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Germany's Energy Transition: A Squandered Opportunity?

My conclusion so far is that unfortunately Germany’s ‘renewables revolution’ is at best making no difference to the country’s carbon emissions, and at worst pushing them marginally upwards. Thus, tens (or even hundreds, depending on who you believe) of billions of euros are being spent on expensive solar PV and wind installations for no climatic benefit whatsoever.

Although I have been unable to find clear figures for the changing CO2 intensity of German electricity (if anyone has them, please post in the comments below), nuclear’s fall of 1.7% almost exactly equals the rise in renewables of 1.6% between 2011 and 2012. This means that the dramatic and admirable increase in renewable generation in Germany is simply a story of low-carbon baseload from nuclear being replaced by low-carbon intermittent supply from wind and solar (which, incidentally, also raises system costs by making the grid harder to manage due to intermittency).

Thus Germany is squandering its opportunity to meet its climate targets more quickly, easily and reliably because of an irrational public aversion to nuclear power. I have tried to engage Energiewende true believers in a debate about this, but have so far been unable to get any acknowledgement that coal is worse on every score than nuclear – not just in terms of CO2 emissions (obviously) but because coal kills hundreds of Germans every year from straightforward air pollution.

Germany’s ‘Energiewende’ – or ‘energy transition’ – has been getting steadily more controversial. Hyperbole has been flying from all sides: enthusiastic greens have been celebrating Germany’s supposed success in generating half its electricity from solar power (not true) whilst nuclear advocates have been bemoaning the fact that the nuclear phase-out has led to soaring CO2 emissions (also not true).

The latest figures for electricity production have just been published by the Federal Association of Energy and Water Industries. Here they are, at a glance:

germany energy transition energiewende numbers

The relevant supporting documents are on the BDEW website in German, here and here (PDF).

Here are the main takeaways for me.

Solar PV

Solar continued its enormous growth rate between 2011 and 2012. Production rose from 19.3TWh (terawatt-hours) in 2011 to 27.6TWh in 2012, representing an impressive increase of 47.7%. In terms of total electricity generation, solar’s percentage rose from 3.2% in 2011 to 4.6% in 2012. This is an extraordinary achievement by any standard.

Wind power

Wind production actually fell slightly from 2011 to 2012, by 7.9%. Wind generation was 48.8TWh in 2011, and fell to 46TWh in 2012. Looking at the graph in the full report, it seems that December 2011 was particularly windy, whilst December 2012 was much calmer. In total, wind represents 7.3% of German electricity production.

Other renewables

With all the fuss about solar (and to a lesser extent wind) it is easy to forget that biomass and hydro are also important. Biomass combustion for electricity generation is 5.8% of the total, while hydro is 3.3%, and has flatlined for years. With 1% municipal waste this brings the total renewables production up to 21.9%.

Nuclear

Despite the furore of the dramatic policy reversal post-Fukushima, nuclear still provides more electricity in Germany than wind and solar put together, adding up to 16% in total (down from 17.7% in 2011). Nuclear generated 108TWh in 2011, and this fell to 99TWh in 2012. It will fall further in years to come, and nuclear is due to be phased out completely by 2022.

Coal

Germany still uses large amounts of the dirtiest coal, lignite, and its use is rising. Both hard coal and lignite are being burned in larger amounts in Germany, despite its climate emissions targets. In 2011 lignite accounted for 24.6 of German electricity, and this rose to 25.6 in 2012. Hard coal rose from 18.5% to 19.1%. Thus coal accounted for a higher proportion of generation, and CO2 emissions likely have risen as a result.

Gas

Because gas prices remain high in Europe relative to coal, gas is being forced out of the electricity market – and with widespread opposition to fracking, there is little prospect of cheaper gas (as in the US) for the foreseeable future. It is important to acknowledge that this is not a problem confined to Germany, and is the case in the UK as well, where the proportion of coal in the generation mix has also risen over the last year. The collapse in the carbon price on the ETS has also not helped matters, as it is not nearly enough to make up the difference.

So it is not necessarily fair to blame the increase in German coal burning on the nuclear shutdown – had the relative prices of the competing fossil fuels been different, the lost nuclear generation might instead have been balanced out by gas. Other factors are also at play here, because electricity production varies with the economic situation, the weather and the export-import balance to at least the same extent as the marginal changes in nuclear, coal and gas over the last year. In terms of a nuclear shut-down leading to higher CO2 emissions, Japan is much more of a story than Germany.

The Energiewende and the climate

My conclusion so far is that unfortunately Germany’s ‘renewables revolution’ is at best making no difference to the country’s carbon emissions, and at worst pushing them marginally upwards. Thus, tens (or even hundreds, depending on who you believe) of billions of euros are being spent on expensive solar PV and wind installations for no climatic benefit whatsoever.

Although I have been unable to find clear figures for the changing CO2 intensity of German electricity (if anyone has them, please post in the comments below), nuclear’s fall of 1.7% almost exactly equals the rise in renewables of 1.6% between 2011 and 2012. This means that the dramatic and admirable increase in renewable generation in Germany is simply a story of low-carbon baseload from nuclear being replaced by low-carbon intermittent supply from wind and solar (which, incidentally, also raises system costs by making the grid harder to manage due to intermittency).

Thus Germany is squandering its opportunity to meet its climate targets more quickly, easily and reliably because of an irrational public aversion to nuclear power. I have tried to engage Energiewende true believers in a debate about this, but have so far been unable to get any acknowledgement that coal is worse on every score than nuclear – not just in terms of CO2 emissions (obviously) but because coal kills hundreds of Germans every year from straightforward air pollution.

The Energiewende, it is probably fair to say, is not really about the climate at all. It is about getting rid of nuclear power, a singular obsession of the German Greens since their birth in the European anti-nuclear movement 1970s. With Germany the only Western European nation still intent on building a large amount of additional coal generation capacity (10GW according to some reports), this marks a remarkable policy failure for European environmentalism.

(Thanks to Gustaf Rosell for the prompt to write this and the German-language links.)

Mark Lynas is an environmental writer based in the United Kingdom. He is author of The God Species and winner of the 2012 Breakthrough Paradigm Award. This piece was originally published at his website www.marklynas.org.

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Alain Verbeke's picture
Alain Verbeke on Jan 23, 2013 7:44 pm GMT

the autor does not understand the average German person's mindset and the German political system.

 

The lignite production areas are located in a few Bunds (= 'States' in the USA). Each Bund area is basically more or less independent, and each Bund send representatives to Berlin's parliament, where stuff of federal degree gets processed and voted into federal law, applicable for the whole of Germany, thus for all the Bunds.

 

Voters in strong lignite producing Bunds vote for political parties that defend local lignite production, even when the lignite is more expensive than imported coal from the US, polutes heavily, is destroying the landscape etc. Those representatives go to Berlin, and push and vote for lavish subsidies in Berlin in the name of national energy supply security and independence from foreign energy suppliers, subsidies being split over all German voters, and therefore being modest per German voter, while being very very heavy per produced ton of lignite coal.

 

Lignite production in Germany is therefore going up, because that is popular for some German voters/politicians, since a lot of workers depend on the local Geman lignite coal mining exploitation to have an income, that is also why a huge subsidies stream continues to flow towards local lignite coal mining, as long as the lignite comes from Germany. Foreign coal producers cannot compete with that subsidised local lignite production.

 

Solar PV is also popular for a huge amount of German voters, since it allows them to reduce to zero their high monthly electricity bill, and pocket a substantial profit on their investment into that equipment installed on their roof, through lavish Feed-in-tariffs being paid each year for the installation and use of solar PV panels electricity, even when the production is not great compared to a sahara based location. There are millions of German voters with solar PV panels on their home roof, and they want to continue to receive their subsidies, even when they vote right conservative.

 

And then the whole stuff hereup gets financed by private and industrial consumers by a 0.05 euro/kWh surcharge added to their used electricity kWh coming from lignite power plants, because those plants  CO2 emissions are taxed per emitted ton.

 

So you have the Federal German government subsidising the local coal lignite production, and then taxing the emitted CO2 from that burned coal lignite, all being paid by every German through their federal taxes and by a majority of Germans through their grey electricity consumption.

 

That grey not 100% renewable sourced electricity still represent the majority of electrical production. Why do they consumers agree with that skimming of their wallet? Because they are too lazy to switch to a 100% renewable energy electricity supplier who does not have to pay the 5 cents/kWh surcharge, and because they were brainwashed. By Green politicians, and actually by every politician.

 

After all, the German government is earning itself a very nice profit on all those moves, through 21% VAT on raw materials+components manufacture+ equipment assembly, 21% VAT on assembled equipment being purchased by contractors, 21% VAT paid by the end customer for the purchase and installation by professional teams of this equipment at their location, tax on salary earned from component suppliers/manufacturers and contractor personel, tax on the still polluting consumers using grey or black electricity, and multiple taxes on the grid expansions that are needed to get it al working seamlessly, tax on the goverment employee verifying it all and so on. Literally Billions and Billions in taxes are earned by the German govmint in this way, to be partially redristibuted through the above described subsidy system, and partially used for other politicians pet projects....

 

In other words, there are a lot of intertwined interests, and the vast majority that is still not using clean sourced electricity is probably either not able to afford the more expensive rates coming from 100% renewable sourced electricity utilities, or do not have any savings to install solar PV panels on their property and are probably being kept dumb, to the profits of all the other invested interests in the rigged game.

 

Alain Verbeke's picture
Alain Verbeke on Jan 23, 2013 7:54 pm GMT

 

http://www.businessgreen.com/bg/news/2195598/germany-breaks-renewables-record-during-first-half-of-2012?wt.mc_ev=click&WT.tsrc=Email&utm_term=&utm_content=Germany%20breaks%20renewables%20record%20during%20first%20half%20of%202012&utm_campaign=BusinessGreen%20Daily%20news%20010812&utm_source=Business%20Green%20Daily&utm_medium=Email

 

Germany is revealing that, from January to June 2012, renewable energy technologies accounted for more than a quarter of the country's electricity supply for the first time ever. Some critics have questioned whether Germany would be forced to increase its reliance on imported fossil fuels to make up for a shortfall in power supplies caused by the nuclear phase out. However, the BDEW spokeman said Germany has so far remained a net exporter of energy to the European market, even if export levels have fallen. "It's not as bad as some people thought it would be some time ago," he said. "We're still exporting energy but it's not as much as before, so it's really just a matter of scale."

 

Pete Danko's picture
Pete Danko on Jan 23, 2013 10:42 pm GMT

Odd that the author focuses on one single year when in fact Germany's renewables revolution has been ongoing for years and will continue for many more. Consider that in 2000, Germany got 6 percent of its electricity from renewable energy. By 2006 that figure had doubled. Immediately pre-Fukishima, it was up to 17 percent. And in the first nine months of 2012, it was 26 percent. Is the author really suggesting that this change has "made no difference"? 

Randy Voges's picture
Randy Voges on Jan 24, 2013 6:12 pm GMT

Mr. Lynas,

Such pessimism about Germany's energy transition is NOT ACCEPTABLE!!!!  You can expect a visit shortly from Hans and Franz of Energiewende's Persuasion Operations Department, who will conduct some attitude adjustment exercises with you.  Consider this a warning.

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