Green Energy in Germany, How’s it Really Going?

Guest blog by S. A. Shelley: With so much talk about Green New Deals (U.S.A.) and a Green Way Forward (Canada) these days, I thought it might be worth looking at the poster child for green energy, Germany and its frequently lauded Energiewende . Way back in 1971, the Germans started thinking about ways to shift their energy mix in order to promote sustained economic prosperity, especially, at that time, in the face of Global authoritarian (communist) threats. It was necessary then to find ways to reduce West Germany’s dependence on the Soviet bloc for energy supplies. After all, in case of war, one cannot expect one’s enemy to continue supplying fuel for one’s tanks and jet fighters.

However it wasn’t until the late 1990s and early 2000s that the Germans, now unified, began making a significant push into Energiewende. After the Fukishima disaster, groups of social activists added the urgent demand to get rid of nuclear as quickly as possible.

Change in Electricity Production

Examining what happened to Germany’s electricity production seems to confirm that the Germans have indeed managed to get on track with their Energiewende’s objectives, of reduced reliance upon foreign suppliers and of reducing their climate impact in terms of CO2 emissions. Looking at German electricity production by source (Fig. 1 – sources: energy-charts, cleanenergywire.org) confirms the success that Germans have had introducing wind energy into their mix, and in removing nuclear (uranium) from the supply.

Not shown in Fig. 1 is electricity generated by other small sources, such as biofuels and hydropower which contribute the remainder of German electricity.

In addition to national sources of production, Germany is connected to the larger central European power grid and Germany can import or export electrical power between its neighbors such as Poland, Austria or France. I looked at those import – export figures for the last 10 years and there has been no significant change in the direction or volume of electricity flows, so the Germans are not cheating by purchasing electricity produced by nuclear power in France.

What can also be seen in Figure 1 is how quickly the Germans reacted to the Fukishima disaster by shutting nuclear (uranium) power. But what’s most impressive is the significant rise in power generated by wind turbines since 2015 while coal (hard and brown) has declined in almost the same proportion. This suggests that Germany’s Energiewende is achieving the goal of moving away from fossil fuels.

Or is it?

There are two problems going forward with the Energiewende:

1) Germans have hit wind turbine saturation with NIMBYism starting to limit where wind turbines can be sited and installed, with estimates of 12,000 local resistance groups fighting new wind energy installations now.

2) There still is no nationally significant means of storing electrical energy generated by wind turbines

There are a few additional problems arising, such as insufficient grid network capable of transferring windy power from the north to the south, but this type of grid network problem is common to a lot of nations and I’ll just skip over it for now.

Unexpectedly and quietly, the Germans have also been increasing imports of natural gas (Fig. 2 – source: ceicdata.com).

In the period from 2009 to 2018, while wind energy electricity production grew by 160%, natural gas imports grew by 50%. Looking at the nuclear option in Fig. 1, one can see that in the same period the Germans reduced their nuclear power by about 50%. In effect, for every three wind turbines put up in Germany, they had to import an extra unit of natural gas. Furthermore, they replaced stable, baseload energy from nuclear with varying wind energy in about the same proportion. Swapping energy sources is rarely a one-to-one matter.

Hence, in spite of incredible government support for renewable energy, the German government has also been a stalwart supporter of the NordStream 2 pipeline which will bring more gas into Germany directly from Russia. But I’ll have more to say about this in a couple later paragraphs and another Canadian energy blog in about a month or two.

The S-Curve for German Renewable Wind Energy

S-curves, or as readers in Mississippi call them, crooked-letter curves, are wonderful charts that economists and futurists like to point to when explaining or predicting changes in behavior (reduction in smoking in a society) or adaption of new gadgets, like color television sets in households. S-curves also appear in such things as epidemiology and as the pandemic shows, efforts can be undertaken to change the shape of the S-curve, flatten it or eventually kill it off completely with a vaccine.

In a capitalist, free market and innovative society, S-curves can be affected by competition. If one looks at the early S-curve projections for Blackberry or Nokia phones, it would have seemed inevitable that those technologies were destined to achieve over 90% of household saturation. But then someone invented the Apple I-Phone. 

In a natural state, S-curves are subject to physical resource limits. This has often been observed when new species are introduced into islands. At first the population grows following an S-curve trajectory but eventually it grows no more because of physical limits, the ability of the island to support the population density. Which brings me back to Germany and the question about what the S-curve for German renewables looks like going into the future.  Up until now, the vast bulk of German wind farms have been built onshore and in the northern half of the country plus a bit offshore (Fig. 3 – source: strom-report).

Fig. 3 German Wind Power Distribution

In order for Germany to completely divest from all remaining coal and uranium electricity production (43% in 2019), Germany will need to double its wind power generating capacity (24.5% in 2019) going forward. Add in another 10.3% of gas in the power mix and wind power generating capacity will need to more than double. That’s a problem because local political pressure is mounting and is preventing wind farms from being established in the remaining turbine free areas of Germany. In effect, Germany has run out of space for wind farms.

The S-curve for wind power in Germany is not yet complete, but the question is, what will it eventually look like?  I plotted two possible S-Curves (Fig. 4), taking into account historical data along with required green goals and probable achievable in the face of the two problems of growing political opposition and the natural geographic limits to wind energy in Germany.

There are a couple of possible solutions to NIMBYism, namely the Germans can move further in the North and Baltic seas with more wind farms, which they are already doing. But, as with land installations, objections by fishing groups and others are growing and political curtailment could eventually arise in the oceans as well. Germany it seems is stuck between land and the ocean with not enough of either to build all the wind farms that it needs.  The second solution is repowering older turbine sites, but at best that might increase by 5%, still well below of what’s required for Germany to replace all fossil fueled power with renewables.

At What Cost?

Another problem with the Energiewende is that nobody knows for certain to the last Euro how much the Energiewende has cost to date and how much more it will cost to reach even 50% of electricity production in the next ten years or so (thegwpf.com, wsj.com). This surprises me for the Germans had a reputation for exactness and extensive records on everything. But for some reason Government, Industry and Social Justice Groups in Germany can’t agree on the cost for the Energiewnede.  Amounts of 250 billion Euro spent to date on government costs alone are bantered about while simultaneously being acknowledged as too low.

German Natural Gas Consumption

Astute readers may have noticed that I haven’t said much about the fact that even though natural gas imports are rising, German electricity production by natural gas has remained relatively constant. This is because natural gas is being mostly used to supplant coal based heating. A lot of German buildings and homes, especially in the Eastern part were heated by coal and much of the natural gas being imported now is being used to replace coal heating. However, if the Germans start to hit an S-curve limit, I could see them turning to gas fired generators for electricity production. Hence, another reason for the unwavering commitment of Germany to the Nordstream 2 pipeline. Presently, Germany gets about 40% of its natural gas from Russia. When Nordstream 2 comes on stream, both the natural gas from Russia as well as the political indifference will increase. In this sense, the Germans have failed to achieve the 1971 objective to prevent possible political interference and develop energy security.

German CO2 Emissions: The Paradox and the Conundrum

Here’s the really surprising part. In spite of large numbers of wind turbines added to the German energy mix, the amount of CO2 emissions did not see a significant decline when compared to the years before wind turbine installation (Fig. 5).

Germany has been reducing CO2 emissions at a fairly constant rate since 1971.  Looking between 1971 to 1991, a time when there were virtually no wind farms of any size in Germany, CO2 emissions were being reduced at the same rate as between 2001 to 2019 when wind farms really began to take off in Germany (in Fig. 5 I assume that wind share of electricity generated is a proxy for number of wind turbines installed). It seems then that adding more green energy doesn’t seem to have an effect on CO2 emission. Oh no, a paradox!

Perhaps then, economists, woke environmentalists and politicians need to reexamine what really works in reducing CO2 emissions. Of course, shutting coal plants will work, and we”ve seen that in the United States. But it could also be that switching to more efficient technologies (higher mileage vehicles, lower energy lighting and heating) may have had a substantial effect on German CO2 reduction. Which raises the question, apart from electrical power production, what good are wind farms in Germany?

Here’s another uncomfortable fact. Looking at CO2 emission data around the times of major economic upheavals, for example the 2008 – 2009 financial collapse, shows that Co2 emissions fell significantly during those times of contracted economic activity. In fact, we’re seeing the same effect now with the COVID pandemic. This suggests that killing economic activity is the fastest was to reduce CO2 emissions. Oh no, a conundrum!

Trigger Warning

Germany deserves to be commended on its technical achievement of all that wind energy installed. Yet in terms of the goals of the Energiewende, Germany has failed on two critical elements: eliminating fossil fuels and establishing energy independence. It also seems that the goal of reducing CO2 emissions has been total unaffected by the addition of wind farms. Regrettably now it seems that Germany will soon hit a wall of wind farm saturation. Let’s see if Germany can figure things out and prove everyone wrong in the next 10 years.

The lesson to other nations, politicians and environmental crusaders is this: Simple fixes fix simple things, but a complex society cannot be fixed with simple thinking. As identified in this blog there are paradoxes and conundrums that are not easily resolved. As argued in prior blogs, energy matters require long term vision, planning and understanding. Politicians in the democracies don’t have the patience to cultivate or understand long term vision, and their planning is most often limited to electioneering. Environmental wonks most often lack understanding and are very quick to dismiss complex issues that do not agree with their simplistic pre-conceptions.

It seems these days that energy policy is being driven by self-interested mobs, one in the halls of government led by self-entitled ideologues, the other in the streets emboldened by uninformed arrogance. If reason is not introduced into the discussion then apart from the political elite class, societies will soon enough see reductions in standards of living and quality of life for everyone.

Vive l’Alberta Libre! 

Vive le Shetlands Libre!