In 2011, Germany decided to shut down its nuclear power plants after a tsunami devastated the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan. Under a policy known as the Energiewende – or "energy change," the country aims to shut down all its nuclear reactors by 2022 and to get 80 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2050.
Eighty-four percent of Germans support the policy and want to see it implemented swiftly, according to an opinion poll carried out by research institute TNS Emnid earlier this year.
But in an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Peter Terium, head of energy provider RWE, warned that shutting down another series of nuclear plants could lead to blackouts across Europe. "Considering that growth is returning to Europe and that we'll need more electricity, I'm really worried," he told the paper.
RWE, based in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, employs 70,000 people and has an annual turnover of €50 billion. But the company is riddled with debt, mainly due to decreased demand for coal and gas as a result of competition from the booming renewable energy sector.
"The situation was already tense during the last two winters. And now power plants all over the place are being shut down in a hurry," Terium told the paper. "Thirty to 40 percent of our facilities are operating at a loss…to make it clear we are in a dangerous situation. We are not taking in enough to pay our debts.”
The cost of energy blackouts could be enormous. Researchers at the Hamburg Institute of Global Economics have developed a system for measuring potential losses. It takes into account the estimated usage in various areas at a given time. It came to the conclusion that if a one-hour blackout were to hit Berlin in mid-afternoon, it would cost the city €22.74 million.
In the unlikely event of a one-hour blackout across Germany at peak time the cost would be €592.7 million, according to the Welt newspaper.
Hannelore Kraft, the Social Democrat leader of North Rhine-Westphalia, lent her support to RWE, one of her state's major employers. "It is important to keep jobs in this industry in the country," she told the Süddeutsche Zeitung.
While the Social Democrats broadly support the switch to renewable energy, some members have responded to warnings about blackouts. Last week the Frankfurter Allgemeine reported that a "prominent" group of SPD members had written to the party leadership to call for energy policy to be treated as a serious issue in coalition negotiations with Angela Merkel's Conservatives.
But Kraft's comments received an angry response from the Green Party, which accused Social Democrats of bowing to pressure from industry lobbyists.
Green Party member Kathrin Göring-Eckardt accused both the Conservatives and the Social Democrats of "putting the short-term interests of energy giants before climate protection."