“The Energiewende is Germany’s ‘Man to the Moon’ project”

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier

Speaking at the first international conference on Germany’s transition to renewable energy (in German: Energiewende) last week, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier described the shift away from fossil fuels and nuclear power as his country’s “man to the moon project.”

The Berlin “Energy Transition Dialogue 2015” drew nearly 1,000 representatives from 60 countries, according to event sponsors. The Energiewende was formalized into German law in 2000 with the passage of the Renewable Energy Act. That law mandates a phase-out of nuclear power by 2022, steep reductions in CO2 emissions, and aims to generate 80 percent of the country’s power supply by renewable sources by 2050. (Germany today gets 27 percent of its electrical generation from renewables, including wind, biomass, and solar power.)

The conference was timed to precede — and shape — the United Nations Global Climate Conference COP21, scheduled for this December in Paris.

In his opening remarks, German Economic Affairs Minister Sigmar Gabriel, addressed his country’s decision to phase out nuclear power despite the low GHG emissions from that energy source — a choice that is controversial elsewhere, but is widely supported across the political spectrum in Germany:

The ecological sense of the use of nuclear energy is not the point, because we now know that this is the most inefficient and most expensive  energy supply. That’s how the debate has switched from an environmental to an economic discussion about the future of our country.

Note: Clean Break, my e-book about the Energiewende, produced for InsideClimate News in 2012, can be found here. My more recent reporting from Germany on developments in the energy transition will appear in Discover magazine this summer.

Did Germany’s shift from nuclear power cause a rise in coal-fired electricity?

A coal-fired power plant in Berlin. (Photo by Osha Gray Davidson)

A coal-fired power plant in Berlin. (Photo by Osha Gray Davidson)

Everyone knows that Germany’s panicked decision to exit nuclear power following the disaster in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011, and fast-track renewable power has had the unfortunate consequence of increasing the use of coal-fired power plants and causing a spike in CO2 emissions.

Most recently, writing in the New York Times this Monday, reporter Melissa Eddy put it this way:

“The race to shutter the country’s nuclear reactors by 2022, for example, has resulted in many power providers using brown coal, or lignite, the cheapest and dirtiest of all fossil fuels to keep the power flowing to customers. This, in turn, has led to an increase in carbon emissions”

It’s a simple narrative (less nuclear = more coal) but it’s wrong on several fronts.

German-based energy writer, Craig Morris, has covered these myths in detail — including a piece today — so I’ll focus on what seems to me to be the error with the most important implications: that the anti-nuclear component of Germany’s energy transition has caused a rise in CO2 emissions.

First, the experts I’ve talked with on two reporting trips to Germany (in 2012 and again last October), are, indeed, concerned about a pattern of increasing CO2 emissions in Germany. None of them, however, blamed the 2011 closure of 7 nuclear power plants for the increased GHGs.

Here’s why (Click on the “Enlarge” link in the caption for a better view):

Changes in German electrical power generation by source, 2010-2014.

Changes in German electrical power generation by source, 2010-2014. (Enlarge)

Nuclear power did indeed decline between 2010 and 2014 – by 43.7 Terawatt hours. But, that was more than compensated for by increased electrical generation by renewable sources, such as wind and solar, which rose by 52.6 TWh over the same time period.

What renewables did not replace was natural gas, which declined by 30.8 TWh between 2010 and 2014.

Germany’s single largest supplier of natural gas is Russia — and that country has raised the price of this valuable commodity. German utilities have reduced the use of pricy gas and replaced it with cheap (and dirty) coal. Although natural gas burns cleaner than coal, it is still a significant source of CO2 — unlike the renewable sources that Germany is investing in.

Still, Germany needs to make changes to reduce the use of dirty coal. But this isn’t news to German experts either. The government has said it will force the closure of the dirtiest coal plants, and there remains the possibility that the European Union’s failed carbon cap-and-trade program (which Germany is bound by) will raise the price of carbon pollution to levels that will actually have an impact on emissions. And, it should be noted that German’s CO2 emissions actually dropped last year. Without these other changes, that trend may not continue, however.

One last point: In the chart above, you may have noticed that nuclear power generation began to fall in 2006. That’s because the nuclear phaseout was not an emotional reaction to Fukushima, but an integral part of German energy policy that began in 2000, more than a decade before the nuclear disaster in Japan.

Craig Morris goes into much greater detail here pointing out the flaws in the NYT article. (And he has far better graphics than the one I threw together above.)

Poll: Germans Continue to Embrace Renewable Energy, but with an eye on the price tag

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According to a new poll, 82 percent of Germans support the country’s transition to renewable energy, known as the Energiewende. The poll by the Federation of German Consumer Organizations (Verbraucherzentrale Bundesverband) found some discontent with some aspects of the project, however, particularly with the cost.

Some 52 percent of respondents called rising energy prices a disadvantage of the Energiewende. At $0.35 U.S per kilowatt hour kWh, the price German consumers pay for electricity is among the highest in Europe. Danes pay the most $0.40/kWh and Bulgarians the least $0.11/kWh.

Overall, the poll found that Germans are willing to pay more for electricity they consider safe, i.e., non-nuclear and non-polluting. Part of the increased cost comes from a surcharge for renewable energy that is paid to individuals or groups that produce “clean power” and sell it to the grid. The program, called a Feed-in Tariff FiT, has helped create a solar photovoltaic PV boom across Germany.

The installed capacity of PV the theoretical maximum amount of electricity that could be produced if all solar panels were running at 100 percent capacity in 2003 was less than half a gigawatt GW. A decade later, that figure stands at 34 GW – and growing.

Actual solar power production across Germany can be seen in real time on a site run by German solar technology manufacturer, SMA.

via Solar Power Remains Popular in Germany, Despite Cost | Earthzine.