In an apparent victory for the center-right Christian Democratic Union, the Senate issued a unanimous statement Tuesday advising voters to reject a Nov. 3 ballot measure backed by the Green Party and a citizen's movement to turn the system into a publicly owned utility.
The vote came a week after both the CDU and the Social Democratic Party, members of the city's "red-black" governing coalition, also cautioned against a "yes" vote for the Berlin Energietisches, or "energy table," movement, saying such a move would be financially risky and wouldn't guarantee political control of the power grid for the city.
The CDU has staunchly opposed the referendum on principle, favoring keeping the grid in private hands, while the left-leaning SDP members have backed the aims of public ownership but ultimately agreed the referendum goes too far and is legally questionable, the Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel reported.
It is backed by the Green and Left parties, as well as the youth-oriented Pirate Party, who see it as a means to supply 100 percent of the city state's electricity needs with green energy and lower rates by opening the system up to low-power renewable energy providers.
The grid is now owned by Lekker-Energie, a subsidiary by the Swedish energy company Vattenfall, whose license expires at the end of 2014.
Senate members said the Energietisches proposal is flawed partly because the city would have to compete with private companies under federal and European laws requiring a "non-discriminatory and fair competitive tendering procedure" -- thus it wouldn't automatically land the utility.
The non-discrimination language also means nuclear and coal-power providers must be granted equal access to the Berlin network no matter who owns it, thus defeating the goal of a green-only power supply.
For that reason alone, the senators said they opposed a public takeover. But they also said passage of the Nov. 3 referendum measure would saddle Berlin with up to $4 billion in financial obligations while the city's Senate and House of Representatives wouldn't be assured of full political control of the entity, making for unacceptable financial risks.
"Support no law that constitutes a unforeseeable and unlimited risk to the state budget and vote 'No'!" the senate resolution read.
CDU parliamentary leader Florian Graf hailed it as blow for financial responsibility, saying it "sends an important and powerful signal."
Meanwhile, three SPD members of the nine-member Senate opposed the resolution while one abstained, but the result was presented as a unanimous statement to preserve coalition unity, Der Tagesspiegel reported.
SPD energy spokesman Daniel Buchholz refused to comment. SPD parliamentary leader Raed Saleh acknowledged the compromise was reached with difficulty, but added it reflects "criticisms of the petition which this coalition had together."
The Berliner Morgenpost newspaper said in a Tuesday editorial the decision to oppose a "yes" vote was the right one.
Referendum backers, it said, "promise green power, low electricity tariffs for low-income households, support for energy renovation of buildings and even energy-saving household appliances for families who have little money.
"(But) how will they finance everything, they do not say."