Several European countries have spearheaded the global push towards renewable energy. There are several reasons for this drive, care for the environment being the most commonly heard. That factor is no doubt important to the progressive countries of western Europe, but there are other non-trifling reasons as well.
Consider this problem for western Europe – would you like to be dependent on Vladimir Putin, or Russia, or anything connected to Russia, for your heat in winter? That is one of the predicaments that much of the continent faces, and it is not trivial. In 2009 Russia cut off natural gas supplies to western Europe on a ruthlessly barbaric date – January 7th to be specific. Six years later they did it again, though this time in a more compassionate manner by holding off until later in the winter – January 14th.
It should be no surprise to anyone that western European governments said to hell with that. The push to green energy had already begun, and the demented Russian antics simply accelerated it. Also, at that time it appeared that the world would possibly be short of natural gas rather than awash in it, so the full-scale embracing of renewables was perfectly logical.
Germany came up with a renewable energy plan called Energiewende that would attempt to reduce reliance on coal and other fossil-fuel power, with renewables filling the gap. The plan gained momentum after the Fukushima nuclear power fiasco, when the Germans decided to throw all their nuclear reactors in the dumpster. This made the switch to renewables even more daunting. Rewiring the energy supply of an industrial powerhouse like Germany takes some doing, but the country has a long history of not shying away from industrious global initiatives.
The country has done an incredible job of advancing renewable energy and has become the poster child for everyone that thinks it’s a simply a matter of attitude and enthusiasm. It’s not; it was empowered by the realization that Russia isn’t funny no matter how much evidence there is on YouTube.
Germany’s experiment also highlights the challenges that all nations would face when embarking on this trek, if they can even afford the subsidies to start.
As noted in the article linked above, Germany now produces about a third of its energy from renewables. That would be a remarkable statistic if one were talking about its potato consumption, where the elapsed time between production and consumption can be more than a few minutes. Therefore, it is disingenuous to talk about how much energy can be produced by renewables when it’s not a functional measure at all.
A better question is, how much is produced at peak load times? The article doesn’t get into that, but it does absurdly question why the German government isn’t ‘shouting about this from the rooftops.’ That’s because the growth has, from some perspectives, simply been a giant headache.
The glut of electricity produced at the wrong time of day has driven prices down to the point where they sometimes go negative. Those are spot prices for power; actual users have very expensive power rates. So users pay huge premiums for unwanted power – a gross inefficiency that only powerhouses like Germany can afford for any period.
Second, the low price of spot power that is not produced by renewables means that the country cannot attract capital to fund power sources that can meet peak loads. The solution has been to import power from other jurisdictions at peak times (that may or may not use coal to produce power), and dumping the excess into neighboring countries when they don’t want it either. This is not a global green victory, it is just shifting the problem elsewhere.
And finally, it should be remembered that Germany is one of, if not the, most successful economic powerhouses on the planet. It can afford experiments like this like almost no other country. The US might like to try, but a $20 trillion debt load is a bucket of cold water over the head when dreaming of a purely green future. Japan similarly is up to its eyeballs in debt and has been aware for far longer of the perils of unsecure energy supplies, but has not been able to go green. Other than a few smaller (and equally rich) western European nations, no others can hope to make the same strides that Germany has.
The advance towards renewable energy is going to follow many paths depending on each nation’s circumstances, strengths and resources. Germany has almost all the stars lined up in its favour, and any other country hoping to emulate it will need to see how they measure up against Germany’s best case scenario.
The upshot is of course that we can’t write off fossil fuels just yet no matter how many cities say they no longer want the stuff. Some aspects will change – coal may in theory be on the run, but from a global perspective even that divergence is a long way off. To wean ourselves off natural gas and oil usage is going to take far far more than a few cities and countries proposing to eliminate internal combustion engines in two decades. That should be a sidebar story, not the headline.
Read more insightful analysis from Terry Etam here