As an environmental activist, Johannes Kempmann fought Germany’s energy companies in a 1980s campaign against a nuclear waste disposal facility in the town of Gorleben.
Thirty years later, the newly elected president of the BDEW lobby group defends the interests of more than 1,800 power and water providers from EON SE and RWE AG to municipal utilities like the Staedtische Werke Magdeburg GmbH & Co. KG, where he’s been technical director since 1998. His new role doesn’t conflict with his past, said Kempmann.
“It’s not necessarily a contradiction,” he said in an interview by e-mail. “I know both sides of the debate.”
Kempmann, 60, is the new face of an industry that initially struggled to accept Germany’s decision to exit nuclear power in a shift to renewable energy. The former Green Party lawmaker, who helped to develop the policy switch alongside former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, has overseen the increase in the portion of wind-derived electricity at the Magdeburg utility to 70 percent compared with 8.5 percent for Germany as a whole.
The shift was confirmed three years ago when Chancellor Angela Merkel ordered the shutdown of all of the country’s reactors by 2022 following the accident at Fukushima three years ago.
The challenge for German utilities now is to manage the flow of energy into the country’s power grids with the advent of wind and solar sources while limiting the decline in profit margins from conventional power plants, Kempmann said.
“Many companies are struggling with the increasingly unprofitable operation of power-generation facilities,” he said. Germany needs to redesign the market for conventional power plants, he said.
RWE, the country’s largest power generator, posted its first full-year loss in 2013 since the foundation of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949 after it wrote down 4.8 billion euros on assets, mainly power stations. The operating profit from conventional generation fell 58 percent to 1.38 billion euros.
Kempmann became a lawmaker in the state of Lower Saxony in 1986, the state where Schroeder, a Social Democrat, would lead an SPD-Green coalition from 1990 to 1994. Together the parties prepared the so-called energy consensus, the blueprint for the country’s first nuclear exit plan. Schroeder served as German chancellor from 1998 to 2005.
“The debate about the nuclear phase-out, in a social-political sense, was settled a long time ago, also for the energy industry,” Kempmann said.
Merkel, who succeeded Schroeder, initially delayed the nuclear exit before deciding in 2011 in the wake of the Fukushima disaster to shutter all 17 of Germany’s nuclear power stations by 2022. Subsidies and preferential access to the grid increased the market share of renewables in Germany to a record 24 percent last year.
Kempmann is trying to make the lobby group speak with one voice. “It’s sometimes hard to reach a consensus,” he said.
Kempmann quit politics in 1994 as Schroeder was re-elected prime minister of Lower Saxony with an absolute majority for his party, pushing the Greens out of government.
Born in Munich, Kempmann holds a degree as engineer for town and regional planning from Technische Universitaet Berlin. Before joining Magdeburg’s municipal utility he was an refugee aid worker for the United Nations in northern Iraq as well a director of the energy agency of the state of Saxony-Anhalt.