7 January 2014: Energiewende and schadenfreude

At several events I’ve attended, German speakers have said proudly that the word “Energiewende” is one of the few German words to have made it into the English language. I’m sorry to disappoint them, but it hasn’t. Green campaigners and energy policy wonks know the term, but it means nothing to most English speakers. For them, it has to be translated – energy transition or transformation. One German word that is widely understood by English speakers is Schadenfreude. And it’s tempting for Brits like me to feel schadenfreude as the energiewende runs into trouble. We’ve got used to hearing in recent years how rubbish we British are at energy efficiency and renewables, and how much better Germany is. The fact that this is true doesn’t make it any easier to swallow.

German policy and performance on energy efficiency are strong. For example, when more than 20% of a property is renovated, building standards must be met. The publicly-owned KfW bank offers low-interest loans for energy efficiency work. And these are genuinely low-interest – unlike those on offer under the UK government’s Green Deal. (For more  information on what Berlin council has done on energy efficiency, see Repowering Communities case study: Berlin council’s energy efficiency programmes.)

German policy and performance on renewables are also good. Germany got 11% of its total energy – and almost a quarter of its electricity – from renewables in 2011, during the last year for which the IEA has published statistics (see Germany: Electricity and Heat 2011). However, the new German government has already stated that changes to the Energiewende will be one of its priorities, mainly because the cost to consumers of renewable subsidies is now unpopular. And energy has been given to the social democrats, the junior partner in the grand coalition with Merkel’s christian democrats. That suggests that Merkel wants to be able to blame the left for forthcoming energiewende difficulties. The government has already said that onshore wind will receive lower subsidies. However, no changes in subsidies for solar PV have been announced and PV gets almost double the subsidy for each unit of electricity produced that onshore wind does.   It is not sensible to reduce the subsidy for wind but not for solar (see European Public Affairs.eu: Renewables in Germany: where is the Energiewende headed? for more on the new government’s plans on the energiewende.)

The energiewende is a fine vision. Germany will, at some future date, be able to run its entire economy and society on renewables. The problem is that, since her post-Fukushima u-turn on nuclear, Merkel has not said what energy sources other than renewables should be used until that date; and she has never said when she thinks Germany will be 100% renewable. The only country I know of that has set this target is Denmark, which aims to be totally reliant on renewables by 2050. Germany will take longer. The earliest plausible date for that country is 2060.

So, what non-renewable fuel should be used until then?

The German green activists I have discussed this with argue that gas with combined heat and power (CHP) is sufficiently low-carbon. Gas is lower carbon than coal, and is more energy efficient with CHP than without. However, it is not low-carbon enough. Nuclear is much lower carbon, but there is no real chance of Germany changing its policy on nuclear again. So carbon capture and storage (CCS) is the only available choice. Alarmingly, German greens also oppose CCS.

To make matters even worse, Germany is burning more coal. The US is exporting coal because it now has so much shale gas. The EU emissions trading system has a price set so low that it is irrelevant. So electricity from coal is now cheaper than electricity from gas. Germany is opening new coal stations without CCS. These were given planning consent before the nuclear phase-out, so cannot be explained by that – but this makes no difference to the climate. Poland is usually blamed for blocking EU progress on climate protection, but, in fact, Germany shares much of the blame (see CER: On target, off track: Europe’s failure to protect the climate).

So, should we Brits be feeling smug that the Germans are not doing quite so well as they think they are?

No. They’re still doing much better than we are on energy efficiency and renewables. They have a progressive approach to wind power, which has led to a proliferation of community owned wind farms. I think they’re wrong on nuclear and CCS, and give too high subsidies to PV, but I’ve been wrong before. And climate protection is too important for point-scoring or schadenfreude.

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