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Energy Reality Meets Climate Reality

In its enthusiasm to spread the word about the rapid uptake of renewable sources of energy, the Climate Reality Project recently circulated the picture below. It references the amount of wind energy, in particular, that is now being generated in the German State of Schleswig-Holstein.

Climate Reality Renewable Energy

This is Germany’s northernmost state and borders both the North Sea and the Baltic, so benefits from the windy climate that this geography offers. It is well known as Germany’s windiest area

Schleswig-Holstein

In recent years and as part of the overall push to generate more renewable energy in Germany, considerable wind energy capacity has been installed in this region. While the current level of generation from wind is laudable, this is far from 100% renewable energy. The actual milestone that the state has reached was more accurately described as follows;

The Northern German coastal State of Schleswig-Holstein will be able to mathematically meet its electricity demand fully with renewable energy sources this year if wind yields reach at least average levels, Robert Habeck, Minister of Energy said when presenting a new study last week (May 2014).

This means that the amount of wind (and solar) electricity generated in Schleswig-Holstein will be equal to total demand, but these may not match in terms of timing. At certain times the state will export surplus wind generated electricity into the grid and at other times it will need to draw from the grid to meet its needs, particularly during periods of little wind. Nevertheless, it is quite an achievement, even though it highlights the need for a substantial backup system for renewable electricity generation.

But there is a second major reality associated with “100% renewable energy” statements. We live in a global economy that is only partly powered by electricity, to the extent that even if this electricity is generated entirely from renewable sources, the percentage of renewable energy in the final energy mix will still be less than 20% (see below). Even in OECD countries where electricity is more widely used, this only rises by a few percentage points.

Global final energy 2011

The largest slice of final energy (i.e. energy that is used by the final consumer for the delivery of an energy service, e.g. mobility) is oil, used mainly for mobility in road vehicles, planes, trains and ships. Natural gas and coal are also very large, used primarily for industrial processes such as steel making, chemical plants and similar. Natural gas is also used extensively throughout the world as a residential fuel for boilers and direct home heating.

Coming back to Schleswig-Holstein, the actual percentage of renewable energy in the final mix is probably higher than most areas, not just because of its renewable electricity production but also because of the availability of biomass from the agricultural sector. In Germany as a whole, even if all the electricity was sourced from renewable energy (but it isn’t) and adding to this the biofuel and waste energy sources, a level of ~27% renewable energy would be reached. For Schleswig-Holstein with its current level of renewable generation, that probably translates to ~30% today.

That’s an impressive feat, but it isn’t 100%.

David Hone's picture

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Jeffrey Miller's picture
Jeffrey Miller on September 19, 2014

Good post. That 80% of our energy use is outside the electricity sector, and that most of this 80% is powered by fossil fuels cannot be repeated too often. What it means is that the job of rapidly decarbonizing our energy system is far larger than simply decarbonizing the electric sector, which itself is already a big undertaking. The ability to electrify these huge non-electric sectors (transport, heating, industry) using carbon free energy is one of the reasons why we should be rapidly building thousands, rather than dozens, of new nuclear plants around the world.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on September 19, 2014

It’s worse than that.  There are policies, either under consideration (the EPA carbon policy) or already in place, which attempt to limit electricity consumption in general.  Even if other sectors could be de-carbonized by going electric, such a move would be restricted or prohibited outright.

It looks like the fossil fuel industry has achieved regulatory capture of climate-change policy.

Jeffrey Miller's picture
Jeffrey Miller on September 19, 2014

I agree. Policies which attempt to simply reduce electricity consumption without regard to the ability of the electrical sector to lower overall carbon emissions (e.g. by replacing ICE cars with EVs) are counterproductive.

Jim Kennerly's picture
Jim Kennerly on September 19, 2014

The point is, mathematically at least, well-taken, but I have to laugh at the sight of the oil company guy, saying that anywhere that gets 100% of its electricity from renewable energy “isn’t really 100% renewable.”

It’s poignant to watch an industry living on borrowed time until a few more years of battery storage deployments disrupts its biggest markets try and move of the goalposts when describing a totally different industry they’re not even involved in that is living on even less borrowed time than it.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on September 21, 2014

As more solar capacity is installed, more fossil fuels will be burned at night because the solar makes nuclear baseload in the day unprofitable. Thus I will repeat what the author said, “…highlights the need for a substantial backup system for renewable electricity generation”. Any effort towards biofuels should be to sequester excess CO2, not burn them, thus we need a molten salt like type of reactor to power humanity because we can’t wait any longer to stop using fossil fuels!

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on September 21, 2014

Jim, on what are you basing your claim that “a few more years of battery storage deployments” will disrupt any energy market whatsoever?

California is installing a battery-powered system for its wind farm at Tehachapi. It will cost $50 million, and be capable of powering the state at peak consumption for six seconds. A system capable of powering the state for even a few days would cost $trillions – more, if we include powering electric cars. Even with the price of batteries predicted to drop 50% by 2020, battery storage will remain hopelessly out of reach (and useless) for anything but minor load-following purposes.

All these unrealistic claims accomplish is to sustain our dependability on the dirty energy sources they claim to be helping us move away from.

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on September 22, 2014

(reply to Jim Kennerly)

Bashing the oil companies over the energy/climate problem is a false meme.

It was the oil companies who provided (and lost) most of the capital spent on fundamentally developing solar PV technology in the 1990’s, without which we simply would not have the solar PV technology we have today. They lost billions doing this.

It was oil companies who attempted, in the ’70’s through 90’s to take nuclear power and make it universally and massively applicable, but this also failed due to lack of public acceptance and it also cost them billions.

The problem of climate change and energy poverty is not caused by the oil companies. This problem is exclusively caused by the anti-nuclear movement, which uses lies to create extraordinary and unjustified fear of nuclear power, which is the sole reason why fossil fuels are still the cheapest form of energy, and therefore why the world is not moving away from them.

Instead of bashing oil companies, we need to ask them to please return to their original plan of developing nuclear power for mainstream and massive application. They have the capital and the technical and organisational clout to make this happen in a very big way, solving climate change and energy poverty within decades!

donough shanahan's picture
donough shanahan on September 22, 2014

Jim

Suggest you re-read thepiece. What they claimed was 100% renewable energy. Clearly this ignores the majority of energy inputs as correctly pointed out here. The poster is incorrect as it should read 100% renewable electricity.

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