Status: 18.09.2023, 21:35 p.m.
Pushing ahead with the restructuring of energy and the economy in Brandenburg: Minister-President Dietmar Woidke. © Bernd Elmenthaler/Imago
This is how critical a head of state is about the plans of Finance Minister Christian Lindner.
Dietmar Woidke (SPD) has been Prime Minister of Brandenburg for ten years. In this interview, he explains how he has driven forward the expansion of renewable energies in his state, describes why he is rather critical of the price of industrial electricity and admits that Brandenburg has a lot of catching up to do in the education sector.
Mr. Woidke, does Brandenburg agree with Christian Lindner's Growth Opportunities Act?
The law was passed without the prior involvement of the Länder. However, a large part of the costs is offloaded back on the federal states. For Brandenburg, we roughly expect a tax revenue shortfall of 340 million euros by 2028. Next year alone, that would be about 30 million euros. And, of course, such shortfalls in revenue also affect our municipalities. But I am also not satisfied with the content. We are discussing this in the state government and I cannot yet say whether we will agree in the Bundesrat. It will now depend very much on the talks with the Federal Government.
Why are you disappointed in terms of content?
There are to be a number of tax breaks for companies. However, I believe that our main problem in Germany is energy costs and the predictability for companies. Where will I get the energy for them in five, ten, 15 or 20 years? And how much does this energy cost? That is the question that must be at the forefront.
Why the energy issue?
It is the crucial question to attract investment in the first place. What used to be the trade tax is now the energy prices. And an energy supply that is as climate-neutral as possible. Unfortunately, these questions are not answered in the program of the Minister of Finance.
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This interview is IPPEN. MEDIA in the course of a cooperation with the Berlin.Table Professional Briefing – it was first published by Berlin.Table on September 13, 2023.
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"We have become downright depressed"
How do you solve this in Brandenburg?
We have a long-term plan. And that pays off. Last year, we had the highest economic growth of the German states. We have overtaken Bavaria. This will continue. But the basis for this is a secure, clean, climate-neutral energy supply. The Growth Opportunities Act does not answer these questions, and thus the effect will remain manageable.
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Fancy a voyage of discovery?
And everything is on the right track in Brandenburg?
Absolutely, although we are not the island of the blissful. After all, we cannot decouple ourselves from the overall development in Germany. By the way, I believe that the situation of the German economy is not as bad as it is being described. We have become downright depressed when we look at the economic data.
You too? Brandenburg has the highest growth rates in wind energy in Germany.
Theoretically, we could already be 100 percent self-sufficient in electricity from our renewables. This is the basic requirement if they want to be interesting for global companies. For example, Elon Musk's decision to build the European Tesla plant here was also related to this. Most large companies have climate targets, whether it's BASF – it has a large site here in Brandenburg – or others, and they can only achieve them at locations where they can produce in a largely climate-neutral manner. And that's our huge advantage.
"We are systematically disadvantaged"
What's the problem then?
I am dissatisfied because the countries in Germany, which are at the forefront of the expansion of renewables, are systematically disadvantaged in terms of electricity prices due to the high grid charges. Although we produce electricity in the country and it is the cheapest nationwide, we also have the highest electricity prices. In front of the living room window the wind turbine and in the mailbox the high electricity bill. This injustice, this contradiction, must be resolved – and quickly.
Do you wantdifferent electricity price zones?
We have 4,000 wind turbines and, according to our energy strategy, we want to grow by 70 to 80 per year. You pay between 450,000 and around 800,000 euros per system to the network operator for a connection. I already have a difference of a good 120 euros per average three-person household per year in terms of network charges. And now LEAG is phasing out lignite, wants to enter renewables and build plants with a capacity of seven gigawatts on former opencast mining sites. This corresponds to twice our large lignite-fired power plant in Jänschwalde plus one gigawatt.
How many plants are involved?
With the turbines that need to be replaced, we are talking about about 2,500 new wind turbines to meet the needs of Berlin, among other things. This means that in a few years, 1.3 to 1.4 billion euros in network fees will have to be passed on to the people in the area of the network operator. Now I am Prime Minister of a state where salaries are unfortunately not as high as in Bavaria. We want climate neutrality, but that is no longer acceptable. Not for the economy and not for the people.
What is your proposal?
Either we now slow down the expansion of renewables, which would be the stupidest thing of all, or the federal government finally provides reasonable framework conditions.
"Those who feed in should have an advantage"
So different electricity price zones after all?
In Münchehofe, the local council has now decided that it does not want wind power or solar plants because they only increase prices. In addition, the wind turbines disfigured the landscape. This means that people's enthusiasm for additional burdens is limited. I have to compensate for this with low electricity prices. And that is why our proposal is that those who feed in the grid should also have an advantage in terms of tariffs. Yes, this amounts to a more decentralized structure. But in the end, it would mean that we would have cheaper electricity prices in regions that have a high density of renewable energies than in districts that have no wind turbines at all.
Does that mean that the Bavarians, who are still happy about cheap green electricity in Brandenburg, would have to pay more in the future? Unless they build wind turbines themselves?
At the moment it is the case that we hear from the southern countries that we don't care how you cope with the costs. We are not interested in the fact that you have renewables and the highest costs. This is almost an original quote from a prime minister who governs a federal state that has slept through the expansion of renewables for ten years. He doesn't say anything other than that he doesn't care about any of this. So why should we Brandenburgers be interested in the energy supply in Bavaria?
Speaking of industrial electricity prices, where do you actually stand?
When it comes to electricity, we are talking about nothing less than the competitiveness of German industry. Without competitiveness, Germany will lose industrial power. And, of course, large industrial companies would benefit from an industrial electricity price. But that's not enough. We have 38,000 small and medium-sized businesses in Brandenburg that are also suffering from high electricity prices. I have to give them an answer too.
"We are only convincing if we relieve the burden on people"
What does that mean exactly?
We need a plan: How do we make progress as quickly as possible in the expansion of renewables? To do this, we need acceptance. And we get that by passing on the advantages in the region, to small and medium-sized businesses, industry, households. We can only convince people if we make it clear that climate protection is important, but at the same time we relieve you. And if you see 30 wind turbines out there, be happy because they ensure that you have a cheaper electricity price than before.
BASF in Schwarzheide is not convinced. It tells you that if we can't get industrial electricity down to six cents/kWh, we'll have to think about the location.
After all, I am not against an industrial stream. But the price of electricity for large companies is only one point in the discussion. And if we only do something for the energy-intensive industry and small and medium-sized enterprises are left out, that is not enough. Yes, we need industry in Germany. But the price of electricity must be embedded in a fixed plan for energy supply, for lowering prices and for the rapid expansion of climate-friendly alternatives.
But BASF doesn't need a plan, it wants an answer now. And so is Dow Chemical in Stade.
BASF has considerable amounts of wind power right on its doorstep and is investing in renewable energies in Schwarzheide itself with the construction of a solar park. We also support the industry in the debate on electricity prices. But only this discussion is too short. A subsidy supports the industry for perhaps three or four years. And after that? Which large company will come to Germany if it knows that the subsidy will end in four years? No, we have to be ready with renewables by 2030 at the latest, but then also for Grandma Frieda in Eisenhüttenstadt and the baker here in Potsdam.
Wouldn't the nuclear power plants that have just been shut down – and written off – be an instrument to push down the price?
This presupposes that the nuclear power plants could be restarted without a fundamental overhaul. I have my doubts about that. The managers of the energy companies also reject this because of the costs. It is always astonishing to me that those who call the loudest for nuclear power are at the same time the ones who say the loudest that their state is by no means suitable for final disposal. This is a curious coincidence.
"What do we need? To do more, to want more!"
There are also hundreds of objections against wind turbines.
In 2021, the Federal Constitutional Court told us that we must do everything we can to ensure that future generations do not suffer excessively from climate change. That caused a huge wave at the time. That's where we have to go. For example, by having only simple legal options at the Federal Administrative Court to sue against the expansion of renewable energies, climate-neutral mobility or the transformation of industry. With this in mind, we are currently preparing a Bundesrat initiative with Berlin.
This undermines our legislation, critics say.
We've had all of this before with the German Unity Transport Infrastructure Planning Acceleration Act. It was complained about, and the Federal Constitutional Court ruled in 1994 that this was lawful because of the East's pent-up demand. That's the pace I'd like to see today. Simply more courage to increase speed in all areas. That's what we need – to do more, to want more. We need the courage to make decisions, move forward and develop solutions on how to combine climate neutrality and prosperity.
Brandenburg with its wind turbines and Tesla as a role model?
I am firmly convinced that, with our economic dynamism, we can be a model for Germany as a whole. For almost 30 years, we have been expanding renewable energies, with many resistances. We had more than 100 citizens' initiatives against the expansion of wind power and a popular initiative "Save Brandenburg" – and today the whole state benefits from the high level of expansion of renewables.
What has changed in the mood? Is it the insight into the necessity or rather that the municipalities also benefit from the revenues today?
Long before the federal government made it possible, we made sure that the municipalities also benefited. Since 2019, 10,000 euros per year and wind turbine have gone to the affected communities. This will also happen for PV systems.
"Tesla has waived subsidies"
10,000 euros, which isn't really a lot of money....
Oh, we have communities that are larger in terms of area than many large cities in West Germany. A lot of things come together and then help the clubs or in the local daycare center in a very concrete way. But it would be even better if the electricity bill was also lower. And that's why I'm convinced that if we can release this lever, it will also lead to different speeds in Brandenburg. One is faster, the other slower. And the municipality, which concludes a contract with an energy supplier that has set up wind turbines and then directly offers a few cents/kWh cheaper, would have an advantage. That would be a clear statement. The reality is that the pioneers in renewables – Schleswig-Holstein, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and us – have the highest electricity prices.
Renewables mean that the east has become interesting for new settlements. At the same time, there is enormous subsidies. Is that still justifiable?
Here, too, there are two sides to the coin. On the one hand, Europe rightly wants to become as independent as possible when it comes to key products. This includes semiconductors such as those that are to be manufactured in Magdeburg. On the other hand, ten billion euros is an insane sum. Hopefully, this will pay off for the region and for Germany. By the way, Tesla has not yet received a single penny. Tesla has completely waived subsidies for the new battery factory. For this, the company would have had the option of over one billion euros.
For the new companies, you also need skilled workers in Brandenburg. How do you recruit them?
First of all, of course, we train our own young people. However, it is an enormous challenge to bring schools, young people and business together. We still have to do a lot better. And yet, we will not be able to do it without workers from abroad. The need is enormous. If all school leavers in Brandenburg were trained as nurses, this would not be enough to meet the demand by 2030. So we need foreign workers, and I'm deliberately not talking about skilled workers. That is why we need well-managed immigration.
And your consequence?
We have good experience with different models. Some clinics in the country are currently training young people from Vietnam and Brazil. At the same time, they learn German. So we don't poach the young people somewhere, but bring them to us for training. Another variant: The Potsdam Kongresshotel has been cooperating with a hotel management school in Ukraine for years. This means that apprentices are trained in Ukraine and then do internships in Brandenburg. Today, more than 30 young people from Ukraine work at the congress hotel. The managing director told me that if we hadn't started this ten years ago, she wouldn't be able to operate areas of the hotel today.
"We want to create a one-stop agency"
Our immigration authorities are often the eye of the needle. Not with you?
Also with us. There must be a change of heart in the immigration authorities, no doubt, a complete U-turn. For the past 30 years, the main task of these offices seemed to be to keep people away as much as possible. That has to change. We need workers from abroad. There is no other way.
Regardless of this, the procedure remains complicated.
Large companies certainly have it easier than small craft businesses. The big ones have contacts and know how the processes work, while the small ones get lost in the bureaucratic jungle and often give up in despair. We now want to create a kind of one-stop agency in which, among other things, the Brandenburg Chambers of Crafts, Chambers of Industry and Commerce and the state government will jointly process the requests.
When does it start?
Initial talks are underway. We desperately need this body, otherwise it will not work. The chambers must also make their contribution. For example, five or ten companies from the metal industry could join forces in a region and act together. This is also a problem: So far, the companies have not been sufficiently networked with each other.
They talked about their own efforts. Why is Brandenburg lagging so far behind in terms of educational outcomes?
This is a question that concerns us a lot. I do have some questions and doubts about the study by the New Market Economy Initiative that has just been published. Some points in it are simply wrong. Nevertheless, we urgently need to improve and move forward in the field of education. This is also the main task for the new Minister of Education, Steffen Freiberg. In addition, it will be more difficult because the need for personnel in the teaching sector throughout Germany is huge. We are also working with the trade unions to find solutions in this area. But what we are currently delivering is not satisfactory. We invest a lot of money in education. This must also be reflected in significantly better results.
(By Damir Fras and Horand Knaup)