Seven years ago, Hamburg sold its municipal energy provider to the Swedish utility Vattenfall. Yesterday, in a telling example of changed thinking on energy policy, Hamburg’s Green environment minister announced the start of construction for the first (admittedly tiny) windpark operated by the city’s newly created municipal energy provider. The re-claiming of political control over energy production and supply by municipal providers, in line with developments elsewhere in Germany, highlights three issues. First, that for environmental and economic reasons political control over energy production and supply might be desirable. Second, that Green and Conservative politicians can make pragmatic policy. And third, that ‘greening’ energy supply might be a paying proposition for a city like Hamburg.
To provide more competition and therefore choice for citizens; to have an energy provider taking responsibility for fighting climate change; and to have an energy provider that operates in Hamburg, re-invests profits and represents the city’s interests; these are are the goals Anja Hajduk, Hamburg’s Green environment minister names for the creation of the new state-owned energy utility. They are to be achieved, in the medium-term, by Hamburg Energy, the new company by not only producing its own renewable energy, but also re-taking control over the heat- and gas-grids currently operated by Vattenfall and providing its customers with exclusively non-coal-non-nuclear electricity.
Hamburg Energie’s creation was first announced last autumn, at the same time as the government – legally obliged – granted Vattenfall the right to operate a coal-fired power station in the city. And while the Left party in the city characterizes the move as a cynical political ploy, it is more likely the expression of a spectacularly unspectacular Conservative-Green coalition’s pragmatic approach. Apart from announcing the creation of a municipal rival to Vattenfall, Hajduk – faced with her party’s discontent but legally obliged to grant the plant’s construction – also placed stringent regulatory limits on its size and the amount of cooling water from the river Elbe it is allowed to withdraw. And while traditionally seen as big-business friendly, Hamburg’s CDU members of government have so far gone along which a majority of the Green’s environmental policy – in striking contrast to the constant quarreling observers are used to from Red-Green coalition days.
And there is evidence that the optimism placed in renewable energy has sound economic footing. For example, in an unrelated – but not accidental move – Siemens announced the creation of a European sales and project execution headquarter in Hamburg. For northern German manufacturing, mostly rural and hurt by the demise of the ship-building industry from the 70s onwards, wind turbines have long provided a dynamic and fast-growing engine of job creation and economic growth. Siemens’ announcement, part of a wider trend of growth in renewable-energy related services in northern Germany and Denmark, show that this industry can create white-collar jobs in the city as well. The creation of Hamburg Energie is a sign that this message has been understood.