Friday, 26 August 2016

University of Alberta Talk: Renewable Energy – the German Experience (the “Energiewende”)

University of Alberta Talk: Renewable Energy – the German Experience (the“Energiewende”)

This talk was actually delivered early in 2016 (March 16, 2016), though I have only gotten around to writing it up recently.  I suppose that says something about my own renewable energy, or lack thereof, at times.

At any rate, this interesting talk focussed on the experience of Germany, in its efforts to transform to a renewable, sustainable energy regime, known in German as the “Energiewende”.  The talk was given by Prof. Ralf Ludwig of Ludwig Maximillian University, in Germany.  He is a hydro-geologist, rather than an engineer, but as he said, the energy transition has percolated throughout the German economy and academy.  Mind you, hydrogeology has some fairly obvious applications in the world of energy and particularly renewable energy.

Reasons for the Policy

He stated these as the primary reasons for the German Energiewende:
  • The nuclear phase-out, related to the nuclear accidents in Japan and the earlier accident in the Ukraine.

  • The need to reduce import dependency.  I have heard Europeans repeat this one a number of times.  They seem much more concerned about depending on geopolitically risky fossil fuel sources, such as Russia and the Middle East than we do, here in North America.  Mind you, we have enough of our own fossil fuel supplies (though they are somewhat more expensive), that we can do without these sources, in a pinch.

  •  Climate change.  Europeans seem to have fewer sceptics on the subject, than we do here in North America.  That is probably related to the fact that they don’t have as much vested interests in the domestic fossil fuel industry, as we do.

  •   The need to develop new technology, and stay at the front of the innovation wave.

  •  Generally, they want to demonstrate that a sustainable economy is possible.


Pillars of the Policy

There are two pillars to the German energy transition, renewable energy and efficiency.  The focus of his talk was on the renewable energy pillar.

The German goal is to have 60% of energy produced by renewable resources, by 2050. This should also correspond to a 80-90% reduction in greenhouse gas generation, notably CO2.  For context, it should be noted that 27% of electricity is currently generated by renewables (this actually relates to 2014, so it might be higher now), but the 60% renewable target includes all energy, not just the replacement of current electrical generation (i.e. transportation and heating energy are also to be replaced by renewables).

An important part of the strategy has been the use of feed-in tariffs, for renewable electrical energy.  Essentially, this means encouraging solar and wind power via paying higher electrical rates to producers who use these methods.  This strategy has been highly successful (almost too much so, he says).   Some features of the strategy:

  • Fixed prices (so that producers can budget and plan).

  • Guaranteed grid access (so that producers can be assured of a market).

  • The strategy is modifiable, as technology changes (e.g. more efficient solar panels).

  • The effect on non-renewable sources can be offset by other charges, when it is deemed desirable.

  • Energy intensive industries can get a break on the higher prices during the transition, so as not to harm them unduly.

As noted above, about 27% of electricity was generated by renewables in 2014.  That represents an increase of about 10 times, over the 1990s, so the growth has been substantial.

Solar and wind have been the main renewable suppliers. The type of resource being developed has been optimized for local conditions, with wind prevailing at the coast, and solar in the south (Bavaria).    It is estimated that this transition has prevented 102 mega-tonnes of C02 from being produced.

There has been a movement towards small-scale energy production and distribution during the Energiewende.  Cooperative ownership models have helped in convincing citizens to buy in to the program.  Whole villages are sometimes involved in the cooperatives, for example.  Often, the sources are owned 50% or more, by local people.  Generally speaking, there is wide acceptance of the policy in Germany, though naturally, there are some NIMBY (not in my back yard) elements.



He noted some popular myths about the transition, and gave some clarity on those myths:

·         Myth 1 - It is an irrational response to the Japanese Fukushima nuclear disaster.
o   No, the roots of the program go long before that, with various strong concerns about the environment and energy security being motivators.

·         Myth 2 - it is immensely expensive.
o   Yes, it has been costly, but it has also generated substantial economic benefits.  For example, solar is now a significant industry, which didn’t exist previously.  About 400,000 jobs have been created around Germany in renewables, and they have been widely distributed around the country, rather than benefitting only a few regions.  Import substitution has also been a major benefit, in terms of trade and geopolitical security (Russian gas has been displaced, for example).

·         Myth 3 - the nuclear shutdown has created the need for imports.
o   To some extent true, though it is a temporary situation.  In fact, Germany is now exporting electricity.

·         Myth 4 - there would be power outages.
o   This never happened (in fact, Canada has had more problems than Germany, in this regard).

·         Myth 5 - Germany would have to increase its coal usage.
o   This was temporary, during the turn away from nuclear.  Coal usage is now back to historical lows.  In fact, though some coal power is still being produced, that is now going down, even below historical lows.


Problems that have been Encountered

Obviously, no policy of this significance can be problem-free, so here are some of the problems that Professor Ludwig noted:

  • These technologies are intermittent by their nature (wind doesn’t always blow, and sun doesn’t always shine), so the problem of grid stability is ever present.

  • There are environmental impacts, such as:

o   Toxic waste in producing solar panels, etc.

o   Land use conflicts, since solar and wind do need land bases, and hydro often means flooding (Germany has developed more hydro in some areas).

o   Resources are consumed, for example in the building of panels.

o   There are potential health issues, such as noise from wind generators that are placed too close to human habitations.

  • There can be a “status quo” threat, that inhibits public acceptance.  That can be by other producers, consumers or bystander parties.

  • Costs can be higher, compared to alternatives.  For example, 44 cents per KwHr is common in Germany, whereas about 12 cents per KwHr is more the norm in Edmonton (in Alberta, Canada, which is a fossil fuel rich province).  Note that this is “all-in” costs; production, distribution, etc.

  • With less “base load” production, power generation can fluctuate more, due to the variation in wind-speed and sunshine (though these tend to even out over longer time spans and distances).

  • This can also create some unbalanced loads, in terms of regional usage and regional demand.

  • New, smart infrastructure is needed (e.g. to distributed power more efficiently) but there is often resistance to big power lines and the like.

  • Climate change can adversely effect renewables, such as low water levels reducing hydro power.


Overall Conclusions

·         The program is well established.

·         It will probably hit its targets.

·         There will be many benefits.

·         The German economy will benefit, by being a first mover in renewable energy innovation.
·         Germany will be a lesson and guide for other countries.

·         With Germany’s issues around energy security and environmental problems, there is really no alternative.

·         From Alberta’s standpoint, there is a rich history of Alberta-German collaboration in industry and the academy, and that collaboration can grow and prosper via the energy transformation in both areas.

Here's a link to the German Energy Transition site, with lots more information:


And now, here's a link to some science fiction (because we can't be reading about renewable energy all the time), the universe of Kati of Terra:

 Kati 1 - Escape from the Drowned Planet
Kati and Mikal's escape from the alien slaver Gorsh.
Amazon U.S.:
Amazon U.K.:

Kati 2 - On Assignment on the Planet of the Exalted
Kati and Mikal follow the trail of justice to the planet Vultaire.
Amazon U.S.:
Amazon U.K.:

Kati 3 - Showdown on the Planet of the Slavers
Kati and Mikal must battle Gorsh on his home turf.
Amazon U.S.:
Amazon U.K.:


  1. It pays to talk provide both sides of a story.

    From the German Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy, second in command to Merkel, who was also the Federal Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety from 2005 to 2009:

    “...I don’t know any other economy that can bear this burden [$30billion a year]...We have to make sure that we connect the energy switch to economic success, or at least not endanger it. Germany must focus on the cheapest clean-energy sources as well as efficient fossil-fuel-fired plants to stop spiraling power prices."

    While renewable aid costs are at the “limit” of what the economy can bear, Germany will keep pushing wind and solar power, the most cost-effective renewable sources, Gabriel said. Biomass energy is too expensive and its cost structure hasn’t improved, he said...

    Germany is demonstrating the real world cost of trying to reduce emissions with only renewables; $30 billion a year, according to Germany's economics ministry. $30 billion a year would pay for forty custom built $7.5 billion Generation III AP1000 reactors over ten years ($30B/year x 10years = $300B, $300B/$7.5B = 40 AP1000 reactors). Add those to existing reactors and they could supply about 97% of Germany's electricity by 2025. And their emissions reductions have been flat for the last six years ...six years of carbon in the atmosphere we can't get back.

  2. Germany seems pretty intent on not going nuclear, but time will tell, whether their current strategy pans out.