Despite having launched an assertive public policy, the Energiewende, Germany faces numerous challenges to achieving its energy transition. It will have to eliminate coal, in addition to already having decided to phase out nuclear, in order to avoid increasing its CO2 emissions. It must reorganize its power grid on a national scale and find solutions for storing electricity produced using renewables. It needs to reduce its dependence on Russian natural gas. And lastly, it has to reposition powerful industries, like automobile manufacturing, to be less dependent on oil imports.
Climate Goals Not Yet Achieved
Germany is one of Europe’s biggest carbon emitters per capita, with 11.45 metric tons, versus 7.22 metric tons in France, according to the most recent studies1. Germany’s powerIn physics, power is the amount of energy supplied by a system per unit time. In simpler terms, power can be viewed as energy output... generation mix remains extremely carbon-heavy, emitting 500 grams of CO2 per kilowatt-hour, versus 80 grams in France in 2014.
According to the government’s own projections2, Germany will come in five to eight points under its target of reducing greenhouse gas (ghg) Gas with physical properties that cause the Earth's atmosphere to warm up. There are a number of naturally occurring greenhouse gases... emissions by 40% between 1990 and 2020, a goal twice as ambitious as that set by the European Union. The new coalition government formed by the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats in February 2018 reaffirmed the 2030 objective of a minimum 55% reduction.
Historically, CO2 emissions in Germany dropped spectacularly for a period after the country’s reunification in 1990, notably thanks to the rapid modernization of former Communist East Germany’s heavily polluting industry. The 2008 global financial crisis also drove this downward trend. However, emissions began creeping back up in 2012 and 2013 and again, as in other European countries including France, in 2015 and 2016.
Is Coal Responsible?
According to the Germany Ministry, this trend can be attributed almost entirely to the residential sector, due to harsh winters, and transportation, primarily the car, rather than a “return to coalCoal is ranked by its degree of transformation or maturity, increasing in carbon content from... ”. While the sudden shutdown of nuclear reactors in 2011 did indeed correspond to an increase in coal consumption, which at its peak accounted for over 45% of power production in 2013, this figure fell back to 37% in 20173.
Regardless, coal is responsible for around 25% of total emissions in Germany, despite the country’s efforts to reduce its consumption and install new cleaner facilities like the 1.6‑gigawatt plant in Moorburg, close to Hamburg. Burning coal, and especially ligniteRock whose properties are somewhere between peat and coal. It has a carbon content of about 70 to 75%... , presents serious health risks as a result of air pollution. According to a study carried out by four NGOs in 20134, over 22,900 premature deaths in Europe were attributable to pollutants released through the use of coal in European Union Member States, in particular Germany, Poland, the United Kingdom and Spain.
65%: Germany’s new objective for the share of renewables in total power consumption by 2030 (currently one-third).
Managing Power Generation
The large-scale shift toward renewable energies presents two challenges:
- The intermittence (renewable energy)Inability of a renewable energy source to deliver a steady supply of electricity... of wind and solar power require the maintenance, even the growth, of conventional methods of production to meet demand and ensure power grid stability (see Close-Up: “Germany and Renewables: The Case of January 1, 2018”). With nuclear to be eliminated shortly and coal in the medium-term, natural gas will become key. Industry and housing already consume a great deal of gas despite Germany not producing any of the resource and being dependent on imports, in particular from Russia (see Close-Up: “Russian Gas Transit”).
- The large quantity of electricityForm of energy resulting from the movement of charged particles (electrons) through a conductor... produced by wind turbines in the north of the country and introduced onto the power gird have to be transported great distances, particularly to large industrial consumers in the south. The existing grid, however, is designed on an east-west axis. Germany’s organization into Bundesländerand local populations’ reactions make this transformation difficult. Paradoxically, Germany’s energy transition favors greater centralization.
One solution that could work in Germany, and other countries, would be to significantly increase the amount of grid stabilization and electricity storage systems. This is technically possible but extremely costly as things stand; France and Germany are cooperating on research in this area.
Germany will fall five to eight points short of its ambitious goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40% between 1990 and 2020.
The Cost Issue
Despite the decrease in the price of production systems such as solar panels and wind technologies, the cost of electricity for small consumers has actually increase as a result of the rise of renewables, more than doubling between 2000 and 2013. However, the cost of energy for manufacturers has been contained, an indication of the attention Germany pays to its companies’ competitiveness. Another financial issue is the billions of euros that the State must pay to nuclear power companies after the Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe upheld their demand for compensation due to the forced shutdown of nuclear reactors.
The Future of the Automobile Industry
Transportation represents 30% of final energy consumption in Germany, primarily in the form of oil and gas. An assertive effort to develop electric vehicles would make transportation less dependent on fossil fuels. However, as in other countries, this strategy could risk hampering the development of the automobile industry, a symbol of “German quality” already suffering from declining dieselDiesel is the name of an internal combustion engine that works by compression-ignition... engine sales. The electric car has seen a recent surge in popularity in Germany, with some 58,000 new plug-in hybrid and all-electric vehicles on the road in 2017, versus 28,000 in 2016. Germany is on track to become the third-largest electric vehicle market globally, after China and the United States.
(1) Eurostat – 2014 data (in French only)
(4) Climate Action Network (CAN) Europe, WWF, Health and Environment Alliance (Heal) and Sandbag – July 2016.