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Utility manager takes charge of German energy policy with state secretary job

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Utility manager takes charge of German energy policy with state secretary job

The chief executive of a local utility will take the reins of Germany's energy policy as the country faces a banner year for energy and climate issues, including a long-awaited plan for phasing out coal power and the continuing rollout of renewables in line with an overhaul of the country's power grid.

Andreas Feicht, head of WSW Wuppertaler Stadtwerke GmbH, a municipal utility in western Germany, will take up a new position as the state secretary for energy in the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy from Feb. 1, the company announced Jan. 9. Economy and Energy Minister Peter Altmaier confirmed the appointment on Twitter, calling Feicht "an outstanding expert on the energy transition."

Feicht's move will take some pressure off Altmaier, who has faced criticism for the long delay in replacing Rainer Baake, a key architect of Germany's recent energy transition whose four-year tenure in the role included core legislation such as the shift from feed-in tariffs to a tender system for supporting renewables. The Green politician resigned in March 2018, heavily criticizing the current coalition government's energy and climate policy proposals. In the interim, Baake's portfolio was absorbed by another state secretary in the ministry.

Leaving the post unoccupied was seen as poor form, however, especially as Germany is nearing a crucial and controversial decision on charting a path toward phasing out coal power, which still provides approximately a third of the country's electricity. A commission the government set up in 2018 of industry representatives, environmental groups and other stakeholders is now preparing to issue final recommendations for an end date for coal generation on the same day Feicht is scheduled to start his new job.

The commission will also make proposals for financial and other measures to ensure a socially acceptable transition in Germany's remaining coal mining regions, where thousands fear for their future livelihoods if the industry is abolished. Although the commission's recommendations will not be mandatory, the government is seen as likely to closely follow its consensus, especially because Berlin already endured heavy criticism for initially outsourcing the work of figuring out a coal phaseout date.

The government has also promised to pass a climate action law in 2019, prepared by the environment ministry, which will enshrine the coal exit but also detail concrete emissions-reduction targets for sectors from agriculture to transport that are necessary to reach the goals Germany is committed to as a signatory to the Paris Agreement on climate change. In their coalition agreement, the ruling parties set a target of lowering emissions by 55% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels.

That law "could be a game changer if it is done properly," said Alexander Reitzenstein, a policy adviser at climate think tank E3G. "The next years will be very interesting."

Meanwhile, Feicht, who also sits on the board of Germany's association of local and regional utilities, will inherit chief responsibility for the ongoing transition in Germany's power sector. The country is struggling to modernize its electricity grid quickly enough to cope with its expanding share of renewables, which claimed a record share of more than a third of power generation in 2018.

In the past, Feicht has criticized German energy policy for straying away from free-market principles and toward state planning and operating "under a system that is almost exclusively oriented towards climate action goals" while neglecting energy supply security and affordable prices, according to website Clean Energy Wire.

But during Feicht's tenure, WSW also supported small renewables projects, efficiency projects and climate-friendly mobility and extended its district heating network, the site reported.

Hermann Albers, president of the German wind energy association, said Feicht was "a proven practitioner of the municipal energy industry ... [who] has been heavily involved in recent years in the market and system integration of renewable energies and the flexibilization of supply and demand." Albers also noted Feicht's past advocacy of CO2 pricing, which remains controversial in the government.