Green energy: a source of prosperity in Germany and of misery in Flanders?

After a string of 18 posts on energy, or more specifically on the neglected side of communication on the Energiewende, I had the intention to write about a different subject. Then I encounter this opinion piece (Dutch) in which two politicians from the Flemish Green Party ask themselves “why green energy is a source of prosperity in Germany and a source of misery in Flanders?”. That is an interesting question. Most of the arguments were recognizable, I think they came from the same source that I was looking in during those 18 previous posts.

The authors came to the conclusion that two factors are involved in the success of the German energy transition: economic and public support. They explained that the government is responsible for both factors, doing a good job in Germany and a lousy job in Flanders. But no worry, according to them, the German success story is also possible here… Where did I heard that again?

Starting with the economic support: the authors say that “Politicians must provide economic support by making a stable renewable energy policy” and this is where our politicians went wrong. I reckon that they mean subsidies or some other financial support. I certainly agree that there wasn’t much of an energy strategy in the past (still not) and that the message was not always consistent. Nevertheless, it didn’t seem to prevent giving “economic support” for alternative energy during that time. As far as I know, Belgium only invested in wind, solar and biomass in the last decade or so. There were and still are subsidies for alternative sources, billions are still being poured into it. Proof of this is our current hefty energy tax and everybody knows that it is necessary to finance alternative energy.

Further, they explain that Germany “Germany started to put effort into sustainable energy at the beginning of the century”. Seems impressive, but in reality probably not so much. Germany fazed out its first nuclear reactors in 2002, but at that time they weren’t thinking about replacing it with wind and solar. In stead, the planning was made to increase coal and lignite (that could be locally mined). That is why at the time of the closure of nuclear plants in 2011, “new” coal and lignite plants came still online. The Germans were planning to build almost double the capacity of the nuclear energy that would be decommissioned, so I am not really convinced that sustainable energy or the environment was of much concern back then. By the way, in our country there were also subsidies for solar boilers and for green energy in the beginning of the century. The support for alternative energy is not a unique German phenomenon back then.

Interesting is what they mean by that “prosperity” in the title (translated from Dutch):

After 5 years we can make an assessment. How is the situation of the German energy sector today? The German wholesale electricity prices are at their lowest level in 12 years, thanks to the growth of renewable energy. The ever-cheaper renewable energy pushes the fossil energy out of the market. This is good for the German economy and families. The transition to sustainable energy is affordable. This is evident from the facts.

That is quite a selective share of the facts. That the German whole-sale prices are at their lowest in the last 12 year is true, but whether that is good for families not so much. Those low wholesale price will be good news for big industry, but since when is the Green Party interested in the welfare of the industry or in the economy? It are the German families that are paying for the energiewende. They pay the second highest energy prices in Europe, closely behind Denmark, another “success story”.

That the renewable energy pushes the fossil fuel out of the market is not because they are cheap, but because these are subsidized. Fossil fuels are still cheaper, but can’t compete against subsidized energy. It is easy to correct that sentence: subsidized renewable energy pushes the cheaper fossil energy out of the market. Without the incentive of those subsidies there wouldn’t be much interest in investing in it for electricity production purposes.

Then the public support. The authors put the blame of the limited public support also on the government. My take is that the public doesn’t really support wind and solar because it is expensive and has serious issues in our current grid. Whether the people looked into the matter or not, there are several ways in which they became aware of these issues. First time was a couple years ago when the government oversubsidized solar power and the grid manager made it clear that he needed to recuperate this from the electricity users. People were angry at those who owned solar panels because they had all the benefits (like a backwards running meter, no connection costs and a generous subsidy for the production) and the others had to pay to sustain that system.

In a second occasion, we were all confronted in previous winters with the message that large rural areas risked to be cut off the grid when a blackout is imminent. We got to hear that our power infrastructure is aging and the last decade or so we only invested in intermittent sources that don’t work when there is no wind or no sun. Therefor threatening the security of supply at peak hours in winter when production of those sources is low to non-existing, yet our consumption is the highest in the year.

Last but not least, the current energy tax. It is incredibly clear what this tax is about and people will feel it directly in their wallet (the tax will probably be about 30% of my electricity bill).

Under such circumstances it will not be easy for the public to be very supportive.

That the German energiewende could be replanted in our area is not so sure. Flanders is not Germany. We live in a very densely populated area, have hardly any resources, a tiny coastline and so on. There will not be a perfect solution. Wind and solar need vast spaces, which we don’t have. Inland, the wind doesn’t blow hard and less consistent than offshore. At our latitude, solar is not exactly optimal and even absent when needed most in winter. Considering other power sources will get load protest from the left side of the political spectrum. Pumped storage requires space and a sloped area, which is not available in Flanders and will make the transition even more expensive.

Their story is above all a political story. They are an opposition party and will gain by make the majority look stupid or incompetent. By framing the energiewende as a positive thing and the current majority as the problem why it doesn’t work, they are hiding the negative issues that surround the transition like intermittency but foremost the price tag.

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