Germans switch on to green power

When you fly over Germany you see wind turbines dotted all over the countryside.

The European economic powerhouse is in the midst of a massive transformation of its energy sector: pulling out of nuclear, looking to phase out coal, and building lots of wind and solar.

It’s cited by energy and climate experts as an example of the direction Australia should be looking.

But for those within Germany, while the news is good, the hype is sometimes bigger than the reality.

The electricity sector in 2016 had 29 per cent renewables – mainly wind, but also solar, biomass and hydro – but there was still 40 per cent from coal plants and the rest split between nuclear and gas.

The government wants the country’s power source to be all renewable by 2050.

As well as climate change, the 2011 Fukushima crisis was instrumental in driving a lot of the new thinking about electricity generation.

Germany’s eight existing nuclear power plants will all close by 2022, an accelerated timetable prompted by the disaster in Japan.

The German Renewable Energy Federation’s Robert Brandt thinks renewable projects being built and planned will be enough to replace this nuclear capacity in time.

But Germany also has a huge advantage over Australia in meeting energy demands: it is part of the European Union.

If there isn’t enough wind or sun, power can be brought in from neighbouring France or Poland (at the moment mainly nuclear and coal respectively) to fill the shortfall.

Conversely, if Germany is making more electricity than its residents need, that green power can be sold elsewhere.

“It’s not a question of if we need imports or not – we want to be connected with the other parts,” Brandt tells AAP in Berlin.

“We’re part of (the) European Union and it’s not efficient if we only think we should build renewable energies just for Germany.”

This connectivity also means the need for storage hasn’t been as pressing an issue as it has become in Australia, although it is likely to be part of the eventual solution for dealing with dunkelflaute (literally “dark doldrums”), the few weeks in winter when it’s very cold but also dark and with little wind.

However, while the electricity transition is going along well, in terms of cutting emissions overall there is a lot more to do.

“The problem is mainly the heating sector … and (transport) is a big point here, we still have a lot of diesel and gasoline cars,” Brandt says.

Germans are slowly starting to get on board with electric vehicles, partly shocked into action by the diesel scandal when Volkswagen was found to have been gaming the system and having much higher emissions than it claimed for its cars.

Another problem is that recent changes to incentives for renewables have slowed the pace of investment.

This year – driven by a change in EU regulations – the government switched from a feed-in tariff to running reverse auctions.

It’s created a couple of difficulties.

Firstly, the government gets to set the capacity it wants each auction to meet and Brandt’s group doesn’t think the level is high enough for what’s needed.

Secondly, it changes the risk profile and makes it harder for smaller scale projects.

To date, a lot of individuals or communities – the farmer who wants to build a turbine in their paddocks, the community that sets up rooftop solar – were able to easily access subsidies and drove a lot of the investment in renewables.

Now the big energy companies are the ones most likely to win the auctions because they can spread their risk across multiple projects and offer the lowest prices.

Brandt believes it should be possible to phase out coal by 2035-2040 and use gas only as an interim, flexible fuel.

He acknowledges the political difficulty of shut-downs, but also points out there are already 350,000 jobs in renewables.

“We need these people – we need experts in engineering,” he said.

“They will have different jobs but there will still be jobs.”

Overall, Brandt is positive about the future.

“In 1990, nobody said that this can be possible. Everybody said ‘OK there will be like four per cent of renewables in the system and if more it will not be working’.

“If you ask (now) if it’s possible that we can have a fully renewable mix in 2050 … yes, we believe it’s possible.”


Credit: SBS