The goal of Germany’s Energiewende, or energy transformation, is for Europe’s most advanced industrial economy to be powered almost exclusively by renewables within four decades. Although often characterised as a ‘great experiment’ or ‘gamble’, the reality is that few countries are as likely to succeed in such an endeavour as Germany, given its wealth, engineering prowess and single-minded determination.
If all goes to plan, primary energy use in Germany will halve by 2050; renewables will provide over 80% of electricity; and carbon emissions will be down by 80-95%. This is a unique undertaking, not least because other countries with similar decarbonisation targets (like the UK) are pursuing nuclear power and carbon capture alongside renewables. Not Germany, however, where the Fukushima incident in 2011 catalysed the political decision to close all nuclear plants by 2022.
To date, progress on the ground has been almost as impressive as the overall ambition – Germany now gets 25% of its electricity from renewables. This is broadly where the UK plans to be by 2020.
So what lessons from Germany can inform the low-carbon transition in the UK and other countries?
We can manage a 25% share of renewables within our existing power system
Power systems were historically developed according to the principle that supply must always meet demand. Whilst this is relatively easy with conventional fossil fuel plants that can be switched on and off quickly, we cannot control when the sun shines or wind blows. Thus, dealing with intermittency is perhaps the fundamental challenge for a renewable-based energy system.
Nonetheless, the German experience shows that large modern energy systems can accommodate a 25% share of renewables. This is not to deny problems exist in Germany, but merely that grids are already designed to deal with fluctuations in supply and demand, and can cope with a bit more. This finding is backed-up by recent research by the UK Energy Research Centre which assessed the impacts of intermittent generation on the British electricity network (The Intermittency Report).
Managing larger amounts of renewables requires flexibility and more grid interconnections
As renewable penetration rises towards 50% and beyond however, more significant change will be needed. The Agora research institute – led by Rainer Baake, the ‘architect’ of the Energiewende – has recently articulated a hierarchy of actions to enable this shift.
First, more interconnection between countries is needed. In the future there will be more times when Germany produces more solar and wind energy than it needs. Interconnectors will allow this excess to be exported to meet demand in Scandinavia, for example, which in return can use its existing pumped storage hydro plants to export power back to Germany when required.
Next comes flexibility, which in the next decade or so will come from existing technologies and approaches. This includes retaining fossil fuel plants capable of firing up quickly, incentivising certain industries to shift usage to times when energy is abundant, and using Germany’s numerous combined heat and power plants to feed power into the grid at peak times.
Storage, with the exception of hydro power, is only likely to become more widespread in the long term. For now the relevant technologies are in their infancy. But they will be needed in the future as renewables reach a 70% share. Thus, Germany is investing in techniques such as ‘power-to-gas’, where excess renewable energy is used to make methane from water and carbon dioxide to be stored for future use.
A new kind of energy market is needed
The energy markets we have today in Europe were developed in the 1990s to suit a system already dominated by fossil fuels. In these markets, the wholesale price of electricity varies in relation to the costs of the final ‘top-up’ generator needed to meet demand at any given time. As a result, flexible but high-marginal cost fossil fuel ‘peaking’ plants are virtually assured of receiving the price they need to pay back their investment.
However this market design simply cannot work for a system with large amounts of renewables.
The basic problem may seem at first like a benefit: when the sun shines and wind blows, renewables lower the wholesale market price of electricity because higher marginal-cost fossil fuel generators are displaced. The more renewables there are, the greater this effect becomes. But this in turn leads to a number of unintended consequences.
First, lower market prices undermine the business case for the flexible fossil fuel generators that Germany will continue to need for many years to come, to provide power when renewables can’t. Right now, many of these plants can no longer earn a sufficient price to repay their costs, threatening further investment.
Second, although in Germany a lower wholesale price doesn’t currently affect the profitability of renewable generators (as they receive a guaranteed price for their electricity and can therefore pay back their high capital costs regardless), it does mean that the surcharge on German consumer bills must rise to cover the difference.
All in all, a new market design is needed. Solutions abound, but how they will work is currently the subject of intense debate in Germany.
People power and jobs are essential to maintaining public support
Superficially at least, the Energiewende is costing money. Subsidies to wind and solar power in Germany are met through a surcharge on consumer bills, and this has increased over time so that it now constitutes around a fifth of the price regular consumers pay for their electricity.
Yet despite this, Germans remain committed to their energy transition. And whilst some changes are expected after the federal elections this September, not one of the main parties is calling the Energiewende itself into question.
One reason for this is the extent to which ordinary Germans are benefitting from the expansion in renewables. For example, almost half the country’s renewable power capacity is owned by private citizens, meaning that for many Germans the supplement they pay out through their bills is later paid back through investment returns. Profits stay in local and often poor rural areas (see BBC’s recent Costing the Earth programme for more on this).
Another reason, according to Andraes Kraemer, a leading Energiewende thinker, is that the move to renewables is widely acknowledged as a major driver of economic development. Over 400,000 German jobs are now supported by the sector, Kraemer says, and once tax receipts and social security savings are counted, renewable subsidies are actually “fiscally positive” overall.
There will be difficult choices as to where the burden of costs fall
But even if the Energiewende is “fiscally positive” overall, the cost side of the equation must be met by someone, and where this burden falls is increasingly contested.
Currently, many energy intensive industries in Germany are exempt from the renewable supplement on bills, with normal domestic and business consumers paying more than they otherwise would. For this reason, many are now calling for industry to pay a greater share.
However increasing production costs for industry could be a risky strategy for a country whose economy is oriented towards manufacturing and exports. The advent of large scale shale gas production and falling energy prices in the US has intensified this debate, with the Federation of German Industries recently voicing concerns that German firms are already suffering from high energy prices and could be out-competed in the future if current trends continue.
Whichever way you look at it, the issue of cost is establishing itself as a central element to the energy debate in Germany. Addressing it fairly may be no easy task, but will be essential in maintaining widespread public and political support for the Energiewende.
Sam Friggens is a writer for renewable energy funding platform Abundance Generation. You can follow him on Twitter: @Sam_Friggens. This article was written with advice and assistance from Christoph Senz from ProCom GmbH, and originally appeared on EnergyPost.eu.
Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?
Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?
But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?
The Big Picture
The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.
That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.
One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.
There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.
As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.
Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.
Make and Model of Car
Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.
On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.
The Bottom Line
Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?
Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.
New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035
New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.
New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.
Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.
Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”
The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.
Zero net emissions by 2050
Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.
Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.
She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.
Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”
A worldwide shift to renewable energy
Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.
Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.
Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.
Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.
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