Dr Paul Dorfman summarises how Europe is striding towards clean energy, especially in light of Germany's significant progress.
Energy drives our world, global warming is ramping, and transition to a low-carbon economy will involve major structural change to the way we source, produce, manage, use, and conserve energy. So, how do we do it ?
Well, Germany (Europe’s dominant electricity user) has made its choice. Its decision to phase out nuclear power by 2022 and to invest in renewables, efficiency measures, grid infrastructure and energy storage, is a game-changer. Clean energy from wind, solar and biomass is generating windfall sales for German power exports, with a very recent report by the Fraunhofer ISE institute showing that net sales this year may grow to as much as 2 billion Euros. Underpinning this surplus is a surge in renewable energy. True to form, German nuclear generation shrank by 41 terawatt-hours to 92 terawatt-hours in the four years through 2014 while clean energy grew to 138 terawatt-hours from 20 terawatt-hours in the same timeframe. Renewable energy is set to cover around 33% of Germany’s gross energy demands this year, or 193 billion kWh, up a fifth on 2014, with PV and wind the main contributors.
Critics of Germany’s Energiewende (energy transition) stick with the idea that renewables can’t live up to their promise to fill the gap of retiring nuclear reactors – with this gap being closed by coal. But Germany’s coal-fired power generation and CO2 emissions from power generation are continuing to decline steadily, and total fossil fuel burn has fallen to a level not seen in the past 35 years. Gas consumption was down even more dramatically. As a result, Germany’s carbon emissions have fallen by around 4-5 % in 2014 alone.
And a key Energiewende driver is local democracy – with power devolving to the community level, as they secure political agreements under which the Bundesländer (federal states) set goals and locations for renewable generation. This ensures that local energy resources and financial subsidies – paid for by customers (through feed-in tariffs), or taxpayers, (through cheap loans provided by KfW, the government development bank) – benefit not only the energy companies but also the local people, with profits and employment kept in the region.
So Germany’s renewable and nuclear-free energy policy is framed in the context of national pride and scientific-technological achievement, twinned with economic expansion. As Chancellor Angela Merkel says, ‘As the largest industrialized (European) nation, we can achieve a transformation toward efficient and renewable energy, with all the opportunities that brings for exports, and the development of new technologies and jobs’. This view is complimented by that of Steve Holliday, CEO of National Grid (the company that operates all the gas and power transmission networks in the UK and in the Northeastern US), who says that the idea of large coal-fired or nuclear power stations for baseload power is past it’s sell-by date, with energy markets clearly moving towards much more distributed production and towards microgrids: ‘The idea of baseload power is already outdated. The future will be much more driven by availability of supply: by demand side response and management.’
Direction of travel
At the heart of low carbon energy future-casting are differing views on value for money, foresight and responsibility. Huge long-term investments are needed and it’s clear there are critical social, environmental and economic decisions to be made. Given ramping warnings of climate change, the very last thing we need is risky, expensive, centralised and inflexible technology. The renewable evolution is here, and we should embrace its creative possibilities. In doing so we change forever our relationship with the key driver of modern economies – power.