The public and energy transition: supportive or just ill-informed?

The subject of this post will be the 8th myth of the “9 myths about the German Energiewende debunked” brochure: “There is no support base for the energiewende”. The myth is being debunked by explaining that the average German supports the energiewende. This is the English version of the infographics they used in the brochure:

germany: a powerplant in your neighborhood

The author(s) add however that there is criticism on local infrastructure and the fact that the households are footing the bill.

Well, I have no real issue with that conclusion. I think it is true. Many people support the energiewende and have criticism on nearby installations (the NIMBY effect) and have questions about who is paying for it (the households).

But being an incurable curious mind, the first question that popped up in my mind was: WHY is the average German so supportive of the energiewende? Looking at how the “myths” were debunked in the previous seven chapters of the brochure, that is not very difficult to understand. The average German (as probably the average American or the average Belgian or …) are quite indifferent to this issue and have not much background. They depend on the media for information on the subject and how the media is reporting on the energiewende is identical to how the brochure is doing this: only reporting on the things that are favorable to the energiewende and forgetting all the rest…

So no wonder that the average German supports the energiewende. Just look at some of the statements about the energiewende that were made in the brochure, but also to what was not being said:

Argument   Not taken into account
Myth 1: The closure of nuclear power plants increases German CO2 emissions
Since the start of the German nuclear phase-out in 2002, the CO2 emissions from the electricity sector decreased from 329 million tons to 301 million tons While the statement at such is true, how much this had to do with the energiewende? Indeed, the emissions went down between 2002 and 2014, but less than the period before that and the six last years had basically a flat trend … despite the increasing share of alternative energy sources.
The total German CO2 emissions in 2014 were 26% percent lower than in 1990 Idem. While this statement at such is true, this has also very little to do with the energiewende. The biggest decrease was in the 1990s after the union of the East with West Germany and had to do with the cleaning up of the inefficient industry of East Germany. Again, the CO2 emissions of the last six years were virtually flat, despite the very strong increase in share of the alternative energy sources.
Connecting this 26% to the energiewende is therefor misleading.
Myth 2: The German nuclear phase-out leads to a greater use of coal and lignite
The growth of renewable energy production more than compensates the nuclear phase-out This was explained by showing that the increase of electricity production by renewable sources was larger than the decrease of nuclear energy between 2003 and 2014. Unfortunately, those two can not be compared. One is intermittent and needs backup from conventional sources, making them less efficient. The other gives a reliable production. Because 1 kWh produced by alternative sources is not replacing 1 kWh of conventional sources, this comparison is misleading.
Lignite power mainly leads to an increase in electricity export. The production pattern of lignite doesn’t match that of the export. It however does match with the pattern of wind plus solar. This is not hard to understand. Germany did invest in wind and solar, but didn’t invest in balancing its production on the grid. Because the conventional sources are not flexible enough to power down, too much energy is produced which is exported abroad. Whether the exported energy comes from coal, lignite, wind or sun is in fact the wrong question. It is the consequence of how they deal with the growing share of intermittent energy. Therefor I personally think it doesn’t matter where this surplus comes from, it is a direct result of their policies that promote wind and solar energy. In my opinion it is therefor misleading to claim that lignite power leads to an increase in electricity export.
No new coal or lignite power plants were built since the beginning of the Energiewende in 2011 This is not true. The installed capacity of coal and lignite increased every years from 2011 on. They probably mean that no new coal or lignite power plants were planned since 2011 (because it takes 6-7 years from planning to building), but that is misleading: this is definitely not what people understand by “no new plants were build”.
Myth 3: The German Energiewende makes energy unaffordable
Cheap renewable energy pushes expensive fossil fuels further and further out of the market That is having it backwards! Renewable energy is only cheap when only the positives sides are considered and the negative ones ignored. In reality, fossil fuels are pushed out of the market, not because they would be more expensive, but because they can’t compete with subsidized renewable energy sources. That is a distinction that Greenpeace didn’t make and this is crucial information to understand the issue. Without that distinction this statement is just misleading.
The German wholesale energy prices are at their lowest level in twelve years. […] If households could have benefited from the lower wholesale prices, their energy bill would already getting smaller since 2009. While it is correct that wholesale prices are on their lowest levels, it is not correct to assume that household prices will be affected by this. In practice, when the wholesale price falls, the surcharge rises to make up the difference between the market price and a higher, state-guaranteed, renewables tariff. It is misleading to state that prices for the households will drop because wholesale prices drop.
Myth 4: The growth of renewable energy in Germany is only possible thanks to subsidies
Support for renewable energy in Germany is nothing compared to the aid that has gone to coal and nuclear power in the last forty years. It received 631 billion euro of aid, compared to 67 billion euro for renewable energy. Besides it is not clear what their definition is of “renewables” (wind and solar? Also hydro? Also biomass?), “coal” (hard coal, lignite or both) and “support” (feed-in tariff and/or other support), it is certainly not fair to compare both subsidies over a 40-year time frame considering coal and nuclear were there from the beginning and renewables only got traction in the last years of that period. Additionally, coal and nuclear were the backbone of the German electricity production for those 40 year, while renewables don’t even have the same share until the last two years. It is misleading that coal and nuclear got more support than renewables when the comparison is obvious skewed.
Also the support for renewable energy reduces year after year. This indicates that for renewables they only took the feed-in tariff as “support”, while this is only one of the ways of support for renewables like:

  • more fuel use by the decrease in efficiency of backup plants
  • adaptations to the grid to handle additional loads
  • extra lines and transformers to connect the grid to wind mills in remote places
  • pay electric utilities to provide flexible power resulting in investments to convert coal-fired power plants that were originally built to operate 24 hours a day to flexible plants that can power up or down with little notice.
  • the necessity to [exploiteren] a backup system along the renewables
  • Balancing-market payments to utilities
Myth 5: The Energiewende is detrimental to the German economy
More jobs are created by the renewable energy industry than the coal industry Only the jobs in those sectors were counted, not the balance of these jobs and jobs lost in other sectors. That is only one side of the story. Also, these jobs depend on a subsidized product and need more workers for an inferior product (intermittent energy in a continuous working grid). Just looking at their own data, coal needed a smaller work force than renewables, even when it was the backbone of the power productions for many decades. Those renewables need a much bigger workforce even with a smaller share. So how “economical” are these renewable energy jobs?
There are opportunities for Germany to be producer of technology That is correct, if Germany can deliver technology that will be needed by many, then this is a serious opportunity for its economy. However, they didn’t consider that it is much cheaper to make those products in Asia. An array of solar panel produces went bankrupt around 2012, partly for this reason.
Local ownership strengthen the local economy and keeps the money in the country or even in the community In a way that is true. If energy is produced locally, that energy should not be imported. But it is only part of the story. It doesn’t take into account that some in the community will lose too. If one want to calculate the impact of local production on the community, then the loss of those in the community also needs to be taken into account. If one only counts the positive impacts and ignores the negative ones, then one will always paint a favorable picture. But it will not be an honest representation.
Myth 6: Security of energy supply is not guaranteed
Because of the strong growth of renewable energy, Germany has a surplus of energy and can it further reducing fossil and nuclear base load. Germany has a surplus of energy because it hasn’t the ability to balance the intermittent power of wind and solar. The conventional power sources can’t power down enough to accommodate for the intermittent supply and therefor too much power is produced in times wind and solar perform well. That export is there, not because the share of renewables grew, but because the share grew without the means of balancing it on the network. That nuance is not brought by Greenpeace. The export is there by design, it is the strategy the Germans use to deal with intermittent energy on their grid. Claiming that because of this surplus conventional base load can be phased out is a misleading representation of reality.
However, to keep the energy supply guaranteed, a flexible and European approach is needed A flexible approach is needed, but I doubt that a European interconnected grid will do much help. Most of the countries seem to be eager to follow the German example and build even more wind/solar infrastructure without the investments to balance that power on the network. This makes that in the (near) future the needs of all those countries will be basically the same. If Germany has a surplus of energy because wind is blowing and sun is shining on a weekend day, chances are that other countries also will have the same issue and want to export their power abroad. If Germany has a shortage of energy in winter at peak hour because there is no sun and not so much wind, chances are that other countries also will have the same issue and all want to import energy.
Myth 7: The Energiewende burdens the energy network with serious problems
The German electricity network is one of the most reliable in Europe. While the share of renewable energy increased incredibly in recent years, the number of outages decreased year after year. A stable network and renewable energy sources can thus go together. While it is true that the German electricity network is one of the most reliable in Europe and the share increased incredibly in recent years, intermittent sources have an impact on the network. The number of interventions needed to stabilize the grid is increased tremendously and this will increase even more when the share of intermittent energy increases. At the current level, intermittent sources don’t seem to affect the reliability of the German grid, but what if the share of those sources is getting ever bigger and the share of conventional sources smaller? What if countries bet on the same horses (wind and solar) and all need a lot of energy at peak hour in winter when wind and solar underperform while reliable conventional sources are phased out? What if all countries have a lot of production because wind is blowing, sun is shining and consumption is low? Who will be able to absorb that overproduction?

Sure, if I only hear the statements shown in the left column, I would also be very supportive of the energiewende. In that case it would be common sense to go towards an increasing share of clean energy of wind and solar and move away from those pesky fossil fuels and inflexible nuclear energy sources. The sooner the better.

But also looking at the column at the right, then I wouldn’t be that supportive of wind and solar and would support looking at other options also.

The case of the energiewende is not made because the evidence is so strong, but because media gives an untruthful representation of the facts. It is no different in the brochure. Therefor it is certainly understandable that the public supports the energiewende, but it makes them also ill-informed on the subject.


One thought on “The public and energy transition: supportive or just ill-informed?

  1. poitsplace

    Another thing that makes people support renewables is that most of them are under the illusion that we are facing a civilization destroying energy crisis…and that not only will oil/coal/gas reserves run out very soon, but that nuclear will as well. They get a strange look on their face when I explain there’s enough nuclear fuel to provide everyone with energy for thousands of years…effectively negating any immediate need for renewables.


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