In its presentation of the latest statistics for 2014, Berlin-based think tank Agora Energiewende speaks of a “turnaround.” Has Germany’s energy transition truly left behind its troubled days, or are the experts a bit too hopefully celebrating a minor uptick?
In their press release, Agora’s Patrick Graichen is quoted saying, “the trend has been broken.” The text provides an excellent overview of all the things there are to celebrate. However, we must refrain from cheerleading – a major cold spell this year could put us back in the same situation we were in last year, explaining a slight increase in carbon emissions as a minor uptick due to the weather. Some turnaround…
The most inexplicable part of the press release is Graichen’s reading of power exports. Because they roughly remained stable, rising by a mere one percent (albeit to a new record level), he says, “We appear to have reached the maximum possible in electricity exports.” The statement is especially surprising because Agora itself monitors power trading. Physically, the interconnections Germany has with other countries would allow for greater exports, with the Netherlands being the greatest exception (they draw on the German grid as though it were a baseload power plant). The question is whether commercial trading, as reflected in the annual net export figure, can increase.
In 2015, we have a special challenge. The next nuclear plant, Grafenrheinfeld, will be shut down. With a capacity of around 1.35 GW, it can produce some 7 TWh per year, as it did in 2010, for instance. By comparison, the amount of renewable power last year grew by around 5 TWh. The latest news is that the plant might not close ahead of schedule in May when it would need to be refueled, but rather at the end of the year, but it would run at lower output for the year as a whole (report in German). The math is even messier; the record boom in wind power from 2014 will start to make itself felt fully in 2015. Keeping that caveat in mind, let’s walk through the figures for renewables in 2015.
Biomass will grow by close to zero percent in 2015. The German government has put the clamps on power from biomass because it was the most expensive form on average. In 2015, it will essentially be replaced by offshore wind, which will then become the new most expensive form. Strangely, in attempting to keep rising costs in check, the government replaced one expensive source with another; we will not switch from the most expensive to the least expensive, which would be onshore wind. (Actually, the greatest change when switching from power from biogas to offshore wind is probably ownership; citizens invest in biogas units, whereas they are completely shut out of offshore wind farms, which are driven largely by the biggest utilities that have tried to slow down the Energiewende up to now.)
A nuclear plant can run at around 90 percent capacity, putting the 1.35 GW plant at around 1.2 GW actual output on average. Some 2.4 GW of offshore wind could be added this year, and if it runs at 40 percent capacity like the other offshore wind farms, that would be worth 0.96 GW. The remaining gap is very small.
However, the onshore wind sector believes its market may shrink next year; the growth in 2014 is partly interpreted as an attempt to get projects completed under old policies. Let’s generously assume that Germany will reach its goal of 2.5 GW of new wind capacity onshore. At an average capacity factor of 20 percent, that would be worth 0.5 GW. PV is also now being installed at a rate closer to 100 MW per month, so 1.5 GW per year might not be off the mark. The capacity factor of PV in Germany is around 10 percent, so that is worth 0.15 GW towards offsetting nuclear.
In total, Germany would have around 1.5 GW of new renewables to replace 1.2 GW of nuclear. It should work, but my feeling is that any fluctuations in the weather could easily overshadow these trends. It is thus imprudent to celebrate 2014 as a “turnaround,” as Agora does.
Just briefly on future years: my colleague Thomas Gerke estimated what the next five years would look like based on the Grid Development Plan last year and concluded that renewables should reduce power production from fossil fuel by a fifth. However, Germany faces two major rounds of nuclear plant closures in 2021 and 2022, which will throw the country back again in terms of the share of fossil fuel. By 2023, the 78 TWh in the 2019e column below will have disappeared completely. In comparison, renewables will have grown by only 83 TWh in the six years from 2013 to 2019.
This article is already long, so I won’t walk through all the math with you. Suffice it to say that we will roughly end up in January 2023 where we are today in terms of carbon emissions from the power sector and the amount of electricity from coal & gas. I will therefore not be celebrating any turnarounds until 2023, lest I have to eat my hat because of some cold spell.
The good news is that the coal phaseout begins in 2023 with or without a policy. With nuclear completely gone by that point, there is nothing left to protect coal power as long as we ensure the growth of renewables. Given the current stagnation of biogas, PV, and onshore wind, that’s exactly what worries me.
Source: Renewables International. Reproduced with permission.