Has Germany’s Energy Transition Come to a Fork in the Road?

by | Mar 15, 2016

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Is Germany’s transition to a power sector fueled mostly by renewables and not at all by nuclear energy going as planned? It depends on whom is asked. But the latest such look suggests that it has hit a bump: carbon emissions are up.

While renewable energy pursuits in Germany are widely supported by the public, those efforts — driven by the need to cut carbon levels — are difficult to achieve: Before the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant five years ago, the country received a quarter of its power from 17 nuclear reactors — a figure that is now 18 percent. Can green energy fill that gap?

If the latest emissions data say anything, it is that it will be difficult to do: coal now produces half of Germany’s electricity, which is up from 43 percent in 2010, the World Nuclear Association says.

Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions are on the rise, again: In 2015, they rose by 1.1 percent, or to 10 million tonnes to 912 million tonnes in 2015. That’s according to Green Budget Germany, which tracks these things, and which says that the use of more lignite coal is a big reason. Lignite is the lowest rank of coal because of its low heat content and its high carbon content of between 60-70 percent.

The good news, according to the study, is that Germany’s carbon releases are 27 percent less than they were in 1990. But the bad news is that they are too high to reach the country’s target goal of being 40 percent less by 2020.

At present, green energy accounts for about 30 percent Germany’s electricity. The aim is to see it reach 40 percent when the country’s nuclear plants are totally phased out. Germany hopes that green energy will equate to 80 percent of the generation portfolio by 2050.

While green energy will pick up some slack, Germany will still need to import power from Poland, the Czech Republic, and France. It will also have to build more coal and natural gas plants.

“I learned that the vast majority of the engineers and technical experts working in the trenches in the energy sector are increasingly viewing higher levels of renewables – even up to 100 percent use — as technically feasible,” writes Erin Grossi is chief economist for UL, in a column for Environmental Leader.

She continues to say that most of those experts would have said that this goal was impossible five years ago, noting that it is the advancement of distributed energy resources that now make this “energy transition” feasible. How’s that?

She is referring to “virtual power plants” that combine the use of several onsite energy platforms into a larger and “grid-balancing” resource. In other words, things like rooftop solar panels working in conjunction with localized microgrids and battery storage can keep the electricity flowing at all times. And with companies like ABB and Siemens well established in Germany, it is doable.

But is it? Until that point, baseload generation must firm up wind and solar power when the weather doesn’t permit. That has the potential to increase emissions if coal plants are used.

An analysis by McKinsey and Siemens also notes that German customers pay 40-50 percent more than the average energy user in the European Union. It is supported by one underwritten by the Edison Electric Institute that says green energy subsidies have skewed Germany markets and cost citizens there hundreds of billions, or as much as $884 billion by 2022.

German policy is pushing renewables. A key to the growth in green energy there has been the “feed-in tariffs,” which guarantee each plant operator a fixed tariff for electricity generated that is channeled into the grid. Each grid system operator is obliged to pay the statutory fee.

But others disagree with the assessment that the energy transition is unrealistic and emphasize that it is working. Craig Morris, co-author of the Energy Transition, says that the “feed-in tariffs” are not just helping to make renewables affordable for Germans but also for the rest of the global population that has benefited as a result of the advances in technology.

“For the past four years, the average retail power rate in Germany has been stable, even though the share of renewable electricity rose from nearly 25 percent to 32.5 percent,” Morris writes. “Clearly, renewables are now so competitive that fast growth no longer has a major cost impact – not even in Germany.”

Morris clearly believes that renewables will replace Germany’s nuclear capacity, in time. Others are highly skeptical, pointing out that more fossil fuel usage will step in — especially coal — and cause emission rates to rise even higher.

Germany is a country on a mission. But if carbon emissions keep rising and its retail electricity would do the same, the country could start shifting gears and look more closely into to keeping its nuclear fleet running for a longer period of time.



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