Tue.
Jan 18
2022
Image: Sungrow EMEA via Unsplash.

Germany is aiming for greenhouse gas neutrality by 2045, but achieving this target will mean drastically re-thinking its energy roadmap.

The exit from nuclear, planned for the end of 2022, will confront Germany with a difficult choice: invest more in natural gas or burn more coal until its renewable capacity is great enough to cover the gap left by nuclear reactors. The International Energy Agency recently announced that global coal power generation is expected to hit a record high this year, and Germany risks following the trend if it cannot diversify its energy mix.

A slew of closures is on the horizon for Germany’s energy industry. By the end of 2022, the country plans to have switched off its last 8.1GW of nuclear power. Coal is due to follow in short order, with 6.4GW of coal power coming off the grid by 2023. Closures can be an expensive business: it will cost €600 million to decommission the Rheinsberg nuclear plant, according to Clean Energy Wire, and the question of where to dispose of the nuclear waste remains open. Coal is no less costly, with power company RWE set to receive 2.6 billion euros from the government for shutting down its plants by the end of 2029. Compensation packages for workers also need to be considered, as does the cost to the economy of lost jobs.

Nonetheless, support for a transition remains strong, and with good reason. A clean energy supply would represent not only an ecological boost for Germany, but also a diplomatic, economic and technological advantage. It would also provide a valuable opportunity to recover from the embarrassment of 2011, when Germany shut down almost half of its nuclear plants and compensated in large part by ramping up coal capacity.

Shortfalls

Those who oppose the shutdown of nuclear and coal plants cite the risks of shortfalls and blackouts. In 2018, Germany’s energy industry association BDEW warned against relying on neighbouring countries for energy supply, predicting that Germany would be confronted with a “shortfall in secured capacity by 2023 at the latest”. Now, the head of BDEW is arguing for new gas-fired plants, saying they’re the only viable way to produce power throughout the year, not contingent upon weather conditions.

This argument is a familiar one, and it’s not entirely baseless. The soaring gas prices in Europe this year have provided a timely warning against rushing the transition to renewables, reminding Europe that it still depends heavily on hydrocarbons.

But a carefully managed increase of renewables in the energy mix could help avoid nightmare blackout scenarios. Germany has already embarked on this process – its capacity of wind, biogas, and solar energy installations increased tenfold from 2000 to 2020 and now stands at 132GW. Now, the country just has to finish what it started.

Energy integration

One way to avoid power outages is to collaborate with neighbouring countries. Germany generates a lot of wind energy in the north of the country, but the amount produced is seasonal, entirely dependent on the weather. Renewable energy can’t be stored for a long time, so it makes sense for Germany to export some of its surplus in windy seasons and import renewable energy from elsewhere when it’s calm. Many cables allowing the exchange of renewable energy have already been built, including NordLink, which will allow Germany to swap its wind and solar power for Norway’s hydroelectric energy when demand is high. It can power 3.6 million German households, according to grid operator TenneT.

This system can and should be expanded, so that Germany can benefit from Austria’s hydroelectric power and Czechia’s solar power, for example. According to the German energy ministry, an integrated European system could save member states up to 60GW in national capacity per year. Germany is dragging its heels in this regard and has still not reached the EU target of being able to export 15% of the electricity it produces to other countries.

With the Green Party an important part of Germany’s new governing coalition, the environment is set to increasingly dominate the agenda in the Bundestag. It seems symbolic that climate change took center stage. in Olaf Scholz’s first briefing to parliament earlier this week. But with the government’s current plan hinging on the electrification of all sectors, it must now turn its attention to how that electricity is being produced if it really wants to clean up its act.

By Theo Normanton

Theo Normanton is a blogger and freelance journalist covering tech and the circular economy.

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