Trash, Trees, and Taxes

The High Environmental & Economic Costs of Germany's Energy Transition

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Environmentalists and renewables advocates have long held up Germany’s Energiewende as a model that the United States and other nations ought to emulate, but recently, even center-left thinkers and media outlets have become skeptical of the energy transition’s ability to scale up, become cheaper, and decarbonize the economy as effectively as intended. A deep measure of this skepticism toward the Energiewende is that prominent clean-tech thought leader Hal Harvey, long a powerful behind-the-scenes player in efforts to expand deployment subsidies for wind and solar power, has stepped out publicly and issued an extended defense of the Energiewende, against the chorus of environmentally minded critics. In the following article, Breakthrough responds point-by-point to Harvey's latest Energy Innovation findings.

September 13, 2013 | Alex Trembath, Jessica Lovering, Max Luke,

Germany’s renewable energy transition, the “Energiewende,” has long been a subject of scorn among conservatives, who have argued that it is a massive ratepayer-subsidized boondoggle that has harmed Germany’s economy and imposed significant regressive costs on poor and working class energy consumers. But the last several months have seen growing skepticism about the Energiewende from the center-left as well. Both Der Spiegel and Slate have published lengthy investigative pieces raising troubling questions about the costs and the environmental benefits of Germany’s headlong pursuit of an all-renewable energy future. Salon recently published an article criticizing Germany's transition from nuclear to coal. Even left-leaning Dissent Magazine recently published a long expose about the failure of the Energiewende to reduce carbon emissions, concluding that Germany’s enormous investments in renewables, together with plans to phase out its nuclear fleet, would cost the nation a generation in the fight against global warming.

At stake are not simply public perceptions of the Energiewende, but the future of efforts to rapidly expand deployment of wind and solar power elsewhere. Environmentalists and renewables advocates have long held up Germany’s example as one that the United States and other nations ought to emulate. To the degree to which the Energiewende is instead perceived as a cautionary tale, efforts elsewhere to expand subsidies and deployment mandates for renewable energy, and to dismantle the present day utility sector in favor of a much more decentralized electrical sector are clearly at risk.

It is a measure of just how serious the new center-left criticisms of the Energiewende have been, and how threatening they are to the long-standing green climate and energy agenda, that prominent clean-tech thought leader Hal Harvey, long a powerful behind-the-scenes player in efforts to expand deployment subsidies for wind and solar power and transform the utility sector, has stepped out publicly and issued an extended defense of the Energiewende against its growing chorus of environmentally minded critics.

As the head of the Energy Foundation and Climate Works and the director of the Hewlett Foundation’s climate and energy programs, Harvey aggregated and spent more money on climate and clean energy policy development and advocacy than any other philanthropic institution over the last two decades – between 2008 and 2010 alone, Climate Works and affiliated philanthropic institutions spent over a half billion dollars on climate and energy policy and advocacy according to one recent study. America’s overlapping mash of renewables subsidies, deployment mandates, and regional cap and trade programs is arguably as much Harvey’s legacy as anyone else’s. For this reason, Harvey’s defense of the Energiewende is revealing, both for what it acknowledges about the real costs and slow progress and for what it attempts to deny and downplay.

Harvey acknowledges the enormous costs at which renewables innovation has been achieved in Germany, writing that escalating costs of the Energiewende “need to be controlled” and that Germany’s large direct subsidies for renewables represent only a portion of their total cost. “One still has to pay for transmission and distribution, for taxes, and for system resources to balance the variability of solar output,” he notes.

And he recognizes the enormous challenges that still must be overcome in order for a transition from fossil energy to renewables to begin in earnest. “There is no doubt that the accelerated phase-out of nuclear power combined with the strong carbon targets for the utility sector make for a complex transition,” he concludes. “Germany will have to reinvent power markets, build more transmission lines, and think deeply about a new business model for its utilities.”

But he also obfuscates many inconvenient facts, particularly those that suggest that current problems facing the Energiewende represent more than temporary setbacks, associated with a cold winter, rising natural gas prices, and the nation’s decision to accelerate the phase out of it’s aging nuclear fleet, and rather are likely to represent endemic and persistent problems associated with efforts to achieve high penetrations of intermittent renewable energy sources given present day technologies in Germany and beyond. A basic reality check on Harvey’s claim follows:

Harvey claims that most of the impressive sounding 24 percent share of electricity that Germany generates from renewables comes from wind and solar. But in fact only about half of this 24 percent share comes from wind and solar. The rest comes from hydropower, biomass, and trash incinerators. As The Economist recently reported, “the largest so-called renewable fuel used in Europe is wood.” Biomass has proven to be an increasingly dubious source of carbon-free energy before even considering the broader environmental implications for forests and habitat of returning to burning wood for energy at significant scale. The situation in Germany is not as bad as in some other European nations. But like the rest of Europe, Germany has relied heavily upon burning trees and trash in order to meet its renewables targets, a fact that is rarely mentioned by Energiewende boosters. Harvey is no exception in this regard. Of Harvey’s 24 percent, wind and solar represent about 5 and 7 percentage points, respectively, leaving less popular forms of renewable power to carry fully half the lift of the Energiewende.

Harvey claims repeatedly that Germany has successfully decarbonized its electricity sector through the Energiewende. In fact, the carbon intensity of Germany’s economy has seen little change since 2000, when the nation embarked on the Energiewende. More recently, emissions have been rising. As the latest numbers from Germany’s BdeW utility consortium show, Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions rose 1.6 percent in 2012, the increase mostly coming from carbon dioxide emissions by coal-burning power plants. Anthracite coal carbon emissions rose 3.4 percent, while emissions from lignite rose 5.1 percent. Emissions are projected to rise again in 2013.

Harvey claims that Germany’s nuclear phase-out has not resulted in increased coal burning, but the evidence he cites contradict the claim. To support his claim, Harvey argues that no new coal plants have been approved since Germany announced plans to accelerate its nuclear phase-out after the Fukushima accident. Harvey is correct when he states that Germany’s current coal building binge has been long planned. But so has its nuclear phase-out, which was initiated over a decade ago. One can reasonably surmise that the long planned expansion of coal facilities has been, at least in some part, in anticipation of the long planned phase-out of aging nuclear facilities. Harvey chooses not to entertain this possibility.

Harvey claims that recent increases in emissions from coal plants are temporary phenomena, relying entirely on analysis lifted whole cloth from a recent blog post by Amory Lovins to suggest that rising emissions were the product of a cold winter and rising natural gas prices. In fact, they are in significant part a direct result of renewables policies. German policy mandates that the grid take renewable energy first and fossil energy second. This results in what is known as the merit order effect. As more intermittent renewable energy enters the grid, it displaces the most costly type of fossil power generation, natural gas. As a result, natural gas generation decreased last year while coal’s share of electricity rose from 43.1 percent to 44.7 percent.  And lignite – the dirtiest form of coal – increased from 24.6 percent to 25.6 percent.

Moreover, as the Energiewende continues, carbon emissions from coal will likely continue to rise. The confluence of a priority grid access for renewables and a low European carbon price have squeezed flexible natural gas out of the market, adding to the gains coal has taken from nuclear power. In 2012 Germany commissioned 2.9 GW of new coal-fired power capacity. According to BdeW, Germany will add another 4.6 GW of coal power in 2013. Of a planned 42.5 GW of major power plants to be built by 2020, two thirds will be new coal and gas generators.

Harvey claims that Germany’s low wholesale electricity prices, due to increasing competition from renewables, cancel out much of the cost of the renewable energy surcharge that retail customers pay to underwrite Germany’s feed in tariffs. Yet his own numbers belie this claim. Harvey acknowledges that the renewable energy surcharge constitutes one sixth of the retail electricity rate, adding approximately five cents per kilowatt-hour to the price of retail electricity. He then cites German government estimates that higher renewables penetrations have driven wholesale electricity prices down one cent per kilo-watt hour, saving ratepayers about $5 billion Euro per year. At best, then, lower wholesale prices mitigate less than a quarter the cost of the renewables surcharge. While lower wholesale rates will save ratepayers about $5 billion in 2013, Financial Times reported recently that in 2013 the feed-in tariffs will cost ratepayers €20.4 billion ($27 billion).

Harvey further claims that increasing competitive pressure from renewables on wholesale prices will ultimately mitigate all of the costs of the renewables surcharge, citing a study from the German Institute for Energy Research (DIW) projecting that by 2020, lower wholesale electricity prices resulting from higher renewables penetrations will exceed the cost of renewables. But this 2011 study is based on outmoded assumptions that are inconsistent with observed trends in both the cost of the renewable energy surcharge and the wholesale electricity market. In reality, both retail electricity prices and the renewables surcharge are growing much faster than wholesale electricity prices are falling. Der Spiegel notes that German electricity rates could exceed 40 euro cents ($0.53) per kilowatt-hour by 2020, almost twice what they are today. The DIW study that Harvey relies upon, by contrast, assumed that the cost of the renewable energy surcharge would decline over the last several years, dropping below 3 euro cents per kWh in 2012 and then rising very slowly over the rest of the decade to 3.6 cents in 2020. In reality, the surcharge has already risen to 5.3 cents for 2013, with a further 20 percent increase projected for 2014.

DIW then inflated its assumptions about cost savings from lower wholesale electricity prices by assuming a counterfactual, in the absence of the Energiewende, in which coal prices rose sharply while the EU ETS carbon price rose to $25/ton. In reality, coal prices have fallen precipitously, not due to lower demand for coal because of growing renewable generation (coal generation has risen in recent years), but due to expanded lignite production from German mines and cheap imports from abroad. Meanwhile, with Europe awash in excess carbon credits, thanks to the deep economic contraction of recent years and the overallocation of credits during the first phase of the emissions trading scheme, the EU carbon price has collapsed and is today below $7/ton.

Harvey claims that exemptions for industry have resulted in the cost of the renewable energy surcharge to residential customers being twice what it otherwise would be. In fact, none of the proposals offered by any of Germany’s political parties to close loopholes and more broadly distribute the costs of the surcharge would result in anything approaching a halving of the cost of the surcharge to residential consumers. Der Speigel reports that the value of the proposed changes to the average retail consumer will be about $.70 per month or less than $10 per year. Harvey, Lovins and others insist that the industry exemptions are a glitch. In fact, they are essential to the political acceptability of significantly raising energy prices in a highly industrial country.

Harvey claims that while the cost of the renewable energy surcharge is significant and rising, it still does not constitute the lion’s share of what consumers pay for electricity, which is the actual cost of energy generation, transmission, and distribution. But while the wholesale price of electricity has declined in recent years, Harvey’s own data show that the total cost of generation, transmission, and distribution has risen substantially since the introduction of the Energiewende, increasing costs that are additional to the rising cost of the surcharge. While it is difficult to fully disentangle the indirect cost of integrating intermittent renewables into the German grid from a variety of other factors that may have contributed to rising electricity costs, it is also difficult to conclude that the Energiewende has not contributed substantially to the total cost of provisioning grid electricity. Meanwhile, German grid operators themselves note mounting challenges to managing highly volatile electricity generation from high penetrations of intermittent wind and solar.

Harvey claims that increasing generation from renewables is increasing competition and “disciplining” wholesale electricity prices. In fact, heavily subsidized, highly intermittent renewables generation, with priority access to the grid and the wholesale market, have forced utilities to operate conventional power facilities unprofitablyAn Energiewende that is predicated on forcing utilities to generate power unprofitably can’t be sustained for long. And indeed, Harvey acknowledges this reality both when he observes that the traditional utility business model will be unsustainable should the Energiewende continue to move forward and when he calls for capacity markets to provide an adequate revenue stream to keep the centralized plants upon which the grid depends in service.  In so doing, Harvey undermines all of the prior claims about wholesale electricity prices. Wholesale prices that reflect neither the direct subsidies for renewables deployment nor the capacity markets and enormous new transmission costs necessary to keep an intermittent grid operating reliably tell us nothing about the real cost of electricity.

Conclusion

Putting aside haggling about exactly why German emissions increased last year or how sustained the expansion of coal burning will be going forward, the claim that the Energiewende has driven significant decarbonization of the German economy simply cannot be supported. Zero carbon energy constituted 36 percent of German electricity generation in 2000, it constituted 38 percent in 2010, and if Germany moves forward with an accelerated phase-out of nuclear energy as planned, it will constitute 38 percent in 2022.

While there is little doubt that the Energiewende has accelerated the pace of wind and solar innovation, it has clearly done so at enormous cost. The cost of the renewable energy surcharge alone exceeds $100 billion already, and will continue to rise unless German policy-makers scale back the pace of solar and wind deployment or retroactively reduce subsidies that have already been committed.

The indirect costs of integrating such high levels of renewables into Germany’s electrical grid are more difficult to quantify directly. But the significant increase in the cost of provisioning electricity at the retail level since the inception of the Energiewende, and Germany’s high electricity rates compared to other similar economies suggest that those costs are already substantial and will likely continue to rise further, given plans for major expansion of offshore wind generation and long distance power transmission.

Finally, it appears that renewable energy policies are directly contributing to both the re-carbonization and economic destabilization of the German electrical sector. Mandates to privilege intermittent renewable generation over baseload fossil generation are driving a shift away from gas fired generation and toward coal fired generation. These dynamics have been further reinforced by the economic pressure that large amounts of highly subsidized intermittent renewable energy generation capacity with low or nonexistent marginal operating costs have placed on traditional utilities. The shrinking profitability of centralized generation has sparked a race to the bottom by utilities seeking the lowest cost on-demand generation available, namely older plants burning dirty coal.

The past, of course, is only prologue. But all indications suggest both that the cost of Germany’s transition will continue to rise absent significant steps by policy-makers to contain them and that the those costs are leading policy-makers to reconsider the ambitions of the Energiewende. Already, the German government has placed a cap on PV installations covered under the feed-in tariff at 52 gigawatts, which will be reached within the next several years, to control costs and generation variability. Retroactive subsidy cuts have already slowed the growth of renewables generation, with more significant policy reforms expected after the elections on September 22. With other cost-saving measures potentially on the post-election horizon, it remains highly uncertain how much further current renewables policies will take Germany.

Given these uncertainties, climate and clean energy advocates would do well to consider alternative pathways to decarbonization. Harvey hasn’t done so, but others have. What emerges from those analyses suggests that policy-makers in the United States and elsewhere might do well to consider those pathways seriously before reflexively following Germany’s example.

Mathematician Geoff Russell, for instance, finds that the growth in Germany’s wind and solar over 11 years (2001-2012) added only a small fraction of the per capita electricity generation that growth in nuclear power did in Sweden (1975-1986), France (1979-1990), and Belgium (1976-1987).

Robert Wilson finds that the pace of the Energiewende doesn’t even match past energy transitions in Germany. Natural gas, which supplied 1 percent of Germany’s energy in 1965, had grown to 12.3 percent a decade later. By contrast non-hydro renewables, which supplied 1 percent of Germany’s energy in 2001, had only grown to 7.8 percent a decade later, and much of this growth came from non-wind and non-solar energy such as biomass and waste incineration.

While Germany’s decarbonization has stalled, an energy transition of a different kind has driven down emissions in the United States faster than those of any other nation since 2005. The rapid transition from coal to gas in the United States has displaced large amounts of coal fired generation during the same period that Germany has been bringing new coal plants online.  While the rapid expansion of fracking in the United States has been exceptional, the role that increasing gas generation has played in recent US decarbonization efforts is not. The development of cheap, abundant gas resources also played an important role in the rapid decarbonization of the UK and several northern European economies in the 1990’s.

In fact, just about every significant period of decarbonization in major developed economies over at least the last forty years has been driven by the expansion of either gas or nuclear, not renewables. The same is true at the global level. Roger Pielke Jr, in a recent Breakthrough Institute analysis, finds that the world deployed vastly more zero carbon energy between 1965 and 1999, when the focus of such efforts was predominantly focused on nuclear and hydro power than it has since, when the focus shifted to renewables.

Future transitions may, of course, look different. But taking into account both the challenges that Harvey acknowledges and those that he obfuscates, policy makers and clean energy advocates alike would be well served to consider whether a single-minded focus on deploying present-day wind and solar technologies is wise, particularly if the policies foreclose alternative technological pathways, such as gas and nuclear, that have actually succeeded in significantly decarbonizing major economies at sustainable costs. 


Photo Credits: Wordpress User: JohnSigrid (left); Vattenfall.com (center); Greenwisebusiness.co.uk (right)


Comments

  • An excellent article.  I have followed the “renewables” initiative for years and have reduced its insuperable problems to the following:

    Germany (and every industrialized country) has a very large investment in a “traditional” electrical energy infrastructure (fossil/hydro/nuclear). To develop a “renewable” electrical energy infrastructure, four vast new sets of investment must be made: Wind, Solar, Power Storage, and Transmission From Remote Sites for Wind and Solar. All the while, utilizing and maintaining the existing “traditional” infrastructure. (After all, where would “renewable” Germany be without it on a cold, windless, snow-covered December 21st while the new infrastructure is being built over the coming decades?)

    In effect, take current “traditional” investment (trillions of dollars) and multiply by far more than four. To amplify “more than four”, recognize that economical Power Storage does not yet exist and is not even realistically on the horizon for “nation-wide” application.

    Germany is, indeed at the forefront of developing the “renewable” electrical energy infrastructure, but has barely begun to start to meet the power demands of a modern economy from those “renewable” sources.
    Yet, already the impossible economics of a “five infrastructure” strategy are becoming quite clear, dragging down German global competitiveness, and imposing fuel poverty on an increasingly large segment of the population.

    It can’t go on, so it won’t. Let us in the U.S. learn the truth early.

    By Richard Lewis on 2013 09 14

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  • I’m sorry that I tuned out after I hit the paragraph about how much power comes from “trees and trash.”  I thought those numbers looked off, so I looked up the data from the BMU and found that in 2011 these were the sources of renewable power:

    2011 German renewable electric supply (from the BMU)
    Wind   40%
    Solar   16%
    Hydro   15%
    Biogas 14% (from corn, manure and other feedstocks)
    Bio solid fuels   9%
    Bio liquid fuels 1%
    Sewage gas   0.9%
    Landfill gas   0.5%
    Biogenic fraction of waste   4%

    So “trees and trash” (biomass solid fuels and biogenic fraction of waste) appear to be 13%. 

    2012 was a banner year for new wind and solar.  The conventional wisdom in Germany is that biomass has peaked, due to high cost, limited supply and conflict with other uses, and that most new RE growth will be wind and solar.

    It would be more compelling reading if your arguments were fact-based.  Next time I might even make it to the end of the article.

    By Ben Paulos on 2013 09 15

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    • Hi Ben,

      Actually in 2011 generation from wind and solar accounted for 8.0% and 3.2% of Germany’s gross electricity supply, respectively, while biomass, waste, and hydro accounted for 5.4%, 0.8%, and 2.9%, respectively.

      In 2012 wind and solar together accounted for 11.9% of electricity generation, while trees, trash and hydro together accounted 9.4% of generation, or about half of the total renewable supply.

      Our numbers come from here (see slides 2 and 3): http://www.europeangashub.com/custom/domain_1/extra_files/attach_189.pdf

      The numbers you cite look like installed capacity rather than actual generation. Wind and solar look big because you have to install so much excess capacity because the wind and sun only blow and shine a small fraction of the day.

      By Max Luke on 2013 09 16

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      • In 2012 wind and solar together accounted for 11.9% of electricity generation, while trees, trash and hydro together accounted 9.4% of generation, or about half of the total renewable supply.

        Our numbers come from here (see slides 2 and 3): http://www.europeangashub.com/custom/domain_1/extra_files/attach_189.pdf

        The numbers you cite look like installed capacity rather than actual generation. Wind and solar look big because you have to install so much excess capacity because the wind and sun only blow and shine a small fraction of the day.

        Max you are embarrassing yourself with your desperate miss-reading of what he wrote. He obviously has detailed knowledge and you suggest that he mixed up capacity & generation? Really?

        The number he cites are the actual generation not the installed capacity, but he looked at the composition of only renewable energy generation, instead of the share in the total electricity supply.

        Just admit that you labeled energy from biomass as “wood & trash”, showcasing that you feel no need for detailed looks at reality.

        In reality only a fraction of the renewable electricity generation is from solid biomass (wood). In 2012 “wood” accounted for only 12.5 TWh of the total renewable electricity generation of 136 TWh. The renewable portion of “waste” accounted for 4.9 TWh.

        It should be added, that both “wood” and “waste” are usually burned mainly for heat & secondary for power in Germany (heat driven CHPs).  That means that in addition to the 17.2 TWh (el) from “wood & waste” there were also approx. 30-40 TWh(th) of final energy generated in the process.

        Since oil & gas are the main source of heat(final energy), those 30-40 TWh(th) alone have propably reduced emissions by 7-9 million tons of CO2.

        Besides:
        By citing BDEW numbers instead of the original source you reveal the propably a part of the reason why your coverage is lacking substance so often. The BDEW is a lobby organisation of the conventional energy industry (coal & gas+nuclear). While they don’t lie, they obviously have an interest in spinning and representing the facts to suite their needs.

        By using mainly such sources as your source of knowledge you end up with a tunnel vision of the reality. (just like watching only Fox News 24/7)

        Maybe you should consider this, if you have a little bit of academic honor in you. grin

        By Thomas on 2013 09 17

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        • Now you’re embarrassing yourself, Thomas.

          If we look at final energy consumption rather than only electricity generation, the share of “trees and trash” is much greater than 50%. BMU data shows that in 2011 final energy supply from biogenic fuels for heat, for electricity, and liquid biofuels accounted for 43.7%, 12.3%, and 11.4% of the total, respectively (see page 16 of the first link, below). In 2012 biomass accounted for a full 65.5% of final energy consumption from renewable fuels (see page 9 of the second link, below).

          But in the piece above we’re responding directly to Harvey’s claim that “24 percent share of electricity that Germany generates from renewables comes from wind and solar” (see page 2 of Harvey’s report, third link below). We respond to this claim (which is in fact false) by stating clearly that about only about half does, with the rest coming from hydropower, biomass, and trash incinerators. Nowhere do we state that trash and trees account for half of Germany’s generation, as you Ben imply we do.

          And our claim is correct, even using a different dataset. Using BMU’s numbers, biogas, biogenic fuels, waste biogass, and hydropower accounted for 15.1%, 10%, 5%, and 15.6% of Germany’s RE electricity supply, for a total of 45.7% (about half) - see page 5 of second link, below.

          I strongly suggest you do a bit more research next time before submitting half-baked responses.

          http://www.bmu.de/fileadmin/bmu-import/files/english/pdf/application/pdf/broschuere_ee_zahlen_en_bf.pdf

          http://www.erneuerbare-energien.de/fileadmin/Daten_EE/Dokumente__PDFs_/hgp_2013_ei100179c-13e_zsw_final_bf.pdf

          http://www.stiftung-mercator.de/fileadmin/user_upload/INHALTE_UPLOAD/Klimawandel/Reflections_on_Germany_s_Energy_Transition.pdf

          By Max Luke on 2013 09 17

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          • Max,

            Sorry I was away for a while, and didn’t see this thread.

            I think I see a lot of careless writing on everyone’s part.  Hal should have said “wind, solar and biomass.”

            And while you are technically correct in your reply—“Nowhere do we state that trash and trees account for half of Germany’s generation, as you Ben imply we do.” —You do not STATE it, but you IMPLY it repeatedly, either due to careless writing or to support your hypothesis with subterfuge. 

            For starters, the title of the piece is “Trash, Trees and Taxes.” 

            After you mention “biomass” correctly, the next sentence says:

            <As The Economist recently reported, “the largest so-called renewable fuel used in Europe is wood.” >

            So you imply biomass = wood.

            Then you continue to talk about wood:

            <Biomass has proven to be an increasingly dubious source of carbon-free energy before even considering the broader environmental implications for forests and habitat of returning to burning wood for energy at significant scale. ...  But like the rest of Europe, Germany has relied heavily upon burning trees and trash in order to meet its renewables targets… >

            Nowhere do you mention that only 13% of renewable electricity comes from wood and trash.  We all agree on the data, that more bio-electricity comes from biogas, which comes from corn, manure and other organic wastes.

            In your reply to Thomas you change the subject to total end use energy.  In your original post you only talked about power.

            Renewable heat does come largely from wood.  And as Thomas mentions, a lot of it is in CHP and district heating, which makes for very high efficiencies.  It’s a little-appreciated fact that German energy policy goes way beyond the power sector, and includes aggressive goals for heat and transportation fuels.  It’s more exciting to talk about the popular kids, and to set up a pretend battle between wind, solar and nuclear.

            There is practically no US policy on renewable heat, though plenty on heat efficiency. Germany should be commended for being logically comprehensive.  You should do a follow up on low carbon heat policy and practices around the world.

            I think the crux is that biomass is one of the “less popular forms of renewable power,” as you say.  People get so hung up on their images of the natural world that they forget reality.  Trees are for hugging!

            In the real world of heat demand, costs, available resources, dispatchable power, and tradeoffs, biomass plays an important role.  And most of the wood is a byproduct of paper and lumber production anyway, not from forest clearcuts.

            For what it is worth.

            By Ben Paulos on 2013 09 19

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  • Groups continue to misleadingly and selectively use statistics to hide the remarkable reductions in fossil fuel use and pollution Germany and other European countries have achieved due to their increased use of wind energy. Much of this deception has focused on a short-term increase in coal use over the last year or two as Germany has rapidly phased out its use of nuclear power. However, it is important not to miss the forest for the trees, and to understand that this short-term increase is entirely caused by the shutdown of Germany’s nuclear plants and is only a temporary blip in the long-term, steady decline in emissions achieved by Germany’s transition to renewable energy.

    The reality is that, over the last decade, wind energy has allowed Germany to greatly reduce fossil fuel use and pollution, reductions that would have been even larger had the country not also greatly scaled down its use of nuclear power over that same time period.

    As documented by International Energy Agency data, as Germany ramped up its use of wind energy, coal use by Germany’s electric sector fell by more than 12% between 2004 and 2010, a reduction of 20 million tons per year. Wind energy was able to drive that reduction in coal use despite nuclear power output declining by 16% over that time period (falling from nearly 34% of the country’s electricity mix in 2004 to less than 25% in 2010).

    Other European countries that have adopted even greater amounts of wind energy than Germany have seen even larger declines in pollution and fossil fuel use. Because Spain and Portugal now obtain 15% and 20%, respectively, of their electricity from wind, up from around 1% a decade ago, they have cut in half the amount of carbon dioxide their electric sectors emit per unit of electricity produced.

    Electric sector coal use in Europe’s top five wind-using countries fell by 21% between 2004 and 2010. These savings totaled more than 100 million tons of coal per year.

    The easiest way to assess the impact wind energy has had on pollution is to compare the emissions trend in the five countries that lead the world in wind energy use (Germany, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, and Ireland) versus the trend for similar countries that have not deployed as much wind energy. Between 1999 and 2010, each of these five countries greatly increased its use of wind energy, as shown in the table below. For the comparison case, the aggregation of all European OECD countries increased their use of wind energy by a much lower amount.

    The best measurement of a country’s emissions profile is to look at changes in the amount of CO2 emitted by the electric sector for every unit of electricity produced, i.e., the emissions intensity of a country’s electric sector. One would expect that adding a zero-emission resource like wind energy to the power system would reduce the emissions-intensity of the country’s electric sector, and International Energy Agency data presented in the table below indicate that this is the case. The countries that added the most wind energy saw the greatest declines in their emissions intensity, while countries that added less wind energy (like Germany and the aggregation of all OECD Europe) saw smaller declines in their emissions intensities.

    Percent Change in Electric Sector CO2 Emissions/kWh from 1999-2010

    Country

    % Change in CO2 emissions/kWh from 1999-2010

    Increase in wind’s electricity percentage share from 1999 to 2010

    Portugal

    -53.07%

    19.9%

    Spain

    -46.45%

    15.4%

    Denmark

    -24.96%

    13.8%

    Ireland

    -34.24%

    10.1%

    Germany

    -12.58%

    6.9%

    All OECD Europe

    -12.60%

    3.8%

    Interestingly, Germany would likely have seen a much larger decline in emissions intensity had the country not decreased its use of zero-emission nuclear energy by 16% over the 1999-2010 period.

    Does this mean the current surge in coal demand is a blip? When asked by The Economist magazine, Tom Brookes of the European Climate Foundation, an environmental non-governmental organization based in The Hague, said yes.

    To sum up, it is important to keep in mind that the temporary and small uptick in coal use in Germany over the last two years is purely the result of the country shutting down many of its nuclear power plants following the events at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant in early 2011. As Germany continues to ramp up its use of wind and solar energy, the decline in fossil fuel use and carbon dioxide emissions will resume.

    For more information, please see:

    http://aweablog.org/blog/post/correcting-fossil-fuel-industry-misinformation-about-germanys-success-with-renewable-energy

    Michael Goggin,

    American Wind Energy Association

    By Michael Goggin, American Wind Energy Association on 2013 09 19

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    • Hi Michael,

      Your assertion that the uptick in coal in recent years is purely a result of the country’s shutting down of nuclear is dubious. Yes, most of the increase in coal use can probably be attributed to the decline in nuclear, but there has also been an increase in coal due to more intermittent wind and solar on the grid. Germany’s energy policy gives wind and solar generation first priority access to the grid. Large influxes of wind and solar typically force natural gas generation, not coal generation, offline due to gas’s higher marginal cost. Grid operators have filled the gap by building more coal capacity or burning more coal in existing plants. So the picture is not as simple as you make out and wind has not led to a one-to-one displacement of CO2 as you imply.

      That said, we’re not arguing against wind or that wind has driven an increase in CO2 emissions. Wind and solar have clearly displaced some carbon emissions and Germany would be more carbon intensive if wind and solar hadn’t increased over the same period that nuclear has been declining. What we argue in our piece, and what I think is more important than arguing about how much carbon wind has displaced, is that by rejecting nuclear Germany has locked itself into an electricity sector that will be no cleaner in 2020 than it was in the year 2000.

      At the planned current rate of expansion, when the last German nuclear plants shut down in 2022, renewables will be generating about 38 percent of electricity. With no more nuclear power in operation this will be the total share of zero-carbon electricity, but that’s almost exactly the same share of zero-carbon electricity Germany produced in 2010, when its share was 38.8 percent (22.4 percent nuclear and 16.4 percent renewable). This has been dubbed Germany’s lost decade.

      But it’s more like a lost generation given that the policy of favoring renewables over nuclear has been in effect for 13 years and counting. In 1999, a peak year of power generation for nuclear, the share of zero-carbon electricity was 36 percent, with nuclear contributing 31 percent. Thus, over a twenty-three-year period of expanding renewables and closing nuclear plants from 1999 to 2022, Germany will have managed to decarbonize a meager 2 additional percentage points of its electricity.

      And while I appreciate you pointing out that the countries with the most aggressive wind deployment have seen emissions reductions (you would need to do more analysis to prove causation here, rather than correlation), the countries that have experienced the fastest rates of decarbonization of the electricity supply are those that have rapidly ramped up nuclear power. For instance, between 1971 and 2006, France and Sweden, which both pursued nuclear power aggressively, achieved the fastest average rates of decarbonization of energy supply of any OECD nations (-2.0% and -2.5%, respectively – see link below). So while wind definitely contributes to modest decarbonization and CO2 emissions reductions in most cases, by locking out nuclear Germany has removed from the table the technology that has the best track record of meeting climate goals.

      http://thebreakthrough.org/archive/which_nations_have_reduced_car

      By Max Luke on 2013 09 20

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  • Two articles on renewables from the last few days that are also relevant:

    New York Times, “Germany’s Effort at Clean Energy Proves Complex” - http://goo.gl/zXfqmY

    Scientific American, “Renewable Energy’s Hidden Costs” - http://goo.gl/EiOwWM

    Jessica Lovering
    Policy Analyst | The Breakthrough Institute
    Energy and Climate Program
    http://thebreakthrough.org/
    Twitter: @J_Lovering

    By Jessica Lovering on 2013 09 20

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  • Anti-clean energy groups continue to misleadingly and selectively use statistics to hide the remarkable reductions in fossil fuel use and pollution Germany and other European countries have achieved due to their increased use of wind energy. Much of this deception has focused on a short-term increase in coal use over the last year or two as Germany has rapidly phased out its use of nuclear power. However, it is important not to miss the forest for the trees, and to understand that this short-term increase is entirely caused by the shutdown of Germany’s nuclear plants and is only a temporary blip in the long-term, steady decline in emissions achieved by Germany’s transition to renewable energy.

    The reality is that, over the last decade, wind energy has allowed Germany to greatly reduce fossil fuel use and pollution, reductions that would have been even larger had the country not also greatly scaled down its use of nuclear power over that same time period.

    As documented by International Energy Agency data, as Germany ramped up its use of wind energy, coal use by Germany’s electric sector fell by more than 12% between 2004 and 2010, a reduction of 20 million tons per year. Wind energy was able to drive that reduction in coal use despite nuclear power output declining by 16% over that time period (falling from nearly 34% of the country’s electricity mix in 2004 to less than 25% in 2010).

    Other European countries that have adopted even greater amounts of wind energy than Germany have seen even larger declines in pollution and fossil fuel use. Because Spain and Portugal now obtain 15% and 20%, respectively, of their electricity from wind, up from around 1% a decade ago, they have cut in half the amount of carbon dioxide their electric sectors emit per unit of electricity produced.

    Electric sector coal use in Europe’s top five wind-using countries fell by 21% between 2004 and 2010. These savings totaled more than 100 million tons of coal per year.

    The easiest way to assess the impact wind energy has had on pollution is to compare the emissions trend in the five countries that lead the world in wind energy use (Germany, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, and Ireland) versus the trend for similar countries that have not deployed as much wind energy. Between 1999 and 2010, each of these five countries greatly increased its use of wind energy, as shown in the table below. For the comparison case, the aggregation of all European OECD countries increased their use of wind energy by a much lower amount.

    The best measurement of a country’s emissions profile is to look at changes in the amount of CO2 emitted by the electric sector for every unit of electricity produced, i.e., the emissions intensity of a country’s electric sector. One would expect that adding a zero-emission resource like wind energy to the power system would reduce the emissions-intensity of the country’s electric sector, and International Energy Agency data presented in the table below indicate that this is the case. The countries that added the most wind energy saw the greatest declines in their emissions intensity, while countries that added less wind energy (like Germany and the aggregation of all OECD Europe) saw smaller declines in their emissions intensities.

    Percent Change in Electric Sector CO2 Emissions/kWh from 1999-2010

    Country

    % Change in CO2 emissions/kWh from 1999-2010

    Increase in wind’s electricity percentage share from 1999 to 2010

    Portugal

    -53.07%

    19.9%

    Spain

    -46.45%

    15.4%

    Denmark

    -24.96%

    13.8%

    Ireland

    -34.24%

    10.1%

    Germany

    -12.58%

    6.9%

    All OECD Europe

    -12.60%

    3.8%

    Interestingly, Germany would likely have seen a much larger decline in emissions intensity had the country not decreased its use of zero-emission nuclear energy by 16% over the 1999-2010 period.

    Does this mean the current surge in coal demand is a blip? When asked by The Economist magazine, Tom Brookes of the European Climate Foundation, an environmental non-governmental organization based in The Hague, said yes.

    To sum up, it is important to keep in mind that the temporary and small uptick in coal use in Germany over the last two years is purely the result of the country shutting down many of its nuclear power plants following the events at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant in early 2011. As Germany continues to ramp up its use of wind and solar energy, the decline in fossil fuel use and carbon dioxide emissions will resume.

    For more information, please see:

    http://aweablog.org/blog/post/correcting-fossil-fuel-industry-misinformation-about-germanys-success-with-renewable-energy

    Michael Goggin,
    American Wind Energy Association

    By Michael Goggin, American Wind Energy Association on 2013 09 30

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    • Too bad your organization didn’t have the budget to download the free update to those numbers from Umwelt Bundesamt. Whilst the carbon intensity for Germany in 2012 is still down compared with 1999, at 576 gCO2/kWh against 630 back then, the amount of CO2 emitted in 2012 was higher at 317 Million metric ton against 310.
      Reducing carbon intensity is good, but it needs to be done faster than the rise of use of electricity, and in the case of Germany, it has not been the case by far.

      By jmdesp on 2013 11 19

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