Renewable Energy in Germany: Growing More Slowly Than You Think

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What percentage of Germany’s energy needs comes from solar power? If you spend too much time reading environmental websites you could be forgiven for believing the figure to be anywhere as high as 50%. The actual figure is 2%, according to BP’s latest statistical review of global energy. Wind power fares slightly better at 3.3%. This figures make it rather clear that if Germany is showing how we can get to 100% renewable energy, it has a long way to go. And the rate of growth of renewables is not anywhere close to what is needed for rapid de-carbonisation.  As George Orwell once observed “Sometimes the first duty of intelligent men is the restatement of the obvious.” Here I will have to re-state the obvious, and will leave it to the reader to ascertain whether I am an intelligent man.

The basics of German energy

Germany is a rather typical modernised country. It uses oil mostly for transport, coal mostly for generating electricity and natural gas mostly for heating and electricity.

Last year, Germany’s total energy consumption was equivalent to 312 million tonnes of oil, generally written as tonnes of oil equivalent (toe). In power terms this is roughly 430 GW. And of this the energy mix was as follows: Oil was 35.8%, natural gas 21.7%, coal 25.4%, nuclear energy 7.2%, hydro-electricity 1.5% and non-hydro renewables 8.3%.

(A brief note: coal and gas are converted to oil equivalent by estimating the amount of oil that would provide the equivalent thermal energy after combustion. We don’t burn a fuel to get electricity from wind or solar, so there is always an ambiguity in how to convert energy from wind and solar to tonnes of oil equivalent. The approach taken by BP is to estimate how much fossil fuel on average would provide the equivalent amount of electricity and work out the oil equivalent of this. Alternative approaches exist, however for my purposes here this will give us figures that can be compared on apples to apples basis.) byFuel Despite some growth in renewables, and a decline in nuclear in the last decade Germany’s energy mix has undergone much less change in the last decade than in previous decades, a point I will return to later. Natural gas and coal in particular have barely budged in the last fifteen years. Germany

Quantitative projections of future energy demand are rarely worth the paper they are written on. However two trends need to be considered when thinking about future energy consumption in Germany. The first is that per capita energy consumption has been remarkably flat for the last two decades, and may now be in decline. Germany

The second is that German women are not having enough babies – the current average is 1.4 babies per woman – to increase Germany’s population in the long run. And this is not a prospect for the future, Germany’s total population is already in decline: Population Even under the United Nations Population Division‘s highest scenario for future birth rate, population in 2050 will stay roughly the same as today. However it is more likely to be significantly lower. projections Large future increases in energy demand therefore are unlikely. However whether Germany will achieve its hoped for reductions in energy consumption remains to be seen. . For now these reductions merely exist on paper, and any considerations of how to meet future energy demand should not assume it will be at a particular level. Wishful thinking is never good policy.

Wind and solar

Let’s begin by considering annual growth of capacity of wind farms in Germany. Since 2000 Germany’s total wind capacity has gone from 8.8 GW to 31.3 GW, an annual average growth of 1.9 GW. windcapacity As the above graph makes clear wind power capacity has not been growing exponentially. This is very much a linear trend. In fact, surprisingly, peak growth in German wind capacity came a decade ago. The three highest years were 2001, 2002 and 2003: windannualcapacitygrowth For a few years solar power was acting as if exponential growth was possible, rising from almost 0% of German electricity demand to nearly 5% by 2012, and a total capcity of 32 GW. solarcapacity This rate of growth however stalled in 2012, and new capacity additions in 2013 now look likely to be significantly lower than in 2012. Exponential growth has died its inevitable death.

Looking at the annual increases in average power output from wind and solar shows a much more sober reality than the excessive hype regularly pumped out by some of the Energiewende’s more enthusiastic promoters. In the last five years the annual increase in average power generated by wind and solar has averaged 0.7 GW per year. This is only 1% of Germany’s average total electricity demand of 70 GW. Therefore at current growth rates Germany will not get more than 50% of its electricity from wind and solar before 2050 without a significant acceleration of the build up of wind and solar.   windandsolar The Whole Equation

If we are to stabilise atmospheric carbon dioxide levels at 450 parts per million we will need to see a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy in the next few decades. This transition will be historically unprecedented in both speed and scale. A key way to measure its progress therefore is to compare it with previous energy transitions. In Germany’s case the two most recent energy transitions involved gas and nuclear energy, which commenced in the 1960s and 1970s respectively.

Here are some quantitative comparisons. In 1965 natural gas supplied 1% of Germany’s energy demand, and one decade later it supplied 12.3% of Germany’s energy. Nuclear power first supplied 1% of Germany’s energy  in 1974. One decade later it supplied 6.8% of its energy. Non-hydro renewables first supplied 1% of Germany’s energy demand in 2001, and a decade later supplied 7.8% of its energy. The transition to non-hydro renewables is therefore currently slightly faster than that of nuclear, but significantly slower than that towards natural gas. yearsfrom1 And consider that statistic. Non-hydro renewables only increased from 1% to 7.8% in a decade. If Germany keeps that pace up it will have 100% renewable energy sometime a century from now.

As Vaclav Smil has extensively documented historical energy transitions have been protracted affairs that took many generations. The evidence from Germany so far does not indicate that a transition to renewable energy will be any faster than what has come before.

This post originally appeared at the Energy Collective.


3 thoughts on “Renewable Energy in Germany: Growing More Slowly Than You Think

    Mark said:
    June 2, 2015 at 2:53 pm

    Thanks for the repost on how Germany has done towards their goals.

    I saw a post by Maximimian Auffhammer on Germany’s “next energy adventure” and I was a bit surprised to see that the graphs, developed by “HTW Berlin” lumped together coal and natural gas fired generation output into one color. This seemed kind of odd if goal is to minimize CO2 from the mix of generation resources needed to balance the grid(s).

    I also have found it odd that the Irsching gas-fired power plant in Bavaria was shuttered at the same time that a few new coal fired facilities were being built and brought on line. It seems a tad counterproductive to me to add more coal to the generation mix and take off line a natural gas plant. Having the flexible generation sources of generation lumped into one color in a graph kind of hides what is actually happening (why it’s happening is beyond my pay grade).


    Robert Wilson said:
    June 2, 2015 at 3:40 pm

    The graph was not produced by “HTW Berlin”, but by German Green Party spin artists from Heinrich Boll. I wouldn’t pay too much attention to their graphs. They are just a bunch of delusional people playing out the fantasy that they run German energy policy. Ignore them.


      Mark said:
      June 3, 2015 at 6:07 pm

      Thanks for the heads up (warning on the validity of the data/graph by Mr. H. Boll).

      I should of blown up the size of the graph a bit larger to notice their are two names noted for the source of the graph. I failed, my bad, to provide you with the correct reference to the article: that the graph was included in. Sorry about that.

      I have only just started looking at how Germany has been, and plans, on moving towards a less FF based economy/society. Germany’s winters are closer to my climate zone than is normally associated with CA so I thought it would be a good idea to see what kinds of technologies they have high confidence in when it comes down to reducing their “heat demand for buildings”.


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