Reality Check Germany's Defective Green Energy Game Plan

Germany pretends to be a pioneer in the green revolution. But its massively expensive Energiewende has done nothing to make the environment cleaner or encourage genuine efficiency. One writer argues: Either do it right, or don't do it at all.

All of the wind turbines, rooftop solar panels, hydroelectric and biogas plants in Germany have not reduced CO2 emissions in Europe by a single gram.

All of the wind turbines, rooftop solar panels, hydroelectric and biogas plants in Germany have not reduced CO2 emissions in Europe by a single gram.

A Commentary By

So, perhaps you've heard about Germany's heroic green revolution, about how it's overhauling its entire energy infrastructure to embrace renewable energy sources? Well, in reality, our chimney stacks are spewing out more than ever, and coal consumption jumped 8 percent in the first half of 2013. Germans are pumping more climate-killing CO2 into the air than they have in years. And people are surprised.

Why coal, you might ask? Aren't Germans installing rooftop solar panels and wind turbines everywhere? What's being done with the billions of euros from the renewable energy surcharge, which is tacked onto Germans' power bills to subsidize green energy and due to rise again soon? This is certainly not how we imagined the Energiewende, Germany's push to abandon nuclear energy and promote renewable sources, which Chancellor Angela Merkel's government launched in 2011 in the wake of the Fukushima disaster.

This same government acts as if this coal fever were merely a growing pain or transitional problem. But that's not true. Instead, it stems from structural flaws in the Energiewende. Renewable energy and the coal boom are causally linked. The insane system to promote renewable energy sources ensures that, with each new rooftop solar panel and each additional wind turbine, more coal is automatically burned and more CO2 released into the atmosphere.

Counterincentives Galore

Indeed, Merkel's Energiewende is morphing into an environment killer. It burdens the climate, accelerates the greenhouse effect and causes irreversible damage.

Take the fluctuation/storage problem: Sun and wind sometimes provide an abundance of electricity, and then nothing at all -- depending on the time of day and the weather. When they are pumping out lots of power, however, very little of the surplus can be stored because there is a lack of appropriate technology and the incentives to develop it.

German law stipulates that renewable energy always has priority in the grid. When gaps emerge in the electricity supply, though, they have to be bridged by conventional power plants. Unfortunately, these are usually not gas plants, but ones burning cheaper coal. As long as there are no storage facilities for green electricity, every wind turbine and every rooftop solar panel will cast a dark shadow.

And then there is the brake on investments: The price of electricity at noon used to be particularly high due to the large demand. Today, it's often particularly low because large amounts of solar power are flowing into the grid. Subsidized and privileged solar electricity is forcing other power plants out of the market. Only cheap coal can compete on price. Nearly all plans for the construction of new, better and more efficient power plants have been shelved. Nobody invests in facilities that don't pay off. Instead, the energy companies are drawing as much electricity as possible from their power plants that are slated to be phased out.

Likewise, there is the dilemma over the right to pollute: Germany's efforts to promote green energy are colliding with the European emissions trading system. Every kilowatt hour of renewable energy frees up emissions allowances.

These allowances are regrettably not discarded, but are instead sold and used elsewhere to offset pollution by the Spanish cement industry, Polish lignite plants and German steel mills, for example. All of the wind turbines, rooftop solar panels, hydroelectric and biogas plants in Germany have not reduced CO2 emissions in Europe by a single gram. On the contrary, they have helped lower the price of emissions allowances on the European carbon market -- much to the delight of Europe's dirtiest industries.

And let's not forget the bureaucracy monster: German bureaucrats have come up with over 4,000 different subsidy categories for renewable energy, apparently adhering to the principle that what is particularly expensive has to be lavishly subsidized. As a result, a large proportion of the subsidies are used to support highly inefficient technology, such as solar parks in regions of eastern Germany that receive relatively little sunlight and wind turbines far off Germany's North Sea coast.

The bureaucratic system also puts the brakes on innovation. Little research is conducted in areas in which no subsidies beckon. Technical progress is hobbled by the ploddingly predictable imagination of civil servants.

Change It, or Ditch It

Unfortunately, the debate on the Energiewende revolves almost entirely around costs. Germany is about to get a new coalition government -- and one without the business-friendly Free Democrats. But the future government has to do much more than just continue to squabble over the financial details. It has to remedy the fundamental design flaws; and, if it doesn't, the Energiewende will lose its legitimacy.

Granted, it's annoying that switching to renewable energies is driving up the price of electricity. But it can't be avoided. Still, if the Energiewende turns out to be a climate killer, it would be better to call the whole thing off.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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jamawani 10/25/2013
1. Germany's Green Energy
Note the following two statements: "Unfortunately, the debate on the Energiewende revolves almost entirely around costs." And - - "Granted, it's annoying that switching to renewable energies is driving up the price of electricity. But it can't be avoided." This is why the so-called left in Europe is losing the working class and working poor to right-wing parties. From Golden Dawn in Greece to the Popular Party in Norway, right-wing parties have shown the most consistent growth in nearly every European nation. Meanwhile left parties - especially those that represent the interests of working people - are in headlong retreat. One would have to be comatose not to have noticed the 25% unemployment in much of southern Europe and the 50% youth unemployment. Even in northern Europe wages and benefits have been stagnant or rolled back. Meanwhile, electricity cost have skyrocketed at a time when energy costs worldwide have been flat, even declining in some areas. One ought to ask why. Why have electricity costs doubled in Germany over the past decade, giving Germany - along with Denmark - the highest electricity costs in the world. Do the views expressed in this article indicate an utter disregard for the basic living conditions for the least-advantages members of European society? And should anyone be surprised when working people vote in droves for the Front National in France or the Freedom Party in Austria? Green activists consider themselves leftists, but in many respects their actions are reactionary and bourgeois.
harry.haddad 10/25/2013
2. Germany must reconsider nuclear energy
Germany has made a huge mistake in trying to phase out nuclear energy. Nuclear energy is one of the cleanest methods of generating energy there is. It's not rational for Germany to launch a jihad against nuclear energy just because of such a rare occurrence such as Fukushima. The answer should not be attempts to get rid of nuclear energy, but rather the answer is increasing the safety and oversight of the nuclear reactors. In addition, there should be a streamlining of regulation on the biotechnology industry and Germany should also invest significantly more money into science, research, and education so she can generate a more prosperous future for herself as well as securing potential future sources of unlimited and completely safe energy capabilities with no emissions such as nuclear fusion.
steve i 10/26/2013
3. The technology gap
The reality is that the science is not yet sufficiently advanced. Germany has invested far too much in rolling out sub-standard technology. Wind farms and solar energy simply cannot produce continuity of supply or sufficient quantity of supply, unless you want to cause additional environmental problems. The better strategy would have been to maintain the status quo and invest heavily in the sort of game-changing technology that is really needed - and would also put Germany at the forefront of the next wave of energy generation. It's not too late to admit you were wrong, Angela. 11/15/2013
4. Answer to post #2
I beg to differ. Nuclear technology uses tons of fossil fuel. And since that last earthquake disaster in Japan, the nuclear mess left behind has had far worse and more far-reaching consequences than the earthquake itself. How many people will die of cancer from the radioactive pollution? And nobody has ever figured out what to do with nuclear waste. As an American living on the Pacific coast, I and many others worry how much of that waste has drifted here and how safe it is to eat fish anymore. Anyone who would defend this dangerous (and prohibitively expensive) technology should have his head examined. - Doro
SteveK9 11/29/2013
The problem is/was the irrational turn away from nuclear power. Unless that is reversed there will be more coal burning ... there is no other choice. You cannot power an advanced industrial civilization with wind / solar, unless you are willing to tolerate a substantial lowering of the standard of living. The effort and cost required to make that happen is astronomical. Look to your neighbor France if you want to discover how to have cheap energy and clean air.
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