Juwi Founder Matthias Willenbacher On Climate, Tech, Politics, & Challenging Angela Merkel (Interview)
Matthias, you’ve been actively founding companies in renewable energy for 25 years. When you look back to founding juwi, what were your expectations and motivations then, and how did they develop over time?
I was fascinated by the idea of generating energy from the power of nature – especially with wind and sun. I also wanted to prove that it was possible to convert the energy supply of a large industrial nation to 100% renewable in the shortest possible time. Developments over the past 25 years have proven me absolutely right. It’s nice to see that the vision I had when I founded juwi, which many dismissed at the time as somewhat crazy, is now a general consensus. Even the CDU-led federal government has at least publicly acknowledged it! However, thanks to the failures of the past, we are late. We don’t have much time left, and that’s why the path to achieving our goals is important now. I am fully in favor of a regional energy transition: It’s faster, it’s better for citizens and it’s cheaper than continuing to rely on energy imports from abroad.
You once challenged Angela Merkel to a climate initiative. Can you give us the background story and tell us how the challenge ended? What was your impression of Mrs Merkel’s ambitions and her understanding of the climate problems?
I was on a delegation trip to Chile with Angela Merkel and had hoped to be able to discuss continuing the energy transition with her during the trip. But my expectations were abruptly disappointed. Despite a convivial wine round with 5-6 people on the return flight, she was clearly more interested in exchanging ideas with the executive board of Südzucker about a chicory recipe. I found this so disappointing that I decided to take up the challenge: “If the Chancellor were to commit herself to 100% renewable energies immediately, I would give away half of my company to the energy cooperatives.” Merkel never acted on it, and that is indicative of her chancellorship.
She never really addressed the energy transition. Her advocacy of climate protection, which she likes to do on the global stage, remained lip service in Germany. She never made national climate protection a top priority. Instead, she allowed destructive ministers like Peter Altmaier and Sigmar Gabriel to pursue their anti-climate protection course almost unrestrictedly. Angela Merkel was therefore never the climate chancellor the media made her out to be. She has her merits in refugee policy – no question about that – but not even here has she understood how to see the links between global migration flows and the climate crisis. Therefore, it has to be said that the 16 years of Angela Merkel’s climate policy were essentially wasted years.
Looking into the future, what do you think are the most promising and exciting tech solutions for the next 3 years to gain wide-scale? And what will truly have an impact in the next 10 years?
Decentral, smart energy systems combining power generation, storage, load management and consumption to a mini-virtual power plant. Those systems will be able to automatically trade energy both within a community and between communities and to communicate directly with the grid operators.
What’s your opinion on the collaboration of German cleantech companies and investors with people in France (traditionally called the most important partner for German policy) and the US?
With juwi we were pretty active and successful both in France and the US. Leaving regulatory burdens and monopolistic market structures apart that were equally problematic in France and the US as they were and still are in Germany, I always enjoyed working with our French and US-American crew and our local partners. And the experience I gained made me pretty optimistic: If you share the same vision, good cooperation and partnership are always possible, regardless of national and cultural borders.
I watched the movie “4th Energy Revolution.” It left a big impression on me and I gave it as a present to several people. How did you experience filming the movie, and what is the legacy of Hermann Scheer, the (sort of) main protagonist, in your opinion?
The film was very, very important because it conveyed many of the values that shaped the work of the energy transition pioneers back then which are still as important today. As a result, it has inspired many people. I was therefore not only very happy to be involved but also always committed to its distribution. Hermann Scheer was an exceptional political figure because he had real visions, was able to communicate them in a gifted way and also had an instinct for politics. It will always be remembered how he, together with some fellow campaigners, brought the first and above all the second EEG to a vote past quarreling ministers like Jürgen Trittin, Werner Müller, and Wolfgang Clement, and won it. A masterpiece of parliamentary democracy! He is still dearly missed.
Did you ever consider entering politics and what structural problems do you see in the German (or other) political system, if any?
No, I never had plans to go into politics. I think everyone should know in which areas he or she can best work for the great transformation toward true sustainability. My talents certainly come into their own better as an entrepreneur than as a politician.
Nevertheless, I am very interested in politics, and so I see two problems: One is that parliament is far too weak compared to the government. Strokes of genius such as the EEG as a typical parliamentary law happen far too rarely, and far too many members of parliament feel too loyal towards their government. That doesn’t have much to do with parliamentary democracy.
The other is the outsized influence of the lobby and secret (sometimes even legal) corruption. It was no coincidence that the “energy experts” of the CDU/CSU – Pfeiffer, Bareiß, and Nüsslein – were not only involved in the mask scandal but also had very good relations with the oil and gas dictatorship in Azerbaijan.
We finally need clear rules for the legitimate representation of interests, combined with genuine transparency.
And, if you could go back 10 years, what advice would you give to Matthias Willenbacher for his 15th anniversary?
Good question. Some companions might say: he was too impatient and his decisions sometimes too risky. But I think those were exactly my strengths. When others said, “30% renewables – that would be nice,” I replied, “No, 100%!” I even set up my own foundation to achieve that. And yes, some of the decisions I made were risky. But if we stay on the safe path, we certainly won’t save our world.
What is true, however, is that the young Matthias Willenbacher was sometimes a bit undiplomatic in the past. In this respect, of course, I’m wiser today – or so I hope … (laughs)
Images courtesy Matthias Willenbacher