Pass me the Energiewende Kool Aid

Chris Nelder, a self described futurist and polymath (not a good sign), has a piece countering the propaganda and energy illiteracy of those who criticize Germany’s Energiewende. However, if you want an example of propaganda and energy illiteracy I could think of no finer example of what Nelder has written.

Consider this paragraph:

With such stunning success — driving nuclear power out of their grid while reducing long-term and peak power costs, slashing carbon emissions, and doing so in a democratic and popular way — it’s a wonder that most Americans don’t know anything about Germany’s energy transition.

Indeed. “Driving nuclear power out of their grid” and “slashing carbon emissions” aren’t exactly things that sit neatly side by side, and you don’t need to be energy literate to realize this, the ability to do basic arithmetic should be enough. Or perhaps it’s mere propaganda to suggest that shutting down nuclear power early will be bad for emissions?

And 100% renewable electricity? Not only is this achievable by 2030, it will be cheaper than still using fossil fuels:

Germany intends to complete its phase-out of nuclear power by 2022. Under its “Energiewende” (energy transition) program, it could achieve far more than that, and obtain 100% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030.

Incorporating more renewable power into its grid has contributed partially to higher electricity costs for Germany in the short term, but studies indicate that in 2030, a 100% renewable mix will likely deliver electricity at a lower cost than a fossil-nuclear mix.

The assumptions involved here are heroic. Not only is the claim that Germany can get 100% renewable electricity by 2030 dubious at best, the claim that it will be cheaper is pure shamanism. The fundamental problem with 100% renewable electricity is that demand peaks around 6 pm in Winter. We all know how much power solar provide at 6 pm in Winter, it’s reliable and it’s zero. And Germany is not that windy, with wind farm output often going down close to zero. So, to get to 100% renewables Germany will need to figure out how to store electricity on a massive scale. In fact we are comfortably looking at a need to get 40, 50 GW from storage in calm winter days. Does Germany have storage ready to scale up to this level? The simple answer is no. The scalability of potential storage options is incredibly uncertain, and the costs even more so. And remember energy storage operates rather like a battery, and batteries run out of energy. To deal with calm periods Germany will not need hours of storage, but days. How much will energy storage facilities capable of storing over a day of electricity supply cost in 2030? We have absolutely no idea, and shouldn’t pretend that we do or that it is going to be particularly cheap.

Nelder concludes as follows:

So carry on, Germany. You’re on the right course with your energy transition, and offering the rest of the world an immensely valuable model. We will thank you later.

Yes, this is rather like praising a climber who starts his ascent of Everest on the wrong mountain.

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3 thoughts on “Pass me the Energiewende Kool Aid”

  1. Storage comes up a fair bit in your posts, as it should re intermittent renewables; have you tackled it as a subject in itself? My working assumption is that aside from pumping water uphill, which works ok but in few locations, and/or having hydro in your mix (same thing really), there isn’t any other realistic/scaleable storage system even on the distant horizon – is that unfair?

  2. Actually what he writes is an exact copy of the argumentation Craig Morris makes, who honestly should be credited as co-author of the paper.

    There’s another related interesting claim Morris does about Germany and coal, that we should not take into account the 14 coals plants that will have been put on-line in the 2012-2015 period because the decision to build them was taken in 2009 or earlier, and in fact consider instead that 6 of the initially 20 planned plants have been canceled : http://energytransition.de/2013/04/germany-builds-minus-six-coal-plants-after-nuclear-phaseout/

    I can’t help notice how similar this is to Justin Guay’s position about coal in China you reviewed just before.

    1. Ah, the favorite casuistry of the kool-aid binge drinkers: the coal plants planned and approved after the first German nuclear shutdown decision in the early 2000s don’t count when assessing the impact of nuclear shutdown.

      How wonderful a world we’d have if the laws of nature would be equally open to interpretation.

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