Germany’s gargantuan commitment to renewable energy (30,000-plus wind turbines and the world’s third-largest solar capacity) is intended to point the way to a sustainable low-carbon future.
This comprehensive energy policy was consolidated in 2010 and termed the “energiewende,” meaning energy turning. It set a number of ambitious targets, including a reduction of 40 per cent in greenhouse gas emissions from the 1990 level by 2020, and 70 per cent by 2040. Also, after Japan’s Fukushima disaster, it was decided to shut all nuclear plants by 2022, a task now half completed. Environmentalists were ecstatic.
But should they be? In recent years, a slew of new, state-of-the-art, coal-fired power stations have sprouted, with another slated to open this year. Puzzlingly, power companies have invested billions of euros in new plants with service lives of 50 years or more, knowing from the nuclear example they can be closed at any time and that coal is incompatible with the energiewende. What gives?
It seems the electrical power industry believes the closing of dependable nuclear plants makes coal indispensable. And the German state’s administrative arm apparently agrees, given its sanctioning of the new coal plants. The rationale is they replace inefficient and more polluting plants, but these upgraded plants undeniably signal a long-term role for coal.
The actions of Germany’s power companies and energy bureaucracy is understandable for both financial and operational reasons.
The three jurisdictions with the highest proportion of electrical energy obtained from wind and sun – Denmark, the state of South Australia, and Germany, all getting more than a quarter of their electricity from these sources (Ontario’s figure is six per cent) – have the highest domestic prices on the planet, at 45 cents Canadian a kilowatt-hour, give or take a cent or two. That’s more than twice what Ontarians pay. The high costs of wind and solar energy clearly make it difficult to implement the energiewende while keeping rates affordable.
Another problem is the unreliability and uncontrollability of wind and solar make it difficult to match supply to demand and can undermine grid stability.
Batteries could, in principle, alleviate these difficulties, but they are so costly that no jurisdiction anywhere uses them in a significant manner. True, South Australia paid $50 million for the world’s largest battery installation (made by Tesla Inc.), but since it can store only five minutes’ worth of its total wind turbine capacity, it hardly counts as significant.
And what to do about solar, which in Germany delivers six times more in July than in January?
Absent batteries, wind and solar farms must be complemented by dependable energy sources. Germany won’t dam its pristine Alpine valleys to generate hydroelectricity, has spurned nuclear power, and is understandably leery of over-dependence on Russian gas. This leaves coal as the primary complementary source, which is why new coal-fired plants are still being commissioned. Last year, nearly 40 per cent of Germany’s electricity derived from coal.
Comparing the German and Ontario systems from an environmental perspective is most revealing. Astonishingly, by my calculations, Germany emits more than 20 times more planet-warming carbon dioxide per generated kilowatt-hour than does Ontario. And of course Germany’s numerous coal-fired power plants emit substantial pollution of a kind Ontarians are spared. Given this, plus the fact that Germany’s electricity costs more than twice Ontario’s, it speaks volumes about environmentalists’ misguided priorities that they applaud Germany’s emphasis on wind and solar energy and decry Ontario’s strong reliance on nuclear power.
The energiewende’s portents are not encouraging. Based on present trends, its 2020 greenhouse gas reduction target will be missed by a wide margin. It will be fascinating to see how much longer the German public will tolerate exorbitant and ever increasing electricity tariffs, minimal progress in curbing greenhouse gas emissions, and polluted air.
Failure of the energiewende would have global implications, since it would undermine the common wisdom that wind and solar energy are suited to be the future primary inputs in electrical power generation.
Germany’s decision to close its nuclear power program and make a big foray into wind and solar energy was driven by orthodox environmentalist ideology. The same could be said of Ontario’s venture into wind energy, though thankfully it is on a much smaller scale than Germany’s. And to its credit, the Ontario government opted to refurbish, not close, our aging nuclear reactors.
John Beeckmans is professor emeritus in engineering at Western University.
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