Germany's energy plan - where does renewable energy fit in?

Gail Rajgor

Husum/EU PV SEC preview, part 1: Aiming for 80% of its electricity supply to come from renewables by 2050, Germany has set itself one of the hardest challenges around. So how can it be achieved?

Wherever you go in Germany it is not long before you see a swathe of roofs covered with solar photovoltaics (PV), or a series of wind turbines dotted around the landscape.

Germany's long heritage in renewable energy development is backed up by its industry events - two of the major ones being Intersolar (Munich) and Husum Wind, the latter taking place this week. And even this year's EU PV SEC will take place in the country (in Hamburg) later this month.

Long backed by some of the most progressive legislation and market frameworks in the world, Germany has become the flagship country for renewable energy deployment worldwide. A flick through our Focus on renewable power generation in our latest issue (see pages 30-50) makes that abundantly clear – the European giant heads the world table for renewable energy use generally, and heads Europe in biomass, wind power, and storage hydro solutions, while also being right up there for solar power installations.

Indeed, by end 2011, cumulative installed renewable energy capacity in Germany was 65.5GW, accounting for 20% of the country's electricity supply, with a combined output of 121.9TWh. Wind power leads, accounting for 38.1% of the sector's output, followed by hydro (16%), PV (15.6%) and biomass (30%). It's worth noting also that while wind leads generation capacity tables, in terms of investment levels in 2011, PV was king. PV accounted for €15bn of the €22.9bn invested in new renewable energy facilities in Germany in 2011, while wind power accounted for €2.95bn and biomass €2bn in comparison.

While other countries are still struggling to reach the 20% supply point, Germany has no intention of resting on its laurels. Research and development is taking place in virtually every region, with the country fast becoming a pioneer of the latest in bioenergy, green hydrogen, and energy storage technologies alongside new wind and solar PV technology. It has major ambitions for e-mobility and smart grid development too – these are seen as the key to achieving its ever-ambitious renewable energy goals.

Bold ambitions

And those goals are quite something. Germany significantly upped the ante last year when the federal government decided to speed up the phasing out of nuclear in the country, following the catastrophe at Fukushima. Shutting down eight nuclear power plants almost immediately after the disaster, Chancellor Angela Merkel decreed all the country's nuclear power plants will be offline by 2022. To fill the gap more renewable energy generation is planned.

By 2020, the aim is for 35% of Germany's power to come from renewables and for 18% of its overall energy including heat and transport fuel too. By 2050, the target for renewables electricity is a mammoth 80% of national power supply. What the German government has in mind is quite simply a complete energy transformation – a revolution with renewables leading the way.

Achieving that is “feasible in principle” but will not be easy, says Professor Dr. Claudia Kemfert, Head of the Department of Energy, Transportation and Environment at the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin). “A successful turnaround involves much more than shutting down nuclear power plants,” says the woman who is a also key advisor to the President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barrso in the High Level Group on Energy and Climate.

Germany is a huge country, and while nuclear power currently accounts for 18% of its electricity supply, the fact is that coal is the major force in the energy mix. More than 40% of Germany's electricity is generated from the black stuff.

“The 18% [nuclear component] can easily be substituted by renewable energy by 2020 – that's not the problem,” Kemfert says. The problem is additional and future supply gaps and meeting the country's long-term goals. Which technology the country should back to do this is “the big question”, she says.

Half of Germany's ageing coal-fired generation plant is scheduled for decommissioning by 2022, like nuclear. While more than 20 new coal power stations, totaling approximately 12GW, are planned or under construction, it equates to about 12% of the nation's electricity production. This, Kemfert explains, means they will only replace the output lost from some power plants due to be decommissioned anyway.

Fear is already mounting that if renewables can't deliver as planned at the right price, building even more coal plants could be seen as the only way to ensure security of supply at reasonable cost in the long term. If Germany is serious about its green agenda, coal barely fits the bill, so the pressure is on for the Government to get things right.

Gas could be a better option to fill the void alongside renewables, Kemfert suggests. This is down to environmental reasons but also because gas plants can be powered up and shut down quickly – for this reason it works well alongside fluctuating renewable energy sources.

However, “any plan that aggressively supports expansion in the renewable sector and replaces decommissioned coal-fired plants with natural gas power stations will be expensive”, she says. In Germany gas prices are high – it is not benefitting from the international low gas prices coming from the US. “So Germany is leaning towards more coal plants.”

Part 2 will be published shortly...

About: Gail Rajgor is Managing Editor of Renewable Energy Focus.

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