Dirty error: "We were wrong in the energy revolution"

Ziet Online|Frank Deieschner|December 4, 2014
GermanyEnergy PolicyJobs and Economy

This is an error with ugly consequences. The energy revolution, as it is now applied, results in dirtier air. It ensures that Germany fails at its self-imposed climate goals. The energy revolution inadvertently promotes the use of dirty coal plants and destroys the relatively clean gas power plants. "In retrospect, it all makes sense," says Graichen. 

Germany and its climate goals are clearly failing, even with many new wind turbines and solar panels. How could this happen? 

It's not often that a mastermind of the energy revolution like Patrick Graichen expresses himself this way. .

Graichen is not just anyone. He heads the think tank Agora energy, one of the most influential schools of thought on energy policy in Germany. From 2001 to 2012, Dr. Graichen worked as the Federal Ministry of Environment - first in the field of international climate policy from 2004 to 2006 as Personal Assistant to the Secretary of State and from 2007 as head of the energy and climate policy unit. 

Graichen says in Focus: We were wrong in the energy transition. Not in a few details, but in a central point. We did not know what to expect after building the many new wind turbines and solar panels operating in Germany, We had hoped that they would replace dirty coal plants, the worst source of greenhouse gases. But they do not.

And this error explains why  Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy Sigmar Gabriel urges the disabling of coal power plants . Why will we miss our climate goals in spite of all we've done?

To understand the error, you have to reconsider the basic idea of ​​the energy transition. It went something like this: Germany gets out of nuclear energy and instead it uses renewable energy, solar and wind in particular. When there is not enough green electricity, then power up low-emission gas power plants as necessary. The evil nuclear power disappears first, next the dirty coal power. In turn, the air is cleaner and Germany is an example of leadership on climate change. That's what we all  thought, but unfortunately, we were wrong.

This is an error with ugly consequences. The energy revolution, as it is now applied, results in dirtier air. It ensures that Germany fails at its self-imposed climate goals. The energy revolution inadvertently promotes the use of dirty coal plants and destroys the relatively clean gas power plants. "In retrospect, it all makes sense," says Graichen. 

The "energy revolution paradox": dirty beats expensive

Fukushima in the center of German environmental policy to convert the power supply. For years Graichen believed the fantasy that Germany has promoted for environmental protection.

So what went wrong?

The simplest answer would be: dirty beats expensive. Graichen calls it the "energy revolution paradox". This paradox drives the German electricity market. You have to make clear how the market works to understand the paradox.

Just for us consumers, electricity has a fixed price. The dealer, whose buy current which is procured by him on the power exchange. There, the price of supply and demand matters. If there is less power than there is demand or little produced, then the dealer must pay a high price to producers for their electricity. If the demand falls or supply increases, this results in a drop in the price of electricity.

But those who offer power in the  market,  must also bear the costs themselves. In the case of traditional power plants that are fueled by coal, uranium or gas, that cost is mainly the cost of fuel. If the current price of electricity is too low than a power plant cannot earn enough to cover the fuel costs. In that case, the operator has only one option: he must turn his plant off.

Now  different fuels are priced differently. Uranium is the cheapest, then come lignite and hard coal, with natural gas as the most expensive. Therefore, the gas power plants are often switched off when the current price drops; coal power plants and nuclear power plants are rarely turned off. 

For solar plants and wind turbines other rules apply. They produce no fuel costs, so they can feed their electricity whenever the wind blows or the sun shines. So what happens when a country builds more and more solar panels and wind turbines? Increasingly, there is enough green electricity, sometimes even more than enough. And that is why the current electricity price can drop to the point where power plants must be shut down.

Nuclear power plants are disappearing for another reason: Because we have decided so. The power plants that are constantly being switched off are the gas power plants. And eventually they will no longer be energized but shut down.

"Where a gas power plant was intended to displace coal, it has been, itself, displaced," said Patrick Graichen. More coal power and less nuclear power, more CO₂ and less electricity from gas: This is the development that is going through Germany.

Why is that bad? Because gas is a relatively climate-friendly energy sources - in the production of electricity it generates only half as much carbon dioxide as coal. And because no one knows how the energy transition is to be continued without gas power plants. Just because they can be quickly downloaded and rebooted, gas power plants are a good fit with the fickle green energy production - at least in theory. Wind and sun produce our electricity and gas power plants meet the declining residual demand. That was the plan. But the energy transition has put on a combination of technologies that are destroyed under market conditions themselves: wind and solar power have pushed the gas power plants out of the market, they would need urgently as a partner.

Without gas power plants and without nuclear power only green electricity and coal remain. How bad a match this combination is was shown this year, for example, on 11 May. It was a Sunday, a little stream was used as the closest weekend - but the wind was strong, and the sky was almost cloudless. In the early morning, the solar systems produced almost nothing, the demand had exceeded the supply on the electricity market to a point where the power was literally worthless: The price on the stock market fell to zero. A little later in the morning was so much green electricity on the market that the German producers had to pay money to get rid of it. By the early afternoon, solar power flowed plentifully of these so-called negative electricity price rose to 60 euros per megawatt hour.

And this is not an isolated case, this is the future of the German electricity production. In the first half of 2014, there were 71 hours with negative electricity prices. But in a few years it could be thousand hours a year, according to a calculation of the think tank Energy Brain Pool. A quarter of the total renewable electricity production would be energy waste.

What do the coal plants do when the current price drops and falls? On May 11, one could observe it: They continued to vigorously produced, prefering to sell their producer surplus coal power for ten hours at a "negative current price," then disable their lignite power plants. Environmentalists like blame power plant operators for this climate crime. In reality, they have no other choice. Coal-fired power plants are designed to run almost continuously, they are slow to react, and their performance throttling is expensive. A coal plant operator paying only for the diesel, which he fired to bring the plant back up to operating temperature, a five- or six-figure sum. Moreover, it can not tolerate these power plants to be frequently turned on and off again. If you wanted to use coal to balance the fluctuating production of wind and solar power, the expensive technology of the power plants would be ruined within a few years.

The operators of coal-fired power plants do what they can to adapt their production to the changing volume of green electricity. But they can not do much. "Within the existing system configuration, all bring out what is rauszuholen" Patrick Graichen has observed.

How could this happen?

So, by subsidizing wind and solar energy, we force operators of coal-fired power plants to generate electricity which is not only harmful to the environment but also unnecessary.

How could this happen? How did it come to this massive misdirection?

Graichen Patrick says: "There was a collective misjudgment by reviewers of the industry, according to which the additional renewable energy would displace old coal-fired power plants - and not new gas-fired power plants."

Graichen emphasizes the finding that no one had foreseen this development until the collapse of European CO₂-trade which made carbon so cheap compared to gas that now the gas power plants became uneconomical. But this is more of an excuse than an analysis. The CO₂ price of emissions trading is a predictable: It rises when companies use more fossil energy and the EU falls short of its climate target, and it remains low as long as the EU is on track to achieve their goal. It's been that way for many years, which is why the low price of CO₂ should not surprise anyone.

This will not change in the foreseeable future. And that has consequences far beyond Germany. Because electricity cannot be stored on a large scale, the excess German power must go somewhere. And our neighbors take the electricty gladly, especially when they are paid for it. It's a pretty attractive offer to not only  get electricity for free, but with bonus on top of it -- especially for the Dutch. The Dutch electricity that is derived largely from natural gas plants, is expensive, but gas power plants are so flexible. Whenever German power is available, the Dutch cut their production.

They did last year for the largest importer of German power this ability. The huge surpluses of green electricity that occur in sunny or windy hours in Germany are used to a large extent in the Netherlands.

Unlike the Germans, who were allegedly caught off guard by the development, the Dutch had foreseen the consequences of the energy transition quite well. In Fukushima 2011, when Germany's eco-elite beautifully planed for a nuclear phase-out, Holland's Nora Méray, an energy expert at the Clingendael Institute, asked what energy sources can best compete with the renewable? The answer for Méray: "In the current market  with a mixture of coal and gas powered power plants and a low or non-existent price for carbon emissions. gs plants are better able to replace wind power in most cases."

The energy revolution would not work.

But who would know? Around the renewables industry a real political-industrial complex has grown in recent years. He's probably just the mix between the state and the nuclear industry in the last century comparable in its influence. All the actors in this complex combines an interest: Problems of the energy transition must appear solvable, so that the wind and the sun industry be subsidized. The enthusiasm for green remodeling and enthusiasm for the business of green remodeling are no longer to be distinguished.

And now? "The question is: how many Dutch gas power plants can be repressed," says Patrick Graichen. The answer is: quite a few. Four years ago, the Netherlands  produced over sixty percent of its electricity with gas, today there are still about fifty percent. But that's not even half the answer. The Dutch electricity market resembles less a tub that would eventually fill than a channel system through which the German Öko-and-carbon electricity mix seeks the path of least resistance. Due to the Netherlands, the electricity continues to flow to Belgium and the United Kingdom, France and on to Italy. In many of these countries gas plays an important role in the power supply. Our subsidized green power can still roll over many gas power plants at our neighbors before the first coal-fired power plant is forced out of the market in Germany.

And the climate? This day has begun a new round of international negotiations in Lima, and just in time, the coalition has agreed on a new climate policy: insulate homes, promote electric cars, fertilize sparingly and store the waste better. Economy Minister Gabriel was recently quoted in the mirror with the phrase, but it was clear that the German Air goal can no longer be achieved. Germany will  seriously miss its climate target with its new policy.

Germany has pledged by 2020 to reduce its CO₂ emissions by 40 percent over the 1990 level. Just over a quarter of its greenhouse gas have been saved since Germany was reunified, The latest idea by Gabriel is to shut down some coal power plants in 2020, In energy policy, the government has other priorities than the climate. Still, the risk of blackouts on windless and dark winter days still exists. "It's about security of supply point," said Energy Secretary Baakenhafen.

Outside the energy, transport and the need for heating, it looks even worse. These areas neglected for years in his energy revolution euphoria Germany. Well, the results are so devastating that the former leader from the perspective of the European Environment Agency, the EU expert panel, not even is able to contribute to the modest minus 20 percent target of the Europeans.

All that one needs to know in order to understand why the government is now adopted in haste a new "climate package". It's no longer about the climate target - but only about keeping a disgrace limited.

Article was translated from German using Google Translate. 


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