The Impending Power Gap Where Will Germany's Energy Come From?

Nuclear power is too dangerous. Coal is too dirty. Gas involves too much dependence on Russia. And renewables are insufficient. So just where is Germany going to get its power from?

One way to partially address Germany's impending energy crisis would be to connect Sigmar Gabriel  to a district heating pipeline. After all, Germany's environmental minister certainly likes letting off steam.

"We're talking about the core of our industrial society," he tells SPIEGEL, adding that environmental groups are merely helping to support nuclear power by opposing new coal power plants and power lines. And, says Gabriel, the fact that politicians from the center-left Social Democratic Party -- to which he himself belongs -- are joining forces with the environmentalists can only hurt steel and autoworkers, who would suffer as a result of higher electricity prices.

Gabriel is convinced that the general population has little more than a superficial understanding of where energy comes from. "What has now happened is exactly what the old nuclear lobbyists warned against in the past: Citizens think that electricity comes from their wall outlets," Gabriel complains. These days it is even difficult to gain approval for a biomass power plant, he adds.

Gabriel is just getting warmed up. Berlin's grand coalition government, he says, "allowed itself to go far too long without developing a strategic energy policy." But that, he adds, is about to change. Gabriel, it appears, is resorting to an age-old strategy of politicians: Paint an apocalyptic picture of the world so that the public longs for a savior -- and then present yourself as being just that savior.

Gabriel places a position paper on the table. In only 10 pages, it describes the fine balance with which climate protection, the nuclear phase-out, affordable electricity prices and energy security can apparently be combined. Gabriel is anxious not to leave the prerogative of interpretation up to Economics Minister Michael Glos, a member of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), who wants to rehabilitate nuclear power and tone down climate protection. Glos had just upbraided and embarrassed Gabriel a week earlier because of the biofuel debacle , in which Gabriel had to abandon his plans to increase the percentage of ethanol in gasoline.

But finding this fine balance will be difficult. With great resolve, the Social Democratic and Green Party coalition government of former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder wrote into law that Germany would phase out nuclear power by 2022. Current Chancellor Angela Merkel has been equally rigorous -- she benefits from the added legitimacy of being a trained physicist -- in prescribing drastic climate protection goals for Germany: a 40 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2020. But how exactly is this supposed to happen?

Nuclear power is too risky, coal too dirty, gas too Russian and renewables too costly. Is this the new energy consensus?

Until now, the powers-that-be were quick to claim there was plenty of time to reconfigure the energy landscape, make up for the lost output of nuclear power plants when they are phased out and promote energy efficiency nationwide. And there was also enough time, they argued, to convert the sensitive power grid to be able to cope with vast amounts of power from moody and unreliable renewable sources.

But now the doubts have started to crop up. Precisely the opposite of what is actually needed is happening all across Germany: Energy projects of all kinds are being cancelled or scaled back on an almost weekly basis, creating an enormous backlog of investments, even in renewable forms of energy.

There are many causes. Investors are growing tired of waiting out lengthy approval processes and citizen protests against coal power plants, such as those taking place in Ensdorf in the south-western German state of Saarland, in Berlin and Hesse, in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Hamburg. Germans want electricity, but they want it without any risks or side effects whatsoever.

To add to the problem, global demand for power plants has caused prices to double in recent years. And then there are the imponderable costs of even the most efficient new gas power plants, especially now that the European Union has decreed that, beginning in 2013, emitters will have to purchase emission certificates on an exchange for each ton of carbon dioxide they produce. From then on, prices for CO2 emissions rights will fluctuate like the prices of stocks.

In addition to the heads of Germany's major energy utilities, who have until now shamelessly earned billions from their oligopoly, strategists at alternative providers, like German renewable energy company Lichtblick, are also now saying that, unless something changes, Germany is headed for a "power shortfall."

When that happens, electricity will become scarce and far more costly than it already is today. "We could face a power shortfall of between 12,000 and 21,000 megawatts," predicts Wulf Bernotat, the CEO of major German utility company E.on. The figure corresponds to the amount of power generated by at least a dozen large nuclear or coal power plants.

Gabriel insists, at every opportunity, that there is "no power shortfall." All that he means by this is that Germany is unlikely to be plagued by major blackouts. But he does agree that a lack of investment will lead to supply bottlenecks and sharp increases in the cost of electricity, unless Germany builds new power plants and an adequate network of new power lines.

A study by the German Energy Agency (DENA) confirms fears of a power shortfall. However critics say the study's conclusions are hardly surprising, given its origins: In addition to having been created by the energy utilities for a meeting with Chancellor Merkel, the study was also paid for by the utilities. Rainer Baake, the head of the German Environmental Aid Association (DUH), accuses DENA of acting in the interest of the utilities.

Stephan Kohler, the head of DENA, strongly rejects that claim. "Anyone who thinks that we can be bought for €100,000 has taken leave of his senses," he says. The growing power shortage can be calculated away at will, says Kohler, "but only if one uses the wrong methodological approaches."

Under Pressure from All Sides

This aggressive war of words among the experts summarizes the conflict in a nutshell. Environmental groups, Greens, large parts of the SPD and even leading conservative politicians prefer to steer Germany toward complete reliance on renewable energy and natural gas. For them, new coal power plants, even those operating a third more efficiently than those of the previous generation, are nothing short of "climate killers."

Kohler and the utilities, on the other hand, argue that there is only one alternative to building new coal power plants, namely to keep nuclear power plants and old coal plants in operation for a longer period of time.

Gabriel provides some support for the conservative position: "In addition to the coal power plants already under construction, we can build 10 more plants without jeopardizing the climate protection goals," he says. Emissions trading, Gabriel continues, will guarantee that the necessary upper limits for CO2 emissions are not exceeded: "All that matters is how much electricity we can produce per ton of CO2."

Another important issue is what, for example, happens to dinosaurs like the coal-fired power plant in Wedel near Hamburg. The place is reminiscent of an industrial museum.

Martin Erker, who runs the plant, stands in front of a rusted piece of equipment with a dozen pipes protruding from it and peels off sheets of corroded metal. He points to a conveyor belt that's held together by makeshift pieces of sheet metal. "We have to improvise a lot -- we do a lot of patching-up," says Erker, who holds a doctorate in engineering. The sooty rust from the aging machinery has left black marks on his hands.

The plant's efficiency level is a sorry 37 percent, compared to modern coal power plants which operate at levels of more than 46 percent. But the Wedel plant supplies 30 percent of Hamburg's district heating supply, and as such must be kept up and running, at least until there is something else to take its place. Simply shutting it down "would be disastrous," says Erker.

Of course, objections to a new coal power plant in nearby Moorburg are so strong that the Hamburg branch of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is inclined to give in to the Greens in its current negotiations about forming a coalition in the city-state's assembly . To avoid jeopardizing the CDU-Green deal, Chancellor Merkel has instructed her staff in Berlin to downplay the power gap discussion as much as possible.

But the CDU's flirtation with the Greens over environmental policy is even more exasperating for Environment Minister Gabriel in Berlin. The idea that everything can simply be replaced with natural gas is "a fantasy," says Gabriel.

"I have no doubt that the Russians will be happy to supply us with the gas -- but they'll also be naming their price," says Gabriel. He then resorts to the ultimate threat: If blocking new coal power plants sets a precedent, he says, "then, and I say this openly, the pressure to extend the use of nuclear power will eventually become so great that I don't think anyone will be able to stop it."

The Greens, it seems, are being courted by both the SPD and the CDU, each of them touting its commitment to preventing either coal or nuclear power -- and each engaging in party politics instead of promoting policies to safeguard Germany for the future.

Heiko von Tschischwitz, the head of Lichtblick, a successful Hamburg-based provider of electricity from renewable sources, has yet another explanation as to why future-oriented projects are currently being cancelled en masse: "The new construction of power plants is simply unaffordable at this time, especially when there is still not enough demand for the heat they would generate." Even major banks are extremely reluctant to provide loans to build new power plants.

This is attributable to the EU emissions trading system, which makes it very difficult to estimate costs. Coal power plants can barely break even if a ton of CO2 is traded at about €35 ($55) or more. And at higher prices than that, even significantly cleaner gas power plants start running into problems -- unless, that is, electricity prices are increased drastically.

Market experts believe that this is the real reason why the major electric utilities are currently so happy to abandon their new construction projects. Assigning the blame for shutting down a power plant project to a citizens' initiative is apparently much easier than telling customers that electricity prices are simply too low for such investments.

Renewable energy is not capable of filling the gaps in the foreseeable future. Driven by one of the world's most generous payment systems, renewable energy is already responsible for 11.7 percent of electricity produced in Germany today. But now that the initial boom phase is over, the real work begins, especially if the country is to reach its stated goal of renewable energy sources supplying 30 percent of electricity by 2020.

Biomass has fallen into disrepute, partly because it means clearing rainforest but also because the benefits of the technology are questionable even when native plants are used as biomass. High kilowatt costs have been a deterrent to the use of photovoltaic technology. And development of wind farms off the coast has come to a standstill.

Congestion on the Energy Autobahn

Another cause of the impending power gap is the outdated domestic power grid, which is already running up against its limits when it comes to the long-distance transport of power from wind turbines.

No one is more acutely aware of this problem than Klaus Kleinekorte. As the managing director in charge of technology at Transportnetz Strom, a subsidiary of Germany utility giant RWE, Kleinekorte manages more than 12,000 kilometers (7,453 miles) of RWE's high-voltage power lines and provides monitoring services for the entire German high-voltage grid. Kleinekorte's national "grid control room" acts as the brain for a complex national structure.

A wiring diagram on the wall of a nondescript building in Cologne depicts the German high-voltage grid, including power plants and substations. "A 380,000-volt power line is like an autobahn," Kleinekorte explains. "If everyone in Hamburg decided to drive to Italy on vacation at the same time, traffic would come to a standstill on (Germany's main north-south autobahn) the A7."

This is precisely what cannot happen in the power grid, where all voltage fluctuations must be offset within a few seconds, otherwise the entire system would collapse in no time. But it is precisely this equilibrium that has become so difficult to maintain in Germany nowadays.

The emphasis of power production is shifting more and more to northern Germany. In addition to being home to large wind farms, coastal northern Germany, with its ports, is the most logical site for new gas and coal power plants, especially when the potential future option of underwater carbon sequestration is taken into account.

But Germany's power grid is simply not set up for its new energy geography. The country lacks enough power line capacity to transport vast amounts of electricity from the north and east, regions with abundant wind and lower population density, to urban areas where most of the power is consumed.

According to Hans-Peter Villis, the CEO of electric utility EnBW, Germany barely avoided a major blackout in November 2006 because of these capacity problems. Quoting a report by the agency in charge of managing the European power grid, Villis says that "fluctuating high winds" and the failure of various high-voltage lines resulted in an "extremely difficult situation."

These shortcomings, "together with shrinking power plant capacity," says his counterpart at E.on, Wulf Bernotat, "pose an increasingly serious risk to the reliability of supply in Germany." According to Bernotat, blackouts, at least on a local basis, can no longer be ruled out.

"Our company alone is still awaiting the approval of about 800 kilometers (497 miles) of high-voltage lines in Germany," says Bernotat. Admittedly, he has just put his own network up for sale, to avoid the possibility of antitrust action by the European Commission.

Citizens have also successfully blocked the construction of new power lines. In the eastern state of Thuringia, Niederwillingen, a village of 700 inhabitants between the city of Erfurt and the Thüringer Wald region, has spent the last year and a half fighting the "Thuringia Power Bridge," a high-voltage line that is part of a planned system stretching from the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt to Bavaria.

Four thousand activists along the Thuringia segment of the power line are concerned about health hazards, disfigurement of the natural landscape and the resulting adverse effects on tourism and property values in Niederwillingen, voted the "Prettiest Village in Thuringia" in 1995. The activists are incensed over Economics Minister Glos's move to accelerate the approval process for power lines.

The Environment Ministry and the Economics Ministry are deeply divided over the question of whether and how the necessary grid expansion is to be accomplished. Economics Minister Glos is pushing for the construction of more than 800 kilometers (497 miles) of planned overhead power lines. Environment Minister Gabriel favors the use of costly new technologies and methods, such as direct-current transmission lines and underground cables. According to Gabriel, the addition of 850 kilometers (528 miles) of overhead power lines is "simply not feasible, because of protests," a conclusion he reaches partly on the basis of a written report he says that he received from E.on.

Meanwhile, the state of Bavaria finds itself caught between a rock and a hard place. If the power line project in Thuringia fails, the state will lack an important supply line. The growing power-related problems are more severe in Bavaria than in any other German state. Bavaria owes much of its rise from a poor agricultural state to an important economic center, with its automotive and high-tech industries, to nuclear power. The state is too far away from coal-mining regions and ports for coal power plants to be viable. Nuclear power plants, like the Gundremmingen and Isar I and II plants, supply two-thirds of the electricity consumed by Bavaria's 12 million residents. But these plants will eventually have to be shut down.

Emilia Müller, Bavaria's minister of economic affairs and a member of the conservative CSU, is responsible for ensuring an uninterrupted power supply to the state. She anticipates an "extremely difficult situation," one in which the state will have to find a way to make up for the 6,000 megawatts its nuclear power plants currently produce.

What about coal power plants? No one wants to build them in Bavaria, Müller says. As for renewable energy, "it won't be enough, not even with the best will in the world," she says.

What about buying electricity from neighboring countries? "Our neighbors in Austria and the Czech Republic need their electricity themselves."

Bavaria is inevitably dependent on outside sources. It depends on electricity being transmitted through long power lines from northern German wind farms, and it depends on Russian natural gas arriving at the northern Bavarian town of Waidhaus, the main terminal for Russian natural gas at the Czech-German border. Bavaria already has investors for the construction of natural gas power plants, including a 1,375-megawatt facility under construction near the central Bavarian city of Ingolstadt.

But long-distance transports bring instability to the power grid, creating the specter of sudden blackouts. And by depending on natural gas, Bavaria puts itself at the mercy of Russia. For a typical Munich resident, the idea of Bavaria becoming dependent on northern Germany -- or, even worse, Russia -- for its energy is nothing short of horrific.

Selling Nuclear to Pay for Solar?

Recently, even Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has attempted to downplay the fear of Russia among Bavarians and other concerned conservatives with his concept of an "energy foreign policy."

Steinmeier insists that Germany's energy supply is "well-protected by international standards." "We owe our current success to decisions made in the last 35 years," he says. Nevertheless, the country faces a series of tough restrictions and, according to Steinmeier, it can only preserve the status quo if a series of investments are made. "New pipelines have to be built, the country will need new power lines and more efficient coal power plants have to be brought online." All of this, says Steinmeier, must be accomplished quickly "if we are to prevent a return to nuclear energy" and "attain our climate goals."

Steinmeier's main concern is to drum up a sufficient supply of natural gas. With the exception of political hotspots like Iran, Iraq and Venezuela, he has visited almost every serious supplier of oil and natural gas in a move to assert German interests. Officials expect natural gas to be the source of one quarter of German electricity in the future, or about twice the current level.

Steinmeier has spent a lot of time in places from which liquefied natural gas (LNG) could be shipped to Europe in large tankers, as an alternative to the gas transported by pipeline from Russia. But Moscow has done its best to thwart efforts by Berlin and other European nations to secure alternative gas suppliers.

Nevertheless, Steinmeier says that warnings against excessive dependency are "as common as they are inconsequential." "As long as we lack realistic alternatives which are available at short notice, we are only pulling the wool over people's eyes," he says. Referring to the conservative CDU and CSU, Steinmeier says that they are "frivolously fostering public anxiety over Russia."

Chancellor Merkel, for her part, has shown little interest in pushing forward with the Baltic Sea pipeline project, which will make it easier to transport Russian gas to Germany and which Steinmeier considers critical to the German and European energy supply.

The uncertainties and problems across the entire spectrum of energy policy, from nuclear to gas to biofuel, also trigger substantial fears within industry. If electricity becomes even more expensive than is foreseeable today, energy-intensive industries could migrate to cheaper locations even more quickly than they are already doing. "By doing nothing, Germany is sealing the fate of its gradual deindustrialization," says Eggert Voscherau, the deputy chairman of German chemical giant BASF. The major industry associations are also calling for a "new energy consensus."

The problem is that up until now the Germans have been too passive in working towards achieving an energy supply that satisfies all requirements; in other words, one that is environmentally friendly, safe and cost-efficient at the same time. They have chosen to fritter away the fruits of their prosperity on day-to-day problems instead of investing them in intelligent preparations for the future -- in other words, in energy research.

In fact, Germany actually offers the ideal conditions to achieve even more impressive technological advances than in the past. The Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), with its 7,500 staff, is a perfect illustration of this potential.

Engineers on the campus of the KIT are testing, for example, a prototype system that converts straw into fuel. In another lab, engineers are developing a highly efficient geothermal power plant, and in yet another, physicists are building giant magnets for the experimental ITER fusion reactor to be based in France.

Everywhere at KIT, solutions are being developed which will not only help Germany, but also the rest of the world, to overcome the most serious energy problems. But the engineers and scientists at the Karlsruhe technology park sense -- precisely because they are so ambitious -- the limits of what they can do. Peter Fritz, the institute's head of research, says that the threat of an energy gap in Germany is not the only reason that "a great deal of know-how and money needs to be mobilized very quickly."

In comparison to the size of the problem, energy research in Germany has tended until now to be somewhat relegated to the sidelines. But it is also a decisive weak point, including in the debate over the expected power shortfall. This is because cutting-edge research offers the best way to limit the costs associated with a massive expansion of renewable energy.

From a global perspective, government research expenditures have hardly increased since the early 1970s, and the situation is especially bleak in Germany. After the 1973 oil crisis, annual expenditures for energy research, adjusted for inflation, were almost doubled to €1.5 billion ($2.37 billion). But then, as the pressure of high oil prices subsided, research budgets were gradually reduced before reaching a record low of just under €360 million ($569 million) in 2001.

Energy research budgets have gone up again since then, but far too slowly. Ironically, the grand coalition makes no secret of its pride in having brought the government's energy research budget back up to above €500 million ($790 million).

KIT research director Fritz isn't surprised that so many important questions still haven't been answered, including the issue of long-term storage of nuclear waste. "It is critical that we bring expenditures back up to €1.5 billion ($2.37 billion)," he says, and he even has a provocative idea to offer: "The government should sell extended operating periods for German nuclear power plants at auction and invest the proceeds in research."

It's a provocative idea: Use yesterday's dirty technology to make a clean future possible? Nuclear money for the great efficiency revolution?

Even Foreign Minister Steinmeier, the architect of Germany's nuclear phase-out, sometimes succumbs to temptation. "Longer operating lives for nuclear power plants would certainly be the easier approach," he says, but adds: "However, accelerated technology development is much better in the long run and provides us with new export markets."

In his position paper, Environment Minister Gabriel warns that more nuclear power would only postpone the necessary investments even longer. But is this necessarily the case?

The KIT idea of using nuclear power plants to fund the solar cells of the future has been completely ignored in Berlin's gridlocked energy policy. Investigating it would mean breaking one of the grand coalition's many energy taboos.

The alliance of Germany's two main parties, which actually derived its legitimacy from its potential to tackle major problems, has only dealt with the lowest common denominator, namely climate protection. Meanwhile, it has managed to avoid the most important tasks, such as developing new ideas like those coming from the KIT, giving investors free market access, securing the power grid and explaining to citizens why coal power plants, pipelines and overhead power lines are also in their interest. All of these objectives must be addressed vigorously if the power shortfall is to be prevented.

Meanwhile Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel has finally gotten his frustrations off his chest. Besides, he needs to get going. He has a meeting with the SPD's Peter Struck to discuss the possibility of Gabriel taking over from him as the party's floor leader.

Is a new energy summit needed -- an alliance for electricity? As he is leaving, Gabriel says: "All we really have to do is follow normal, good energy policies."


Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.
Speichern Sie Ihre Lieblingsartikel in der persönlichen Merkliste, um sie später zu lesen und einfach wiederzufinden.
Jetzt anmelden
Sie haben noch kein SPIEGEL-Konto? Jetzt registrieren