remain the main energy source consumed, although they slowly started to decrease after 2008, whilst RES slowly increased simultaneously30.


The EU imports more energy than it exports because it is not a major fossil fuel producer. However, since 2000, their production of renewables and biofuels has increased. RES generation between 2000 and 2020 had a relative change of +163%30. RESs account for 40.8% of the EU’s energy production, and nuclear accounts for 30.5%17.

II. The unsustainable energy system and some solutions

At present, the EU’s energy system is unsustainable. States face an energy trilemma affecting energy security, equity, and sustainability41. First, fossil fuels are unsustainable, yet they are the first energy consumed by the EU. Therefore, gas, oil, and coal imminently need to be replaced by RES for different reasons. They are finite resources, and their exploitation provokes the depletion of the environment, thus making them an inherently unsustainable resource. It has been estimated that around the 2030s and 2040s, ‘the shortage of conventional energy’ will be felt substantially around the world38 (p160).

Climate change also triggers social injustices, as some countries feel its consequences before major polluting countries. Brianna Fruean, a young climate activist, expressed how rising sea levels actively threaten the lives of the Samoan islands’ inhabitants. At the Glasgow COP26 conference, Brianna said, ‘In your words, you wield the weapons that can save us or sell us out.’12, urging state leaders to find a solution.

The EU’s energy security is also threatened, with an energy import dependency rate of 55.5% in 2021. Without imports, the EU alone cannot meet even half of its energy needs15. For instance, economic sanctions applied against Russia after their invasion of Ukraine impacted EU countries’ economies, as around 40% of their gas comes from Russia4. Hence, pushes towards energy autonomy and efficiency, sustainability, and green energies are needed for change and security. One could argue that the Ukrainian war may create an opportunity for the EU to speed up its transition to RES.

To limit fossil fuels’ use, governments should promote the use of RESs through investment incentives, subsidies, and feed-in tariffs (FiT). But also more constraining policies, such as quotas on GHG production, which can lead to new carbon unit trading markets, enhance GHG reduction as extra units would be an additional cost36. Those solutions may help change patterns of production and consumption towards sustainability. One worry is energy efficiency. There is a need to enter the RESs market early to achieve economies of scale and provide low-price energy to the population. Therefore, research and development (R&D) schemes are essential, as well as market incentives for all actors.

Energy transition explained

An energy transition implies a rethinking and reconfiguration of societies’ ways of consuming and producing. Therefore, sustainable energy transitions are sociotechnical and involve the three pillars of sustainability: economy, environment, and social20. Changing the energy source means a change in the final energy price and a productivity change, thus impacting wages. Hence, a transition involves three pillars.

The energy transition urges sociocultural change and the involvement of the public. A 'multilevel perspective of ‘‘socio-technical transitions’’33 encapsulates the main points for a successful transition. There needs to be a technological change monitored and pushed by the state and a moral awakening that pushes towards more sustainability at all levels. A sustainable energy transition is first pushing towards R&D programs to improve technology and efficiency, and societal norms change33. The state ought to think carefully about which trade-offs to make and if everyone is on board. The new social movements theorised by Alain Touraine39, show that today, the public is a strong asset to have on board as people are willing to combat for change. Consequently, the growth of public opinion favouring RES is hopeful for states37.

The green economy, as discussed in the Rio+20 conference, involves the economic and environmental pillar of sustainability, whilst positively affecting the social aspect, it ensures ‘that natural assets can deliver their full economic potential on a sustainable basis.’29 and is meant to increase productivity, open strong and stable investments, create new markets, and facilitate fiscal consolidation.

III. Germany’s energy transition

Germany has an ambitious sustainable energy transition: the Energiewende. This initiative, approved by the German Federal Cabinet in 2010 under the Energiekonzept strategy, is set to end in 2050. It focuses on two pillars of sustainability: economy and environment, and is similar to a green economy model. Its goal is to reduce GHG by ~90%, have 60% of its gross final energy consumption coming from RES2 , suppress any nuclear plant by 2022, and increase energy efficiency. Those objectives were a response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster as well as a global urge to mitigate climate change.

This initiative is pushed by the Erneuerbare-Energien-Gesetz (EEG), i.e., the Renewable Energy Act, signed in 2000, and the 2010 Energiekonzept strategy25 . They push for more energy efficiency, the removal of nuclear and fossil fuel plants, the use of RES, additional R&D programs, transparency, and acceptance25 . Some aims consist of having an 80% share of renewable electricity by 2050, 60% of final energy from RES6 , and a nuclear phase-out by 2022. Solid monitoring supports its ambition to ensure its success.


The Energiewende is a complex initiative with several goals. Among the 15 identified by Joas et al.’s24 survey, in which 56 elites were questioned about the Energiewende goals, the prevention of global climate change, energy security, R&D in RES, and the creation of identity stand out. Monitoring the progression of those goals is essential.

The Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft und Klimaschutz (BMWK), i.e. Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action, is in charge of producing annual reports and progress reports every three years25. Reports particularly help two goals: creating identity and being a front-runner in global climate protection.

The creation of identity is particularly relevant in any sociotechnical transition as it involves the population and the shift of norms. Reports add transparency, enhancing public acceptance and household-level participation9. Some of the transition’s programs encourage the involvement of the public. The Market Incentive Programme provides investment grants for the installation of solar thermal power and biomass plants for private households, companies, and municipalities9, and ‘More than 1.8 million systems have already been funded via the MAP since 2000’5.

Germany’s front-runner position helps energy transition on a more global level, providing reassurance for other states and motivation to put such a transition in place24. Furthermore, the federal government enhanced its energy efficiency strategies with the National Action Plan on Energy Efficiency (NAPE), launched in December 20147.

Energy efficiency

Germany is part of the EU framework that aims to enhance energy efficiency by ‘at least 32.5% in 2030’9. In 2006, the EU created the National Energy Efficiency Action Plan (NEEAP). All member states had to submit a plan aiming for a 9% energy-saving target by 201611; 27. Germany aims to increase energy efficiency and consequently reduce primary energy consumption by 50% by the end of the initiative. They aim to improve buildings, reduce energy consumption by 80%, and increase heat energy demand by 20% by 2050.

Focusing on electricity, heating, and transport, they aim to reduce energy consumption by increasing energy efficiency. The impact should satisfy the three pillars of sustainability. On the heating side only, the Energiewende has different measures, including the Building Energy Act. Part of the Energy Efficiency Strategy for Buildings (ESG) has a target of 14% of the RES share in heating consumption set for 20209. It has been reached as the share of renewables was 16.5% in 202132.

NAPE uses funding programs to increase stakeholders’ incentives to limit energy consumption by increasing the efficiency of their energy consumption7. The long-term measures are unclear. However, the state claims that NAPE will boost energy efficiency as well as positively act on the economy with a new flow of investments and on the environment, thanks to the spread of new RES technology, which lowers energy consumption and is socially positive with the creation of employment.

The NAPE also predicts a decrease of 20% in primary energy consumption in 2020 compared to 20088. Since 2014, final electricity consumption has decreased by 32.12 terawatts per hour between 2014 and 202022, employment rose by 7.92 between 2014 and 202228, and energy consumption per capita diminished by 11%30.

Short-term measures consist of providing information, financial incentives, and regulatory laws7. For instance, the CO2 Building Renovation Programme is a financial incentive for private households and industries to provide funding for energy-efficient building construction and renovations. ‘Energy efficiency measures in buildings are supported with low-interest loans and, in part, repayment or alternatively, investment grants’7. In 2021, the state agreed to spend €11.5 billion on this program. Practically, the money is said to support ‘the exchange of windows, insulating exterior walls and roofs, and installing heat pumps’ as examples1.

Research & Development

Germany’s success is mainly due to its strong push toward technological development. The state put in place an energy research program. In 2013, they gave a budget of €297 million ‘to promote energy efficiency along the whole energy chain’7. In 2017, three-quarters of the funds were directed to renewable energy and energy efficiency research9.

R&D programs participate in boosting the chance to reach the goals the initial initiatives set and give the state a lead position in the market for new products. The Energy Research Programme helped Germany adopt this front-runner position in the energy transition scheme of the EU. The innovation in photovoltaic (PV) panels in Germany before 2013 was very prominent in the world, accompanied by the growth of China and Japan’s production. Nonetheless, this position has been overcome by the two other countries, and in 2013, Germany came in third in its contribution to the PV panel sector42.

Germany introduced a FiT scheme in 2000 through the EEG to boost RES energy development, such as solar energy42. A FiT scheme is a financial incentive that directly involves the public in the development of RES and puts consumers in the producers’ position. The state provides low-cost loans to increase upstream demand for producers of RES10. FiTs are often described as having a low 'resource-adjusted cost to society’, meaning they are an attractive policy10. For instance, PV technology had a high cost gap, meaning that economies of scale would have been hard to achieve without an incentive for the public to boost the PV panel market21. Therefore, FiT helped the development of RES technologies by giving investment incentives to the public and redistributing their excess production into the ‘public grid’ whilst receiving revenue19; 42.

IV. Some critics

Although the public supported the transition and saw it as a ‘joint-effort’9, there is some discontent about the slow progress of the initiative and questioning its social justice9.

People are still in favour of renewable energies. However, they see the Energiewende as ‘expensive as well as unfair’26. In fact, the EEG made electricity far more expensive. In 2009, the price of one kilowatt per hour was 22.82 cents. In 2020, it became 30.43 cents16. An apparent increase happened in 2013 when the solar PV industry faced a crisis16.

Public discontent comes from the elitism of the transition seen by 47% of the public35. Most people are '“non-privileged” electricity consumers’18. Therefore, they do not benefit from the EEG cost reduction as they are not essential to the growth of RESs in the electricity sector, according to the government, enhancing the injustice of the transition. Energy poverty could rise from it. In a survey done in 2014, 40% of the sample were worried about the payment of their bills if the rise continues18; 34.

Moreover, the FiT scheme’s end impacted public opinion and their support for the energy transition. There is a worry that household producers of RESs will not be able to enter the new market of RESs3. Growing discontent in public opinion could threaten the Energiewende progression.

Furthermore, some strategies are questionable. Whether or not the NAPE reached its -20% decrease in primary energy consumption is unclear. Some data mentioned that it did40, whilst others show only a relative change of -14% between 2008 and 2020, thus missing the target30. The monitoring and achievability of set goals consequently need to be reformed.

Some policies received mixed results. Whilst the wind industry is prominent and strong in Germany, accounting for 23.5% of its energy mix23, solar energy has slowed down. The FiT scheme became a burden for households and small industries, bearing the differential cost of RES electricity production31. In 2013, the PV industry faced a crisis. An oversupply, impacted by the competitiveness of China’s supply, led some firms to bankruptcy42. Therefore, Germany lost the lead in PV panel production and had to reorient the production towards higher-skilled sectors such as refining silicon and equipment production’42.

In sum, the Energiewende, and especially EEG, created uncertainty in the population. The social pillar could be left behind.


Energy transitions towards sustainability are the greatest challenge of our century. As an example of best practices, Germany has shown some success. Strong monitoring helped create socio-technical changes in societies and public support. The state managed to create investment incentives through FiT schemes. Investments helped R&D and then the development of new RES markets, in which Germany excels. They also decreased energy consumption thanks to building renovation schemes, for instance. Nonetheless, failures to support the social pillar could lead to a failed transition and further social inequalities. The public has started worrying about the transition and how damaging the impact could be with higher energy prices. Therefore, monitoring should put even more effort into reassuring the population and devising strategies to tackle inequalities that could arise from such initiatives. Further studies should be made on redistribution and better welfare energy transition policies to achieve positive and sustainable changes in patterns of energy production and consumption that satisfy all three pillars of sustainability.


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