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NGO Energy for Humanity: Still Too Much "Hot Air" In Energy Policy

Wolfgang Denk's picture
NGO Energy for humanity

Wolfgang Denk is the current European Director of the NGO Energy for Humanity. By profession he is a mechanical engineer working in the power plant and utilities sector since 2001. He managed...

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  • Dec 5, 2017

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Although there are some voices of reason in the climate change community, it will be true to say that there is unfortunately still a lot of “hot air” in energy policy.

Nowadays, a whole range of states in the EU and worldwide are pursuing policies aimed at moving towards a sustainable low-carbon economy. Obviously, a transition to the new model can go differently depending on the configuration of energy resources in a particular country. However, it is possible to come up with some universal guidelines for establishing a low-carbon balance.

In order to achieve a low-carbon economy, the burning of fossil fuels – especially that of coal and lignite – needs to be reduced. Apart from GDP reduction and increasing energy efficiency, which are another two means, reducing the reliance on coal-fired electricity generation capacity can be done in three different “active” ways or a combination of those:

  1. Expansion of so-called “new renewables” like solar and wind (“old renewable” hydropower is mostly already maxed out in developed countries since the 60s or 70s)
  2. Expansion of gas-fired power plants replacing coal-fired power plants and/or
  3. Expansion of nuclear energy

Looking at the data, expansion of new renewables seems to be the least efficient, much better is expansion of gas-fired capacity (replacing coal), but the most efficient in fast decarbonization of an electricity generation system is the expansion of nuclear energy. This is contrary to what almost the whole Western world, including major institutions, seems to have in mind at the moment.

Heard the song, but got it wrong

At present, the phrase “energy transition” enjoys huge popularity and has apparently found its way into the daily vocabulary of energy policymakers. At the same time, those who speak of energy transition and determine its course do not always have a clear vision of how it should be conducted properly.

Germany’s example is very illustrative here: however ambitious, the energy transition in this country, which gained momentum after the decision to accelerate the phase-out of nuclear power, has not yet met expectations. The main reason for Germany failing to obtain the wanted results is that, on the one hand, the objectives were not clear and, on the other, even if they were, the measures would have been completely wrong.

The energy transition is understood by many as to be aimed at reducing carbon emissions, but in reality the main driver was the shut-down of nuclear capacities – something the Green Movement has been fighting for for many decades. Of course, shutting down carbon-neutral generation capacity is doing nothing to reduce carbon emissions. The strategy to make the system greener was then the expansion of renewable sources – some are even aiming for 100% renewables, while the main objective from the outset should have been the shutting down of coal-fired generation. It is like a smoker deciding to eat a lot of fruit to be healthier. Why not focusing on quitting smoking? Basically, Germany got it all wrong. Hopefully, this case will be analyzed in more detail worldwide.

Messing with success

In many countries, statements have been made that transitioning to a modern energy system requires reducing the share of nuclear power in the power mix and increasing renewable sources. It is remarkable that these calls can be heard in France as well, a country where nuclear energy prevails in the national electricity production. Meanwhile, according to European Climate Leadership 2017 report, France demonstrates one of the best performances with regard to carbon emissions in Europe.

Reducing the impact on climate and reducing the share of nuclear energy are two different political topics, which are unfortunately often put in the same basket. This is probably because both are the two most important topics of traditional environmentalists as well as green parties around the world. The reduction of nuclear energy share in France from 75% to 50% derived from a Green party demand before François Hollande came to power was probably seen as something popular with a very vocal share of the population and also some of the media. However, even if all nuclear electricity from shut down units could have been replaced with solar PV and wind, which is impossible because of intermittency, such a path would have been carbon-neutral at best at a very high cost. Why do it then?

It should be clear for everybody that shutting down nuclear energy can per definition have nothing to do with combating climate change or environmentalism. Even worse, shutting down existing nuclear plants prematurely which could still be operated will for sure lead to higher carbon emissions and is grossly negligent from a financial point of view. On the other hand, expansion of low-carbon renewables in countries like France or Norway, with demand unchanged, will also have practically no effect on CO2-emissions whatsoever.

UK and France as climate leaders

While in some countries climate change slogans and strategies are drifting further and further away from the real fight against climate change, there are some positive exceptions.

Already almost 9 years ago, the late Prof. David MacKay published the freely available book “Sustainable Energy – Without the hot air”. It would be beneficial for every politician and decision-maker to read this book before making energy policy decisions. The data speaks loud and clear. His work had a substantial impact on UK energy policy, leading to promising results – the UK was able to reduce its absolute carbon emissions by the largest amount in Europe in the years from 2010 to 2015.

Also it came as a relief to us when Nicolas Hulot, the French minister of ecological and solidary transition, announced two weeks ago that the goal of reducing nuclear electricity in France to 50% is unrealistic and would have led to expansion of fossil-fired generation capacity. Here we have another country that looked at the data and probably noticed the obvious: shutting down nuclear is bad for the climate.

We urge other nations to learn from the UK and France and develop energy policies without so much hot air.

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Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Dec 5, 2017

Bravo, Wolfgang! Airing of common sense is always good to see. But be prepared for a strong backlash from the usual suspects.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Dec 6, 2017

“… the main objective from the outset should have been the shutting down of coal-fired generation. … Germany got it all wrong.”

Yep, it is super hard to work towards two goals at once; with anti-nuclearism as the primary goal, it is all to easy for the coal industry to guide policy in a direction that keeps itself safe.

In the US, we have the (fortunate?) situation that our large fossil gas industry is helping to shrink the domestic market share of coal, which does reduce our CO2 emissions somewhat. Of course, it won’t be too long until we’ll wish we could reduce our use of gas also, but a renewable-rich grid works a lot better with a generous amount of gas usage.

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