Revolutionary energy policy positions Germany as a global leader
Large wind farms, solar panels on rooftops, bio-gas plants — Germany, with the most successful and innovative renewable energy sector in the world, is undergoing an energy transformation to achieve its vision of a country relying on renewable, sustainable energy as a major energy source. But what does this energy transformation really mean? Why is it so important now? And what are the opportunities and challenges that Germany been confronted with?
I’m using Germany as an example as the country’s dynamics and issues are analogous to North America’s (and the rest of the developed world for that matter) and because it’s the global leader in renewable energy. Obviously, we need energy in absolutely all areas of life — in absolutely every aspect of society — for transportation, heat and electricity. Today, we get most of our energy from fossil fuels; however, there are many arguments against the use of fossil fuels. Two of the most important factors are as follows:
- Since the beginning of industrialization, we burn increasingly more and more fossil fuels, releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide. This contributes to global warming, which is causing the earth to heat up rapidly, more so than it would naturally (although to exactly what extent is up for scientific debate). I’m not trying to sound like Al Gore here, but as a life-long conservative and current driver of a late-model gas-guzzling Toyota 4Runner (just filled the tank with $145 of petrol this morning), I must concede (to a degree) that we have contributed to global warming, which dramatically changes our planet’s natural processes and, as a result, creates a number problems.
- Fossil fuels are finite. The fossil-fuel resource scarcity is a relevant issue; especially given the fact that the amount of available oil — our main energy resource — is decreasing rapidly. Yes, there is still considerable oil left and significant exploration is ongoing worldwide, but exploitation is becoming increasingly expensive (the vast majority is unsuccessful), unsafe and dangerous for the environment.
Both factors are exacerbated by rapid economic development in emerging countries. The result is accelerated climate change and increasing resource scarcity. To curb this trend, a massive shift in energy policy is essential.
Germany’s energy transformation consists of two primary changes. First and foremost is a shift to renewable energy from fossil fuels. Second, a decrease in energy use through design, technology and energy efficiency measures. Let’s take a closer look at these issues. Renewable energy sources — this means the extraction of energy from materials that are not finite or that regenerate themselves. This can happen in large generation plants, but also on a small scale in private households, close to the end user. Wind turbines have rotors, which are moved by the power of the wind. A generator then creates electricity. Similar to wind power in hydroelectric power stations, kinetic energy drives a generator, which produces electricity. Wave and tidal power plants use the natural movement of the sea. There are two major forms of solar energy — solar collectors heat a transmission medium with the sun’s energy. On a small scale, this includes hot water heaters for individual households. On a large scale, however, concentrated solar power plants produce electricity. Solar photovoltaic cells (or photocell) convert the sun’s rays directly into electricity. These systems are often installed on rooftops. Then there is geothermal power, where just a few meters below the earth’s surface, the increased temperature can be high enough to supply the heating for private households. In regions with high underground temperatures, electricity can also be generated in this way. Biomass from animal and vegetable substances (like organic waste from agriculture and households) or specially grown energy crops, can generate electricity or be converted into fuel. The fermentation of these substances produces methane gas, which is transformed into electricity and heat, in cogeneration plants. Ethanol and biodiesel fuels can be produced with special energy crops. Solid biomass is burned in order to generate heat or electricity. When burned, plants only release the amount of CO2 they have absorbed during their growth, thus the carbon balance is neutral.
From the energy source to the consumer, energy runs through various conversion processes. In each of these steps energy is lost. To increase energy efficiency, means to minimize these losses — or in other words, to win as much in net energy as possible from the original energy source. Many losses in industry and households can be avoided. In electricity production and in many industries, a great amount of heat is released as a byproduct. Heat and power cogeneration uses this energy to heat the surrounding community. Old appliances with high power demand can be exchanged for more efficient ones. This decreases power consumption and lowers costs for the consumer. Just as important as increasing efficiency is the reduction of overall consumption. Our way of life, arguably, uses too much energy. We need to conserve.
The energy transformation is a very complex challenge. What are the difficulties? The use of renewable energy can have negative ecological consequences. Occasionally, the interests of nature conservation conflict with the production of green power. Wind and hydroelectric power plants can (and in some cases have) damage the habitats of birds and fish. For the cultivation of energy crops rainforests are cleared. This destroys valuable ecosystems and important natural carbon sinks (and, according to environmental scientists, increase CO2 emissions). Energy crops are often grown on fields that previously grew food crops. This increases world food prices. Residents in the vicinity of many power plants can complain about unsightly buildings and noise. At times, state funding practices have been criticized. Subsidies can hinder a complete restructuring and favor a few large energy producers. Businesses and households often cannot afford the upfront costs associated with buying more energy-efficient equipment and, to be blunt, sometimes is very difficult for us to change our habits. This is understandable, but not irreversible. Education and information is key — and is almost as important as ultra-critical renewable/sustainable energy research and development.
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The reliable and constant supply of green electricity is a major technical challenge. Two points are particularly challenging; the structure of power grids and the storage of power. In Germany, for example, energy production and consumption are located in different regions. The largest supplier of renewable-electricity wind-power plants are mostly located in the north, due to favorable climate conditions. Much of the country’s energy-intensive industry, however, is located in the south. Currently the power grid lacks the capability to transport enough energy from north to south and, as a result, energy often has to be bought from other sources even though enough energy is actually produced.
In addition, renewable energy sources are heavily dependent on the weather. Energy output fluctuates. In times when power plants achieve high performance, for example, when there’s a strong wind, there’s a lack of sufficient storage capacity for the energy surplus. Pumped storage stations are a way to store some electrical energy, but these storage facilities take up a lot of space and certain geography. At this time a well-engineered storage technology that could be implemented nationwide doesn’t exist. A technical solution might be so-called smart grids. These intelligent power grids store, monitor and link energy production, storage and consumption in a large integrated system. Depending on the demand for energy at a certain time, they can fine-tune energy production and moderate consumption. They balance fluctuations between energy supply and demand and integrate the many new decentralized producers into the power grid. Thus the energy supply becomes more efficient and more reliable. Althought the timing may be up for debate, this energy transition is inevitable.
The change to renewable/sustainable energy definitely poses numerous and significant challenges, but these are much smaller and easier to deal with than the consequences of continued reliance on fossil fuels. And the energy transition also offers enormous opportunities. The exploration and development of this new economic sector is creating many new (long-term) jobs. We also reduce our dependence on oil and gas imports. With its strategic energy transformation, Germany is playing the leading role in developing new technologies and is making an important contribution to shaping a sustainable future. We need to follow Germany’s example — not for today, but for tomorrow.
- Fossil resources are becoming increasingly scarce
- The peak oil level has been reached
- In 2012, all renewable energy accounted for 21.9% of electricity in Germany, with wind turbines and photovoltaic providing 11.9% of the total
- The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is just one example of a fossil fuel catastrophe
- The second most powerful person on the planet (according to Forbes), Chancellor of Germany, Angela D. Merkel, along with a vast majority of her compatriots, believes that, “As the first big industrialized nation, we can achieve such a transformation toward efficient and renewable energies, with all the opportunities that brings for exports, developing new technologies and jobs.”
- Dealing with OPEC is a transference of wealth and keeps us from sustainability
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