Why Germany should leave coal behind

by John Brian Shannon

Germany, a thriving economic powerhouse under the Chancellorship of Angela Merkel, is also a renewable energy superstar and a country that is loaded with potential.

Lately, the Germans have taken a break from aggressively adding renewable energy to their grid by ending a lucrative feed-in-tariff (FiT) subsidy program that ramped-up the adoption of solar, wind and biomass installations across the country.

Not that these so-called ‘lucrative’ subsidies approached anywhere near what fossil fuel and nuclear power plant operators receive and have received since the postwar period began, as all energy in Germany (like most countries) is heavily subsidized by taxpayers but only the (much smaller) renewable energy subsidies get the headlines. Go figure.

Chancellor Angela Merkel made the courageous decision to accelerate the shutdown Germany’s nuclear power plants in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster in 2011 after stress tests of German nuclear power plants showed safety concerns existed within the their nuclear fleet. She ushered in meaningful FiT subsidies to speed the German Energiewende program towards its goal of transition to renewable energy and greater energy efficiency — which had received only sporadic subsidies prior to Merkel.

Snapshot of the German Energiewende program

  • A popular Germany-only program to move towards a highly industrialized, sustainable green economy
  • Full phase-out of nuclear energy by 2022
  • 80-95% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050
  • Minimum of 80% renewables in the power sector
  • 50% increase in energy efficiency by 2050

Germany’s utility companies haven’t seen change like this since WWII. After a century of serving conventionally-generated electrical power to a captive electricity market — approximately 1/3 of all German electricity is now generated via renewable energy if you also include biomass and hydro-power. That’s historic change by any standard.

Germany-renewable-energy-power-capacity at October 29, 2014 Fraunhofer Institute image

Although solar panel outputs are lower during the winter months, over the summer of 2014 renewable energy generated more than 75% of total demand on many of those days. Not bad, for 5 years of relatively minor renewable energy subsidy euros provided by a (now ended) Feed-in-Tariff!

Germany renewable energy generation for the first 10 months of 2014 courtesy of the Fraunhofer Institute

Another benefit of the switch to renewable energy was the added billions of euros of economic activity generated annually by European solar panel and wind manufacturing companies like Vestas, SolarWorld, Siemens, ABB, and the jobs created for hundreds of SME renewable energy installation companies in the country.

Exports of German solar panels and wind turbines went through the stratosphere once Germany proved to the world that solar and wind could replace lost nuclear power generation capacity at a much lower cost than building new, multi-billion euro, nuclear or coal-fired power plants with their massive footprint on the land and their obscene water usage levels.

Germany renewable energy power generation change (in absolute terms) for the first 10 months of 2014 compared to the first 10 months of 2013. Image courtesy of the Fraunhofer Institute

For Germany, installing their own solar, wind and biomass power plants proved to the world that large-scale renewable energy could add huge capacity to a nation’s electrical grid and that different types of renewable energy could work together to balance the over-hyped ‘intermittency problem’ of renewable energy.

It turns out that in Germany, during the long, hot days of summer when solar panels are putting out their maximum power the wind actually tapers off — but at night the wind blows at a very reliable rate. Karmic bonus! That about covers the summer months.

During the winter months in Germany, the wind blows day and night and adds significant amounts of reliable power to the national grid.

Germany solar and wind energy are complementary, helping to stabilize the German electricity grid without adding pollution to the air. Image courtesy of the Fraunhofer Institute

And now, all of that renewable energy capacity is operating without FiT subsidy — quite unlike the coal, nuclear, and oil and gas power generation in the country which require huge and ongoing subsidies every day of the year to continue operations. That’s every day since 1946, meine Freunde!

Also a factor with nuclear and coal-fired power plants are the healthcare spending to combat the adverse health effects of fossil fuel burning/air pollution on humans and animals, on the agriculture sector, and the huge security infrastructure that is necessary to counter the potential theft of nuclear materials, to defeat possible nuclear terrorism and prevent nuclear proliferation.

While the rest of Europe (with the exception of notables like Norway, Sweden and Luxembourg) wallowed in recession or near-recession since 2008, the German economic powerhouse not only set global export records year-on-year, it bailed-out numerous other EU economies like Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and others, and began an unprecedented domestic renewable energy program. And now, Germany is an electricity net exporter.

That’s heady stuff, even for this industrious nation of 82 million.

Germany imports and exports of electricity 2001-2014. Image courtesy of the Fraunhofer Institute

Where to next?

Not only has Germany added many TeraWatt hours (TWh) of clean, renewable energy to its electrical grid to replace lost nuclear power generation, it is now an electricity net exporter — raking in multi-millions of euros per year at present — and make that an electricity exporting superpower if they ever decide to revive their now defunct Feed-in-Tariff subsidy for renewable energy.

Replacing coal with renewable energy in Germany:

If Germany revived the previous FiT regime for 5 more years, *all lignite-fired (brown coal) electrical power generation* could be eliminated within 10 years.

If Germany revived the previous FiT regime for 10 more years, *all coal-fired electrical power generation* (not just lignite coal) could be eliminated within 10 years.

Replacing coal with renewable energy in Germany would save millions of Germans (and Polish, Swiss, Austrians, and others living downwind of German smokestacks) from breathing toxic lignite-fired air pollution. Think of the health care savings and the taxes that must support it, especially as their demographic ages. Some people believe that the health care savings alone could far exceed the cost of any FiT subsidy.

Not only that, but as a result of leaving coal behind, historic buildings, concrete bridges and roadways would require less maintenance to repair the spalling caused by the acid rain from coal burning. Additionally, Germany would save the millions of litres of water consumed annually by the coal industry.

Replacing coal with renewable energy in Germany would create thousands more jobs for solar, wind, and biomass manufacturing and construction. And the agriculture sector would begin to show ever-improving crop outputs. And, clean air for all visitors, expats and German citizens to breathe!

A note about (renewable energy) Hybrid power plants

So-called Hybrid power plants offer the best of both worlds in the renewable energy space by providing plenty of electricity day and night. This Hybrid power plant uses solar panels and wind turbines, while others can incorporate biomass or hydro-electricity dams, along with wind or solar, or both.
Hybrid power plants provide electricity day and night.

An energy policy stroke of genius for Germany could come in the form of a new subsidy (a FiT or other type of subsidy) that could be offered to promote the installation of Hybrid power plants — whereby 30% of electricity generated at a given power plant site would come from solar and the balance could come from any combination of wind, biomass, or hydro-electric generation. (30% solar + 70% various renewable = 100% of total per site output)

As long as all of the electrical power generation at a site is renewable energy and it works to balance the intermittency of solar power — it should qualify for the (hereby proposed) Energiewende Hybrid Power Plant subsidy.

When all the different types of renewable energy work in complementary fashion on the same site, energy synergy (the holy grail of the renewable energy industry) will be attained.

More jobs, billions of euros worth of electricity exports to the European countries bordering Germany, better agricultural outputs, lower health care spending and less environmental damage — all at a lower subsidy level than coal and nuclear have enjoyed for decades — are precisely why Germans should renew their commitment to renewable energy.

Seriously, what’s not to like?

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G20 Brisbane 2014 Hints at Eliminating Fossil Fuel Subsidies

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As the G20 Brisbane 2014 wraps up, leaders discussed the eventual elimination of the massive global subsidies paid to the fossil fuel industry which topped some $600 billion dollars last year, slightly more than last year’s $550 billion and 2012′s $500 billion.

Meanwhile, non-polluting renewable energy continues to receive peanuts — well under $100 billion dollars worldwide in 2014.

At the G20 Brisbane 2014 Summit leaders discussed elimination of the massive $600 billion dollars subsidy paid to the fossil fuel industry in 2014.
At the G20 Brisbane 2014 Summit leaders discussed elimination of the massive $600 billion dollars subsidy paid to the fossil fuel industry in 2014.

Clean energy does have it’s detractors, similar to the criticisms by the detractors of aircraft travel 100 years ago when people traveled by ship or by train. But, “The times, they are a changin’,” rings true in this century too!

“We do it this way, because we’ve always done it this way,” is no longer good enough. The fossil fuel industry provides the fuel for the world’s transportation industry and it is the most heavily subsidized industry on the planet and has been given carte blanche to operate in any way it sees fit.

Fine. We needed the oil. Whatever has taken place was done with our tacit approval. But with the very real effects of climate change now becoming clearer to us with each passing year, not to mention the more poignant effects on human health by breathing polluted air and drinking fracked water, fossil now requires a relook.

It’s not just climate and individual health concerns that are driving the discussion, health care systems around the world are now realizing that a good portion of disease and mortality are directly relatable to the environment. In major industrialized nations, billions of dollars in health care dollars are spent to repair the damage to people’s health from fossil fuel emissions. It’s not a few billion ‘here and there’ it may be as high as 1/3rd of all health care spending in the world’s most industrialized nations.

The cost of fossil is becoming a very large number for even the richest countries

  • Climate: For each 1 degree of climate increase the world will spend 1 trillion dollars to counter drought, sea level rise, abnormal storm activity and land remediation.
  • Health: Our sophisticated health care systems can now argue with statistical proof that fossil fuel burning contributes to human mortality and disease in a much more precise manner than in decades past.
  • Costs: $600 billion dollars in subsides is a lot for the world’s nations to bear. And that number continues to grow each year as all of the ‘easy oil’ and ‘easy gas’ is already tapped and locations with special extraction methods must be employed.

From the G20 Energy Sustainability Working Group 2014, Co-chair’s Report

Inefficient fossil fuel subsidies

G20 members reported to G20 finance ministers in September on their progress towards meeting the G20 commitment, initially made at the 2009 Pittsburgh summit and reaffirmed at subsequent summits, to “ rationalize and phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption over the medium term ”. The ESWG benefitted from updates on the preparations for the first round of voluntary peer reviews involving the United States and China. A second round of voluntary peer reviews involving other G20 countries is expected to commence in mid – 2015. Germany has announced it will participate in the second round.

In response to a request from leaders at the 2013 Saint Petersburg summit, the ESWG tasked the World Bank Group, in consultation with other relevant international organisations, to prepare a report on transitional policies to assist the poor while phasing out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption. The World Bank Group provided regular updates to the ESWG through the year and the final report was delivered to finance ministers in September. — Read the full report here.

It looks like ‘business as usual’ is headed for change in the energy industry

Only fossil fuel superpowers Australia (coal), Canada (coal, oil, tar-sands petroleum, fracked gas and conventional gas, deepsea oil extraction), and Saudi Arabia (oil), alone out of the G20 did not see fit to endorse the Energy Sustainability Working Group 2014 report.

No surprise there. However, the day is coming when the costs of not switching to clean energy will far exceed the costs of switching. If all energy subsidies were magically and instantly removed — that day would be today.