Germany’s renewable energy project should be critically analyzed specifically because it is, as Will Boisvert points out, a “pioneering” effort. Germany’s status as the manufacturing powerhouse of Europe has made it the world’s fourth largest economy, a country heavily dependent on electricity. Boisvert, however, doesn’t provide a clear-eyed analysis. His article contains several factual errors and the American journalist is unaware of or ignores some elements essential of the Energiewende. Designers of the Germany energy transition understand better than Boisvert the complex problems of converting a twentieth-century energy economy into one that is sustainable, non-polluting, and affordable. But, fatally for his argument, Boisvert confuses “difficult” with “impossible.” Ultimately, his bias in favor of nuclear power leads Boisvert to exaggerate the ease of a massive global transition to nuclear power—and to trivialize the risks involved as “more mythical than real.”
Assessing the progress of Germany’s energy transition, Boisvert presents the “dismal and disquieting” fact that “the portion of German electricity generated by renewables rose from 20.3 percent in 2011 to 21.9 percent in 2012.” What I find truly disquieting is his focus on data from a single year when the Energiewende has a track record stretching back to the 1990s, before it went into overdrive in 2000 with the passage of the Renewable Energy Act (known by its German acronym, EEG). Between 2000 and 2011, electricity from renewable sources grew from 6.8 to 20.5 percent of total electrical consumption—nearly tripling the amount of power coming from sources like wind and solar. When taken as a whole, Germany’s record isn’t just impressive, it is unmatched among large industrialized nations.
Boisvert’s main arguments revolve around the need to fight anthropogenic climate change—a reasonable proposition given that this is perhaps the most critical challenge of our time. (It’s worth noting that, unlike in the United States, there is no sizeable population in Germany that questions the scientific facts of climate change or the need to take action to stop it.)
In this most critical area, Boisvert finds the Energiewende particularly lacking. The German program, he states flatly, “made no progress at all in…abating greenhouse emissions.” But, once again, his charge stems from taking a single year (2012) out of context. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the German per capita production of CO2 dropped 22.4 percent between 1990 and 2008 to 2.61 metric tons. That’s still too high, but it is progress. The United States, on the other hand, remains the worst greenhouse gas polluter in the industrialized world, just as it was in 1990. In 2008 the average American added 4.9 metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere—nearly twice as much as the average German—a figure virtually unchanged in two decades.
Numbers aside, Boisvert’s command of energy fundamentals is shaky. For example, in discussing the need for dispatchable electrical generators “that can ramp up and down on command to match their power output with current electricity demand,” he cites nuclear power, which is actually the least flexible major power source. Nuclear power plants take as much as five days to reach full capacity from start-up. Second on his list of dispatchable power generators is coal, but only a few of the newest coal power plants can ramp up or down quickly.
Throughout the article, Boisvert characterizes the performance of wind and solar power as variously “terrible,” “unreliable,” and, in case you weren’t adequately alarmed, “of catastrophic unreliability.”
In fact, the amount of solar irradiance and wind energy for a given date and location are fairly predictable. Boisvert bases his claim that solar power “varies wildly” largely on the uncontested fact that the sun sets at night. But this is why engineers use the adjective “intermittent” to describe solar (and wind) power, not “unreliable.” What Boisvert ignores is that peak power use occurs in the middle of the day, precisely when solar power is at its greatest.
From this doom-and-gloom perspective, Boisvert asks, “how will a Germany run largely on wind and solar generators survive the long periods when they shut down completely in the dead of winter?” Part of the answer is that wind power actually peaks in “the dead of winter”—not in the summer as Boisvert apparently believes.
Unaware of the complementary properties of wind and solar (wind energy is also highest at night when solar energy is at its nadir), Boisvert states that Germany is being forced to build what he calls a “second grid.” “To escape long blackouts many times a year,” Boisvert writes, “Germany is planning to back up every gigawatt of wind and solar average capacity with another gigawatt of gas or coal.”
I asked Claudia Kemfert, one of Germany’s top energy economists, what she makes of this claim. “That is not true,” Kemfert responded in an e-mail. Kemfert, the head of the department of energy, transportation, and the environment at the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin, and an external expert to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, explained, “It is one of the myths conventional power companies argue to overestimate costs and to undermine the acceptance of the Energiewende.”
Identifying the problem as intermittency—not unreliability—is key to making the Energiewende work, and experts like Kemfert don’t sugarcoat the formidable challenges ahead. She stresses the need to invest more in technologies like decentralized combined heat and power plants (which harness “waste heat” from electrical generation) and smart grids that manage power more quickly and flexibly. Kemfert’s emphasis on decentralized power generation is a critical part of the Energiewende, one that Boisvert disregards.
Two decades ago, Germany depended on a relatively small number of large central power plants (fossil fuel and nuclear), the same kind of system that powers the United States. The EEG provided the legal framework and economic incentives for individuals and small groups to become micro-utilities, selling power from roof-top solar panels or wind turbines to the grid at a premium rate. The program was designed by a coalition government formed by the Social Democratic Party and the Green Party, with twin goals that reflect party priorities: breaking the monopoly stranglehold of four large utilities while promoting the growth of electricity generated by low-carbon sources. Millions of average citizens have benefited from the changes, including, in particular, one of the most conservative populations in German society: farmers. Travel across the German countryside and you’ll see barns and houses covered with solar panels, particularly in the sunnier southern states. In the cloudier and windier north, farmers have banded together to invest in wind turbines. Today, farmers own 11 percent of all existing renewable energy (RE) capacity in Germany. Private individuals (including farmers) own 51 percent of RE capacity. The so-called Big Four utilities remain wedded to the old centralized system and account for just 6.5 percent of RE capacity.
When it comes to cost, Boisvert, like most Americans, seems to consider all money spent on energy to be equal. Germans see the situation quite differently. A euro spent on electricity generated by traditional fuels such as nuclear and coal benefits a utility. But a euro spent on power generated by solar or wind enriches individuals and communities. This principle, known as democratizing energy, is a cornerstone of the Energiewende.
Based on the errors and omissions throughout his analysis, Boisvert concludes that Germans have only two options: continue pursuing an energy economy based on renewable power, an expensive proposition that is doomed to fail and thus guarantee a fossil fuel–burning spree that will destroy the planet; or begin a massive shift to nuclear power.
In writing this response, I’ve tried to show why Boisvert’s presentation of the first option is wrong, in hopes that I wouldn’t have to bore myself and others by entering the decades old debate on the merits of his second option. (It’s also because I am not anti-nuclear. If a new generation of nuclear technology can be built in the way that advocates claim, I’m all for it. But the plans are still theoretical.)
I do want to address Boisvert’s characterization of Germany’s decision to end nuclear power, however. Simply put: Germans didn’t abandon nuclear power in an emotional reaction to Fukushima. The Japanese nuclear accident of 2011 was a turning point for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, but most Germans came by their aversion to nuclear power through firsthand experience. The worst nuclear accident in history occurred in late April 1986, when a reactor in Chernobyl, then part of Soviet Ukraine, exploded and burned out of control for ten days, showering parts of Germany with radioactive fallout. Millions of Germans were ordered to stay inside for days. Large swaths of contaminated fields were destroyed. A UN-sponsored group estimates that the disaster caused 4,000 cancer deaths (the Union of Concerned Scientists puts the figure at 25,000). In some parts of Germany, even now, a quarter century later, people are warned against eating wild mushrooms in contaminated areas. German concerns over nuclear power aren’t irrational or baseless and efforts to paint them as such are simply wrong.