About Those Germans: An Energiewende Reality Check

Fracking Fables - Nick Grealy ReportsNick Grealy
Administrator of NaturalGas2.0NoHotAir and ShaleGasInfo Blogs

It has been apparent for some time now the German Energiewende has been a colossal error though fractivists over here keep hyping it as it goes up in smoke.

No one can fail to be impressed by Germany’s efforts in the Energiewende, loosely translated as “energy turn” or “energy transformation.” But, is it no more than a relic of the peak oil and nuclear fears prevalent in 2009 post Fukushima? What is the view from 2015?

The Energiewende is giving shale operators world wide a lot of another German word import: Angst. Greens insist that there are a suite of alternatives to both fossil fuels and nuclear power and that Germany provides an example to the UK, Ireland, New York State etc etc. This from Mark Ruffalo for example:

Earlier in the interview, Ruffalo stressed the potential of renewable energy sources like “wind, water and solar.” Citing the prevalence of solar energy in Germany, Ruffalo remarked “America’s being left behind. We’re being left behind all over the world.”

In the interview, Ruffalo misspoke in stating that 30 percent of Germany’s electricity is generated from solar power — the figure is actually three percent. Although he was mistaken, he later apologized on Twitter.

That makes it all better then.Three percent, thirty percent, it’s only a number. Mr Ruffalo’s apology gets read by several thousand Twitter followers, but it was already crossed into the minds of a million plus TV viewers. This rather cavalier carelessness is being used by natural gas opponents to magnify both opposition to shale development and to stretch the truth of solar and wind reality to fit a view that as renewables are just around the corner, let’s call the whole thing off.

Before I look at Die wahre Wirklichkeit der deutschen Energiepolitik or the true reality of German energy policy, which just doesn’t slip off the tongue, or enter into the brain, as elegantly as Energiewende, let me point out two things:

Talking about reality may be uncomfortable, but it does keep the lights and heat on. Pointing out contradictions does not make me a climate change “denier”, or part of an alleged lobbying conspiracy from fossil fuels. Unlike too many greens, I don’t deny the utility of their technologies.The ultimate lobbyist for fossil fuel is anyone who flips a light switch, fills a fuel tank or participates in modern life of plastics and fertilisers. Look in the mirror. Wave hello.

The natural gas industry anywhere isn’t against renewables. I have my disagreements with Gazprom, but they share the same view on renewables as Chesapeake, Statoil, Qatargas, Shell, Sinopec, Tokyo Gas, Eon, Centrica, GDFSuez and everyone else: renewables, and especially solar, are the wave of the future. Increases in solar gain, allied with developing automotive battery technology are going to have a significant impact everywhere on the transition to a low carbon future. Solar is an inevitable part of the future. It is not, nor is likely to be in any meaningful time frame, the only solution. Pretending it can,  is unrealistic and counterproductive and recent, if uncomfortable, proof of that comes from The Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems.

A fundamental energy problem, is how almost everyone wants to believe (Greens), or publishes (journalists) simplistic explanations of complex energy market phenomena. Energy is not simple. The world behind the switch or the nozzle is incredibly complex. The problem lies in that a lot of people work very hard to make it look easy – and have been very successful at it. Perhaps too successful.

There are over 1300 scientists at the Fraunhofer, the largest solar energy research institute in Europe for only one example. Professor Bruno Burger from Fraunhofer has a site which explains in exhaustive detail the reality of solar and all other power generation in Germany today.

The key point, on the Mark Ruffalo’s of the world miss, is to concentrate on how electricity is produced, when the problem is also of when it is produced.  With no significant technology to store electricity at scale on the horizon,electricity generation is skewed in many counter intuitive ways.  This chart highlights how people like Mark Ruffalo over-optimise their view on German generation in the first place. This is installed generation capacity:

Energiewende

The above view is of potential power. With no energy storage, one could potentially generate a lot of electricity, but obviously, if perhaps not to Ruffalo, not very much outside of the middle of the day in the middle of the year and absolutely none in the night anytime. Using solar to keep the lights on during daytime defeats the point of energy efficiency perhaps, but as we’ll see, there is a lot of electricity still used at midday, although solar, in one of several perverse impacts, doesn’t provide any energy efficiency incentives at peak time.

The actual generation paints an altogether more depressing picture for not only greens, but also the gas industry.

Energiewende

It’s even more depressing news for CO2 and the planet. Out of 522 Twh of power Germany used in 2014, 240 Twh or 46% came from coal. We’ll depress you further later talking about brown and hard coal. Wind was 9.8% but although potential for solar is so high, the actual amount of electricity generated is, while higher than it was at the time of Ruffalo’s statement above from only two years ago, remains at only 6.3%.

Time here to step back and consider measuring the Energiewende success as reducing emissions. But, that isn’t so interesting to either Greens or journalists. This from the German Federal Energy Statistics, based on BP World Energy shows the relative performance of German CO2 emissions is poor compared to other advanced economies. Even worse, when measured over the past few years, despite a greater rate of growth of wind and solar, German CO2 emissions actually increased 6% as opposed to standing still in the US and falling by an average of 4% in the EU as a whole.

Energiewende

So, renewables aren’t actually delivering their entire raison d’êtreHere we have to come back to earth and way below it, and most importantly we have to study the daily movements of power demand.Two examples:

Energiewende fraunhofer1

Energiewende  fraunhofer4Ruffalo is correct: Germany does indeed produce 30% of it’s power from solar, a noteworthy accomplishment. However, it does so at noon in late June and generates zero of it only twelve hours later. During January, given how Hamburg shares the same latitude as the Alaska Panhandle, it is equally impressive to generate any solar at all, but what little there is disappears entirely 19 hours a day- during the highest demand time of year.

The problem in Germany is not renewables. Renewables, and world CO2’s, problem in Germany is not natural gas. It’s coal. Coal is cheaper than gas so it gets burnt more. Natural gas is expensive in Germany for because little is produced domestically and imports, linked to an outdated oil price formula from Russia, are expensive compared to the more open hub markets operating from North Sea and LNG. But both of them are more expensive still thanks to the fervent wish of Ruffalo’s European allies to leave gas in the ground.

Natural gas is flexible and on days of low wind and low solar, gas fired production tips up, although less than in the UK. Wind and solar provide peak power and baseload is supplied by nuclear, biomass (sometimes peat, the worst CO2 producer of all), a small amount of hydro and brown coal, or lignite. All coal is evil in the climate fight, but brown coal is particularly nasty. Firstly, it’s far more polluting than hard coal and has even higher CO2.

Lignite was the mainstay of power generation in communist East Germany, before Germany was reunified in 1990. Most of the old open-cast mines that once peppered the landscapes of states like Brandenburg, east of Berlin, subsequently shut. But now companies such as Vattenfall are opening new ones, along with new power stations to run on their output.

Lignite burning is higher today than at any time since the 1990s. It generates 26 percent of the nation’s electricity, more than solar and wind combined. No other nation burns so much.

Lignite emits far more CO2 than other fossil fuels — 1,100 grams per kilowatt-hour, compared to between 150 and 430 grams for natural gas. It is the main reason why German CO2 emissions have started rising.

Vattenfall by the way, is not the archetypal evil fossil fuel company of international capitalists desperate to poison the planet greens like to paint. At least not at home:

Vattenfall is a Swedish power company, wholly owned by the Swedish government. Beyond Sweden, the company generates power in Denmark, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, and the United Kingdom.

The beauty of natural gas is that it can be flexible enough to ramp up and down matching demand, and to match the inevitable ups and downs, storms and calms and sunrises and sunsets inherent in wind and solar. It was only a few years ago that natural gas was only used as peaking power to match spikes. As we see in the US, natural gas is now so widespread and thus economically predictable that it replaces the original baseload power provider, nuclear energy. That is yet another own goal by Germany: Not only does lignite displace gas, Germany is intending to displace zero carbon nuclear with renewables. If Germany played like this in the World Cup, they wouldn’t last long.

But in Germany, gas is being pushed out of the mix because it’s considered too nasty and dangerous. In some parts of Germany, in richer states like Lower Saxony, the local population don’t want to industrialize their landscape. In the poorer east, they don’t have that option:

Energiewende welzow5

Exxon Mobil for one, thinks Germany is sitting on huge shale resources, but the Federal Government, ignoring their own Geological Service, end up begging Vattenfall to rethink their strategy to give up on fossil fuels.

Germany has made a dramatic appeal to Sweden to help it out of an energy dilemma that threatens Europe’s biggest economy as it shifts away from nuclear power and fossil fuels to renewable energy.

Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s vice-chancellor, warned Sweden’s new prime minister Stefan Löfven last month that there would be “serious consequences” for electricity supplies and jobs if Sweden’s state-owned utility Vattenfall ditched plans to expand two coal mines in the northeast of Germany.

Germany may smart on many things, but as role model for others to shun natural gas resources, we should remember other German words. Their energy transformation is verdant verrückt (verdant crazy).

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5 thoughts on “About Those Germans: An Energiewende Reality Check

  1. Pingback: About Those Germans: An Energiewende Reality Check | ShaleNOW

  2. Excellent entry nick . The Germans I think recongize in secret that fossil fuels are going to be with them for a while . You say about lack of Energy Storage as a problem but indeed it would seem the solution actually lays in natural gas pipelines via hydrogen injection . Here is an article of E on starting to use tech from Canada http://www.fuelcelltoday.com/news-archive/2012/june/hydrogenics-wins-order-from-eon-for-power-to-gas-energy-storage-project-in-germany
    Injecting ten percent of the volume of a natural gas transmission system with hydrogen created with renewables seems to me to be the perfect mix. Natural gas is ironically the most flexible of fossil fuels while being the cleanest burning . What I can see with a hybrid of Natural gas supporting renewables is that one can conserve natural gas via the use of renewable generated renewables while Natural Gas electrical is ramped up or down . The implications are great and really make sense.

    • Also including “scrubbed” biomethane into the mix is another option. Allowing this increases the overall supply and reduces isolation of these renewable energy centers (WWTP’s, Agricultural Digesters, Landfill CH4 capture, etc). Reaching out to these industries should be seen as a positive step in the right direction.

  3. Thank you for the article. Like anything else, cold hard facts are difficult for the Greens to digest, that makes it difficult to have a reasonable and civil conversation with them about things like NG and renewables working together. In Canada our energy costs are kept down because of subsidization. This gives the Antis the luxury of the time to spend online protesting it, instead of cutting and splitting their wood to keep them warm during our very cold winters.

  4. This article, while instructive, falls into the fracktivist trap that natural gas is all about electricity generation. It is not. It’s mostly about heat and hot water and chemical feedstocks.

    Electric is by far the smallest energy bill that any cold climate homeowner pays. Until we start hammering that home it’s no wonder we’re getting our asses kicked…

    The anti fossil fuel crowd has NO viable alternatives. They do not live in the real world but in N.Y. that doesn’t matter.

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