Germany’s Energiewende seems to be the global litmus test for all renewables, no-nuclear future. Whatever the final suite of outcomes, no one will be able to say the Germans didn’t try very hard.
They have been trying, very hard indeed, to eliminate their dependence on nuclear electricity, maintain a stable and reliable grid with affordable electricity, and meet targets for reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
For a while there it all seemed to be going pear-shaped. Greenhouse gas emissions were rising, year on year.
Then, in year ending 2014, emissions from the electricity sector dropped, sharply, by 16 megatonnes CO2-e. Victory is being claimed in some circles for the Energiewende. This is highly premature to say the least, and disgustingly perverse to say the most.
What was behind this sudden drop? It was profound, and strongly breaking from the developing trend of the previous four years.
It helps to take matters back a step.
Since year ending 2010 to year ending 2014, (the period of sudden nuclear closure) Germany has reduced output of electricity from the nuclear sector by about 43 TWh per year.
In the corresponding period they have increased output from the overall renewable sector by 55.8 TWh per year. So they have more than covered it in terms of simple output. In principle (if closing nuclear is what you care about) so far so good.
In that same period, to year ending 2014:
- Brown coal is up 9.9 TWh
- Black coal is down 8 TWh
- Gas is down 31 TWh
- Fossil oil down 2.7 TWh
That’s 55.8 TWh added in renewables, and 75.3 TWh lost in nuclear and fossil.
But a huge amount of that decline in fossil happened in the year-ending 2014 alone. When you look at just the change from year-ending 2013 to year-ending 2014, you can see Germany put on a new 8.2 TWh in renewable generation, and dropped 28.4 TWh across fossil (and a tiny bit in nuclear) compared with 2013. That leaves 20.2 TWh that has disappeared, handily, from fossil fuels, giving a drop in emissions of about 16 Mt CO2-e in the electricity sector for year-ending 2014. Why?
The 2013/2014 winter was Germany’s fourth warmest winter on record, a record stretching to 1881, and 2014 was Germany’s hottest year on record. This is broadly acknowledged as the source of the decline in energy demand. That was the source of the decline in emissions.
It’s an anomaly, in other words, though one that may recur more frequently with climate change. It’s not victory to Energiewende; it’s respite for advocates who finally get some figures to lean on.
But that is where the perversity of all this really comes in. No matter how you slice it this is nothing to be proud of. Germany has been going full speed on renewables and in the process has displaced 43 TWh of clean generation. In climate terms, it has spent four years running to stand still.
The same Teutonic fervour directed against Germany’s seemingly entrenched lignite sector would mean we could all now be grateful for more than just a weather-driven dip in emissions from the electricity sector.
We could be celebrating a permanent cut of an extra 50 megatonnes per year of CO2-e from the German power sector that has nothing to do with the weather. We could be watching a new model of mixed-technology decarbonisation take shape from which the rest of us could learn. A new case study to add to places like France, Sweden and Ontario.
Instead, it’s Atomkraft? Nein danke! Policy by platitude. We can look forward to more of the same for 2015, as new renewables fill the gap left by the prematurely closed Grafenrheinfeld 1275 MWe reactor. The new renewable capacity required to replace it could be instead permanently cutting another 10 megatonnes CO2-e per year from Germany’s electricity sector, were it closing dirty brown coal. Germany decided to piss that opportunity up a wall.
As for the renewables, 25 % of the new capacity since year ending 2010 is biomass, which is now running as baseload. That is not a model of decarbonisation that can be sustainably scaled-up.
Where the Energiewende ends remains to be seen. However I will say this with confidence: the decision to embrace lignite above fission, at a juncture where we needed strong action on climate change, was and will forever remain a monumental travesty, perpetrated by people of privilege.