Ger­many’s En­ergy Co­nun­drum

Newsweek - - Con­tents - EUROPE BY DANIELLA CHES­LOW @Dach­es­low

on a blaz­ing hot au­gust day on Ger­many’s Baltic Sea coast, a few hun­dred tourists skip the beach to visit the “Fas­ci­na­tion Offshore Wind” ex­hi­bi­tion, held in the port of Mukran at the Arkona wind park. They stand fac­ing the sea, gawk­ing at white fiber­glass blades, which at 250 feet are longer than the wing­span of a 747 aircraft. Those blades, they’re told, will soon be spin­ning atop 60 wind-tur­bine tow­ers bolted to con­crete pil­ings driven deep into the seabed 20 miles offshore. By early 2019, Arkona is ex­pected to gen­er­ate 385 megawatts, enough elec­tric­ity to power 400,000 homes.

“We re­ally would like to give the pub­lic an idea of what we are go­ing to do here,” says Silke

Steen, a man­ager at Arkona. “To let them say,

‘Wow, im­pres­sive!’”

Had the tourists turned their backs to the sea and faced in­land, they would have taken in an equally mon­u­men­tal sight, though this one isn’t on the day’s agenda: gi­ant steel pipes coated in gray con­crete, stacked five high and laid out in long rows on a stretch of dirt. The port man­ager tells me that the rows of 40-foot-long, 4-foot-thick pipes are so big that they can be seen from outer space. They are des­tined for the Nord Stream 2 pipe­line, a colos­sus that, when com­pleted next year, will ex­tend nearly 800 miles from Rus­sia to Ger­many, bring­ing twice the amount of gas that a cur­rent pipe­line car­ries.

The two projects, whose cargo yards are within a few hun­dred feet of each other, pro­vide a con­trast be­tween Ger­many’s dream of re­new­able en­ergy and the po­lit­i­cal re­al­i­ties of cheap Rus­sian gas. In 2010, Ger­many an­nounced an am­bi­tious goal of gen­er­at­ing 80 per­cent of its elec­tric­ity from re­new­able sources by 2050. In 2011, it dou­bled down on the com­mit­ment by de­cid­ing to shut down ev­ery last nu­clear power plant in the coun­try by 2022. The Ger­man gov­ern­ment has paid more than $600 bil­lion to cit­i­zens and com­pa­nies that gen­er­ate so­lar and wind power. As a re­sult, the gen­er­at­ing ca­pac­ity from re­new­able sources has soared: In 2017, a third of the na­tion’s elec­tric­ity came from wind, so­lar, hy­dropower and bio­gas, up from 3.6 per­cent in 1990.

But Ger­many’s lofty vi­sion has run into a gritty re­al­ity: Re­plac­ing fos­sil fu­els and nu­clear power in one of the largest in­dus­trial nations in the world is po­lit­i­cally more dif­fi­cult and ex­pen­sive than plan­ners thought. It

has forced Ger­many to put the brakes on its am­bi­tious re­new­ables pro­gram, ramp up its in­vest­ments in fos­sil fu­els and, to some ex­tent, put its lead­er­ship role in the fight against cli­mate change on hold.

The trou­ble lies with Ger­many’s elec­tric­ity grid. So­lar and wind power call for more com­plex and ex­pen­sive dis­tri­bu­tion net­works than con­ven­tional large power plants do. “What the Ger­mans were good at was get­ting new tech­nol­ogy into the mar­ket, like wind and so­lar power,” said Arne Jungjo­hann, author of En­ergy Democ­racy: Ger­many’s EN­ERGIEWENDE to Re­new­ables. To achieve its goals, “Ger­many needs to over­haul its whole grid.”


The boom in wind power has cre­ated an unan­tic­i­pated mis­match be­tween sup­ply and de­mand. Big wind tur­bines, es­pe­cially offshore plants such as Arkona, pro­duce pow­er­ful, con­cen­trated gusts of en­ergy. That’s good when the fac­tory that needs that en­ergy is nearby and the wind kicks up dur­ing work­ing hours. It’s an­other mat­ter when fac­to­ries are hun­dreds of miles away.

In Ger­many, wind farms tend to be lo­cated in the blus­tery north. Many of the na­tion’s big fac­to­ries lie in the south, which also hap­pens to be where most of the coun­try’s nu­clear plants are be­ing moth­balled. Get­ting that power from north to south is prob­lem­atic. On windy days, north­ern wind farms gen­er­ate too much en­ergy for the grid to han­dle. Power lines get over­loaded. To cope, grid op­er­a­tors ask wind farms to dis­con­nect their tur­bines from the grid— those el­e­gant blades that tourists so ad­mired sit idle. To en­sure a sup­ply of power, op­er­a­tors em­ploy backup gen­er­a­tors at great ex­pense. These so-called re-dis­patch­ing costs ran to 1.4 bil­lion euros ($1.6 bil­lion) last year.

The so­lu­tion is to build more power trans­mis­sion lines to take the ex­cess wind from north­ern wind farms to south­ern fac­to­ries. A grid ex­pan­sion pro­ject is un­der­way to do ex­actly that. Nearly 5,000 miles of new trans­mis­sion lines, at a cost of bil­lions of euros, will be paid for by util­ity cus­tomers. So far, less than a fifth of the lines have been built.

The grid ex­pan­sion is “cat­a­stroph­i­cally be­hind sched­ule,” En­ergy Min­is­ter Peter Alt­maier told the Han­dels­blatt busi­ness news­pa­per in Au­gust. Among the set­backs: cit­i­zens liv­ing along the route of four high-volt­age power lines have de­manded the ca­bles be buried un­der­ground, which has added to the time and ex­pense. The lines won’t be fin­ished be­fore 2025—three years af­ter the last nu­clear power plant is due to close down.

With this back­log, the gov­ern­ment has put the brakes on wind power, re­duc­ing the num­ber of new con­tracts for farms and cur­tail­ing the amount it pays for re­new­able en­ergy. “In the past, we have fo­cused too much on the mere ex­pan­sion of re­new­able en­ergy ca­pac­ity,” Joachim Pfeif­fer, a spokesman for the Chris­tian Demo­cratic Union, wrote to Newsweek. “We failed to syn­chro­nize this ex­pan­sion of gen­er­a­tion with grid ex­pan­sion.”

Ad­vo­cates of re­new­ables are up in arms, ac­cus­ing the gov­ern­ment of suɼo­cat­ing their in­dus­try and mak­ing plan­ning im­pos­si­ble.

Ad­vo­cates of re­new­ables are up in arms, ac­cus­ing the gov­ern­ment of suf­fo­cat­ing their in­dus­try and mak­ing plan­ning im­pos­si­ble. Thou­sands of peo­ple lost their jobs in the wind in­dus­try, ac­cord­ing to Wol­fram Ax­thelm, CEO of the Ger­man Wind En­ergy As­so­ci­a­tion. “For 2019 and 2020, we see a highly prob­lem­atic sit­u­a­tion for the in­dus­try,” he wrote in an email.


Nord Stream 2, by con­trast, is pro­ceed­ing ac­cord­ing to sched­ule. A beige and black barge, Cas­toro 10, hauls dozens of lengths of gi­ant pipe off Ger­many’s Baltic Sea coast, where a weld­ing ma­chine con­nects them for low­er­ing onto the seabed.

The $11 bil­lion pro­ject is funded by Rus­sian state gas mo­nop­oly Gazprom and five Euro­pean in­vestors, at no di­rect cost to the Ger­man tax­payer. It is slated to cross the ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters of five coun­tries— Ger­many, Rus­sia, Fin­land, Swe­den and Den­mark. All but Den­mark have ap­proved the route. “We have good rea­son to believe that af­ter four gov­ern­ments said yes, that Den­mark will also ap­prove the pipe­line,” says Nord Stream 2 spokesman Jens Mueller.

Con­struc­tion of the pipe­line off Fin­land be­gan in Septem­ber, and the gas is ex­pected to start flow­ing in late 2019, giv­ing Rus­sia lever­age to in­crease its share of the Euro­pean gas mar­ket. It al­ready pro­vides a third of the gas used in the EU and will likely pro­vide more af­ter the Nether­lands stops its gas pro­duc­tion in 2030. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has called the pipe­line “a very bad thing for NATO” and said that “Ger­many is to­tally con­trolled by Rus­sia.” U.S. se­na­tors have threat­ened sanc­tions against com­pa­nies in­volved in the pro­ject. Ukraine and Poland are con­cerned the new pipe­line will make older pipe­lines in their ter­ri­to­ries ir­rel­e­vant.

Ger­man lead­ers are also wary of de­pen­dence on Rus­sia but are un­der con­sid­er­able pres­sure to de­liver en­ergy to in­dus­try. In­deed, among the pipe­line’s in­vestors are Ger­man com­pa­nies that want to run their fac­to­ries, like BASF’S Win­ter­shall sub­sidiary and Uniper, the Ger­man util­ity. “It’s not that Ger­many is naive,” says Kirsten West­phal, an en­ergy ex­pert at the Ger­man In­sti­tute for In­ter­na­tional and Se­cu­rity Af­fairs. It’s just prag­matic. “Eco­nom­i­cally, the judg­ment is that yes, this gas will be needed, we have an im­port gap to fill.”

The elec­tric­ity trans­mis­sion prob­lem has also opened an op­por­tu­nity for lig­nite coal, the most car­bon-in­ten­sive fuel avail­able and the source for nearly a quar­ter of Ger­many’s power. Min­ing com­pa­nies are ex­pand­ing their op­er­a­tions in coal-rich re­gions to strip out the fuel while it is still rel­e­vant. In the vil­lage of Pödel­witz, 155 miles south of Berlin, most houses fea­ture a white sign with the logo of Mi­brag, the Ger­man min­ing gi­ant, which has paid nearly all the 130 res­i­dents to re­lo­cate. The com­pany plans to level the vil­lage and scrape lig­nite that lies be­low the soil.

A resur­gence in coal helped raise car­bon emissions in 2015 and 2016 (2017 saw a slight de­cline), main­tain­ing Ger­many’s place as Europe’s largest car­bon emit­ter. Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel has scrapped her pledge to slash car­bon emissions to 40 per­cent of 1990 lev­els by the year 2020. Sev­eral mem­bers have threat­ened to re­sign from her pol­icy com­mis­sion on coal if the gov­ern­ment al­lows util­ity com­pany RWE to mine for lig­nite in Ham­bach For­est.

Only a few years ago, dur­ing the Paris cli­mate talks, Ger­many led the EU in push­ing for am­bi­tious plans to curb emissions. Now, it seems to be hav­ing se­cond thoughts. Re­cently, the Euro­pean Union’s cli­mate chief, Miguel Arias Cañete, sug­gested EU nations step up their com­mit­ment to re­duce car­bon emissions by 45 per­cent of 1990 lev­els in­stead of 40 per­cent by 2030. “I think we should first stick to the goals we have al­ready set our­selves,” Merkel replied. “I don’t think per­ma­nently set­ting our­selves new goals makes any sense.”

A resur­gence in coal helped raise car­bon emissions in 2015 and 2016, main­tain­ing Ger­many’s place as Europe’s largest car­bon emit­ter.

BLOWIN’ IN THE WIND A tur­bine owned by Ger­man en­ergy com­pany E.ON. Right: Pipes for Nord Stream 2, which will sup­ply Rus­sian gas to Europe.

CLI­MATE MIND CHANGE Merkel has scrapped her pledge to slash car­bon emissions to 40 per­cent of 1990 lev­els by 2020.

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