Germany's transition to renewable energy is a huge project. Never before has the power system of an industrialized country been so extensively upgraded. The project offers opportunities for environmental protection, the economy, and citizen participation - but there are many challenges ahead.
People in many countries have stickers and posters that show a red smiling sun and a slogan that says “Nuclear Power? No thanks!” A symbol of the global protest against nuclear power for decades, the red sun may soon be a thing of the past — at least in Germany, whose government plans to phase out all of the nation’s nuclear power plants by 2022. Among other things, this policy is a response to the nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan, in March 2011. Germany’s energy transition also includes plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent relative to 1990 levels between now and 2050, increase the share of energy from renewable sources in the electricity mix to 80 percent, and implement major energy efficiency improvements.
It sounds great. Lower emissions help fight climate change and greater efficiency will save money and conserve resources. The energy transition also offers great opportunities for industry because the highly efficient technologies needed to implement it can open up new markets around the world. But there are also tremendous challenges involved. For example, Germany will need to replace the combined 20-gigawatt output from its fleet of nuclear power plants in less than ten years — mainly by expanding renewable energy sources. A lot has already been accomplished. For instance, the share of electricity from renewable sources increased from 16 to around 20 percent between 2010 and 2011. But the real challenge is reliability of supply. After all, electricity from the wind and the sun is dependent on the weather, which means that output fluctuates sharply.
Modernization without Interruptions. It’s a huge project — one that marks new territory for policymakers, electricity providers, infrastructure suppliers, and the public. “That’s mainly because the energy transition is not about building a new system from scratch — it’s about modernizing a working system while it continues to operate,” says Dr. Udo Niehage, who is in charge of energy transition issues at Siemens. “Moreover, all of this must be done in a country in which even the slightest blackout can cause huge economic damage.”
The energy transition cannot be achieved just by increasing the use of renewable sources and introducing energy-saving technologies. The key is to implement a number of measures that fit together perfectly like the pieces of a puzzle. For example, there has to be greater use of energy from renewable sources at competitive prices and, at the same time, the power transmission and distribution grids also have to be expanded. The same applies to the development of energy-storage technology and energy-efficient solutions for conventional power plants, buildings, transport systems, and industry. Intelligent financing options need to be made available to private citizens, cities, and regions — and all these measures must be implemented within the framework of reliable long-term conditions yet to be established by policymakers.
“Achieving these goals will require extensive cooperation on the part of everyone involved,” says Niehage. “The whole process must be closely coordinated at the federal level, preferably by a single agency. This is especially true with regard to expansion of the grid. For instance, electricity produced at wind farms in northern Germany will have to be transported to major consumer centers in the south.” An initial step in this direction was taken in June 2012, when the German federal government and the country’s major electricity suppliers published a grid development plan that provides the key data for this huge project. The plan calls for up to four new transmission routes to be built from north to south.
So is the energy transition proceeding as planned? “Very good technical solutions have now been developed for nearly all the areas in which measures need to be taken — but technical feasibility isn’t everything,” Niehage explains.
“Another important factor for the success of the project is public acceptance.” That’s anything but a given. It’s true that the goals of the energy transition have won broad acceptance among the German people and across all political parties. The German Renewable Energies Agency also reports that 75 percent of Germans would like their electricity to come from renewable sources. Nevertheless, many Germans feel the government is making decisions without consulting them — on issues like where to build new power masts, which of course nobody wants in their backyard.
The Customer is King. The social dimension of the energy transition also needs to be kept in mind. Many Germans fear that electricity might become more expensive. After all, the country’s Renewable Energy Act (EEG) stipulates that higher rates and fees must be paid for electricity fed into the grid from renewables. The fees are basically a consumer subsidy for renewables. Subsidies for photovoltaic facilities (PV), for example, have generated over €100 billion in costs for consumers due to the EEG stipulations — despite the fact that PV plants only account for three percent of all the electricity produced in Germany.
That’s one of the reasons why the average annual electric bill for private households in Germany rose by around 25 percent between 2007 and 2012, putting a major burden on low earners and seniors in particular. According to the Die WELT newspaper, up to 15 percent of the German population is now struggling with continually rising energy costs. The government, energy suppliers, and industry must work together to develop solutions here. “We’re already working hard on technological innovations that not only can make electricity from renewable sources as cheap as power from coal, but can also transform buildings and factories into energy misers,” says Niehage. Factories in particular need to factor in the value of cost-cutting technologies because “the industrial sector is worried that sharply rising electricity costs could make manufacturing in Germany too expensive.”
Still, most Germans seem to agree on the most important point — namely that the energy transition is crucial. The main concern is that it should not become a money pit. There also needs to be more transparency and more information in order to move away from an emotionally charged atmosphere to a rational environment in which decisions can be implemented. That such a scenario is possible is being demonstrated by citizen initiatives that operate their own wind farms and are thus already part of the energy transition. After all, when the country’s citizens become the driving force behind this massive project, there won’t be any need for protest logos like a smiling red sun.