^ Energiewende: Winds of Green Change – Image Courtesy of WDG Photo at ShutterStock.com
The Road Less Taken
Average men learn from their own mistakes, wise men from other people’s errors. The 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant accident goaded German Chancellor Angela Merkel into speeding up the green shift towards renewable power and speed it up big time.
For one, she announced a complete closure of all 17 nuclear reactors by 2022. Nine are already closed. Welcome to the energy revolution the Germans call energiewende.
A fantastic 27% of the country’s electricity now comes from renewables, three times their share (9%) a decade ago. The country plans to cut 40% of its emissions from 1990 levels by 2020, and 80% by 2050. Apart from nuclear power, the Germans are also gunning down coal power.
Just to put things in perspective, Germany is Europe’s largest and the world’s fourth largest economy. It is among the most industrialized nations. If it can chart a successful roadmap for the green shift from fossil fuels to renewables, it won’t be long before others follow suit.
Right from ancient times, the Germans are a forest and environment loving people. And the Germans dread the word nuclear, for the artificial frontier between East and West Germany was a thin dividing line between two nuclear superpowers during the Cold War.
Thus far, citizens have funded half the investment in renewables and they support green power even if it means shelling out a few more Euros. Policies allow citizens to sell their surplus renewable power to the grid at good rates.
Lest we start celebrating, the green road is not without its pitfalls. Coal still provides most of Germany’s electricity. And the heating and transportation sectors that emit more carbon dioxide (CO2) than the power / electricity sector are miles away from this revolution.
Renewables have brought down electricity prices. Very few power plants can operate viably while using superior grade coal. This has fired the rise of power plants using inferior grade coal that is more polluting.
At a time when the global economic slowdown refuses to pick up speed, any strictures against the coal power industry threaten jobs and create controversies. The government has to go slow and balance economics with environment. The transformation will take a generation at least.
From Kyoto to Copenhagen
Based on the principles agreed in the framework convention of 1992, the Kyoto Protocol was negotiated in 1997. It called on industrialized economies to cut overall GHG emissions by 5% over 1990 levels by 2012. It identified six GHGs:
- Carbon dioxide (CO2)
- Methane (CH4)
- Nitrous oxide (N2O)
- Hydro-fluoro-carbons (HFCs)
- Per-fluoro-carbons (PFCs)
- Sulphur hexafluoride (SF6)
Although ratified by 140 countries, the protocol could come into effect only on February 16, 2005 after Russia ratified it in 2004. This was because the protocol required countries accounting for 55% of global emissions to ratify it before it could take effect.
While the 5% target appears tiny, it did mark the beginning of global action against global warming. And yes, it goaded the media to take note of this burning issue that holds the potential to drown half the world and suck dry the remaining half.
- the need to restrict average global temperature rise to below 20C over pre-industrial levels
- emission targets for developed countries and actions to reduce emissions by developing countries
- a framework for national-international monitoring
- substantial financing to support developing nations’ efforts
And because it still hosts a sizable amount of heavy industry, Germany is amongst the highest dischargers of carbon emissions in Western Europe at 8.9 metric tons per capita.
The Ageless German Romance with Nature
Since ancient times, forests have been the source of German identity, a place they visit to restore their souls. This is precisely why they reacted ferociously in the 1970s to reports that fossil fuels are steadily eating into their forests.
There began the odyssey against power sourced from nuclear and fossil fuel. And the people continued with their stubborn persistence despite government and power utilities pushing for the opposite. Please note, this was a time when virtually no one was talking of climate change.
That apart, the energiewende has adopted a practical approach. Instead of asking people to consume less electricity, something that people associate with lower quality of life, the movement focuses on generating clean electricity.
And there is the post Second World War era German phobia for nuclear reactors. Germany was divided after this war and the two nuclear superpowers of the day, the United States and the Soviet Union, faced each other along this dividing frontier.
Then came the Chernobyl Disaster of 1986, the worst ever nuclear power plant disaster. Now, the propaganda of anti-nuclear groups reached critical mass as the radioactive cloud from Chernobyl passed over Germany and tilted the balance of public opinion in their favor.
But it took another 25 years before the Fukushima fiasco refreshed the fading public memory and once again demonstrated the catastrophic potential of ill-managed nuclear plants.
A staggering 92% Germans support renewables despite consumer electricity prices here being the second highest in Europe because policies have created a favorable climate.
A national law made in 1990 enabled citizens to sell surplus renewable electricity to power utilities. Another law in the year 2000 guaranteed lucrative prices for such electricity. Critics say, the price-guarantee law escalates electricity prices. But the laws have given fabulous results.
In the breezy north, you can see innumerable wind turbines pleasantly dancing to the tune of whistling winds. Solar power generators dot the roofs of German country homes even as biogas plants convert waste into precious power.
By 2050, 80-90% of German electricity will be sourced from renewables. And one-third of wind power will eventually come from offshore wind farms. But Germany is not on track to achieving its 40% renewable target by 2020. Why?
Now, 44% of German electricity came from coal in 2014 – 18% from the largely imported hard coal and 26% from lignite. Germany is the top producer of lignite, the cheapest fossil fuel that unfortunately is also the most polluting.
Lignite is the reason why Germany is falling behind the milestones en route the 2020 target of emission cuts. While emissions dropped to 813 million tons in 2011, they sprang back to 841mt in 2012 and 2013. The country is however ahead of the European Union emission targets.
A number of reasons have made electricity from lignite attractive:
- Fall of Electricity Prices: the renewable juggernaut that has slashed the market prices of electricity
Hard coal based power plants are going out of business thereby hiking the demand for inexpensive electricity sourced from lignite
- Crash in the Prices of EU Certificates: that companies had to purchase for emitting CO2
Manufacturers lowered production during the global economic crisis. This meant they emitted less CO2 and needed to buy lesser such certificates. Falling demand brought down their prices
With the dilution of deterrent penalties, electricity generation from lignite became viable and Germany exported 5% of its generated electricity in 2013
- Phasing Out of Nuclear Power Plants: means the deficit is being bridged by renewables as well as by lignite
Germany depends on cheap electricity to make exportable industrial goods that drive its economy and create its employment. As of now, most of this inexpensive electricity comes from lignite.
Neither is it a great idea to impose extra penalties on coal-powered plants as the government proposed in spring 2015. This will cut jobs in coal mining and power. These segments might even face closure at a time when the world is yet to recover from the great recession.
Protest quickly followed the levy of this ‘climate fee’ and the government had to backtrack. Now, it is paying utility companies to cut down operations while maintaining their power plants as ‘national capacity reserve’.
Critics say, this promotes coal power at the cost of clean power. This is because the money that could have gone into
creating infrastructure for renewables and funding innovative programs for greater use of renewables will now go to its rival.
But we also need to remember that renewable power is not totally reliable. Think of overcast days and days when the wind just does not blow. How can you generate power then? Wouldn’t the national capacity reserve come in handy?
Talking of infrastructure, the proposed power lines to transfer electricity generated in the gusty north to the highly industrialized south has run into trouble. The Bavarian government and local landowners disagree. The federal government has to work out a mutually acceptable solution.
Power utilities in Germany initially fought the energiewende tooth and nail. They lost money due to the surge in renewables and are now chasing the energiewende.
While the people have sustained the energiewende, the government has to rope in utilities for a rapid and seamless shift towards renewables on a nationwide scale.
Transportation sector in Germany spews 17% of her emissions and the government has not done enough to facilitate the movement of cars from diesel and gasoline to electricity.
Home heating systems in Germany spit 30% of its emissions. The government is offering easy loans to convert old buildings to climate-neutral ones. Ultimately, all buildings will be climate-neutral by 2050. The transformation has to be faster to keep up with the target schedule.
Zeitgeist is German for spirit of the times. We are living in an age when everyone is concerned about the future of the human race. Or should be concerned, for global warming and climate change are the kind of hazards with virtually unlimited destructive capacity.
But then, everybody’s business always becomes nobody’s business. The wrangling over climate talks and climate deals has demonstrated how effective measures get watered down to the point where they are toothless. There is and remains ample pretext for inaction.
Germany is doing the opposite. And the fact that it is the world’s fourth largest economy that still operates an enormous and electricity-hungry heavy industry means that it may well be the trendsetter in this necessary green transformation.
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