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The End of the Energiewende?

Energiewende demonstration in 2014 (photo Bundjugend)

Energiewende demonstration in 2014. (Photo: Bundjugend)

The prominent German economist Heiner Flassbeck has challenged fundamental assumptions of the Energiewende at his blog site makroskop.eu. According to Flassbeck, the former Director of Macroeconomics and Development at the UNCTAD in Geneva and a former State Secretary of Finance, a recent period of extremely low solar and wind power generation shows that Germany will never be able to rely on renewable energy, regardless of  how much new capacity will be built.

Stable high-pressure winter weather has resulted in a confrontation. An Energiewende that relies mainly on wind and solar energy will not work in the long run. One cannot forgo nuclear power, eliminate fossil fuels, and tell people that electricity supplies will remain secure all the same.

We have attempted unsuccessfully to find Energiewende advocates willing to explain that inconsistency. Their silence is not easy to fathom. But maybe the events themselves have made the outcome inevitable.

With nuclear power no longer available, a capacity of at least 50 gigawatts is required by other means, despite an enormously expanded network of wind turbines and solar systems

This winter could go down in history as the event that proved the German energy transition to be unsubstantiated and incapable of becoming a success story. Electricity from wind and solar generation has been catastrophically low for several weeks. December brought new declines. A persistent winter high-pressure system with dense fog throughout Central Europe has been sufficient to unmask the fairy tale of a successful energy transition, even for me as a lay person.

This is a setback, because many people had placed high hopes in the Energiewende. I likewise never expected to see large-scale solar arrays and wind turbines, including those offshore, motionless for days on end. The data compiled by Agora Energiewende on the individual types of electricity generation have recorded the appalling results for sun and wind at the beginning of December and from the 12th to 14th:

AgoraGermanElectricity01-19December2016

Of power demand totaling 69.0 gigawatts (GW) at 3 pm on the 12th, for instance, just 0.7 GW was provided by solar energy, 1.0 by onshore wind power and 0.4 offshore. At noontime on the 14th of December, 70 GW were consumed, with 4 GW solar, 1 GW onshore and somewhat over 0.3 offshore wind. The Agora graphs make apparent that such wide-ranging doldrums may persist for several days.

You do not need to be a technician, an energy expert, or a scientist to perceive the underlying futility of this basic situation. You simply need common sense, shelving expectations and prognoses for a moment, while extrapolating the current result to future developments. Let us suppose that today’s wind and solar potential could be tripled by 2030, allowing almost all of the required energy to be obtained from these two sources under normal weather conditions. This is an extremely optimistic scenario and certainly not to be expected, because current policy is slowing down the expansion of renewable energy sources rather than accelerating it.

One cannot simultaneously rely on massive amounts of wind and sunshine, dispense with nuclear power plants (for very good reasons), significantly lower the supply of fossil energy, and nevertheless tell people that electricity will definitely be available in the future

If a comparable lull occurred in 2030 (stable winter high systems that recur every few years), then three times the number of solar panels and wind turbines (assuming current technologies) could logically produce only three times the amount of electricity. The deficiency of prevailing winds and sunshine will affect all of these installations, no matter how many there are. Even threefold wind and solar generation would then fulfill just 20% of requirements – again very optimistically – assuming that demand had not increased by 2030.

Redistribution effects

However, precisely the opposite can be expected, namely a massive increase in consumption due to the substitution of fossil fuels by electrically powered automobiles that require increased generation. The possibility of saving so much energy in this short time, enabling overall consumption to be decreased despite abandoning fossil fuels, can be confidently ignored. For that to happen, the price of fossil energy would have to rise dramatically, which is not to be expected, and one would have to compensate for the resulting redistribution effects that are politically even less likely.

Accordingly, Germany would end up with a catastrophic result 30 years after the start of the Energiewende. With nuclear power no longer available, a capacity of at least 50 gigawatts is required by other means, despite an enormously expanded network of wind turbines and solar systems under comparable weather conditions. Those other means according to current knowledge will be provided by coal, oil and gas.

In other words, one cannot simultaneously rely on massive amounts of wind and sunshine, dispense with nuclear power plants (for very good reasons), significantly lower the supply of fossil energy, and nevertheless tell people that electricity will definitely be available in the future. Exactly that, however, is what politics largely does almost every day. It is quite irresponsible to persuade citizens that from 2030 onwards only electrically-powered new cars may be allowed, as has recently been propagated in the highest political circles.

You can wish for a lot and always hope for a good outcome. But as important as wishes and hopes are, they are not yet solutions

The example of Energiewende once again demonstrates that the traditional political approaches of our democracies are ill-equipped to solve such complex problems. Consequently, they pursue what I have recently called symbolic politics: democracies do something that is supposed to point in the right direction without thinking it through and without even taking note of the system-related consequences. If it goes wrong, the political predecessors were guilty and nobody feels responsible.

That is why citizens need to remain vigilant and critical. You can wish for a lot and always hope for a good outcome. But as important as wishes and hopes are, they are not yet solutions. We likewise have to use our minds when we would prefer to turn them off because the conclusions are so depressing.

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This article was first published on the German-language website www.makroskop.eu on 20 December 2016 and has been translated for Energy Post by Hamburg-based independent energy consultant Jeffrey Michel (jeffrey.michel@gmx.net).

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