Johannes Näumann

Competence Partner hbpa

    The Future of Energy, Episode 5: Is the energy transition in danger?

    The energy transition is leading to a massive increase in electricity demand with fluctuating generation from renewables at the same time. How can we secure the base load and grid stability on the way to climate neutrality? In the coalition agreement of the traffic light coalition, natural gas was still assigned a key role as a bridging technology for the success of the energy transition - since the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent collapse of the gas market in Germany, these plans are obsolete.

    On Oct. 17, 2022, Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) exercised his authority to issue directives and sent the three remaining German nuclear power plants into "stretch operation" until April 2023. Actually, they should have been taken off the grid on December 31, 2022. This was preceded by a bitter dispute, particularly between the coalition partners FDP and the Greens, over the role of nuclear energy in securing Germany's electricity needs. Prior to this, an agreement had already been negotiated with RWE to allow two coal-fired power plants in the Rhineland to operate for longer. In return, RWE promises to bring forward the phase-out of coal-fired power generation from 2038 to 2030. Here, too, there was fierce wrangling among the coalition partners.

    Fundamental dilemma
    The dispute describes a fundamental dilemma that goes hand in hand with the comprehensive decarbonization of our industrial society and has been massively intensified by the war in Ukraine. The phase-out of fossil fuels does not lead to less consumption; in fact, it drives up electricity demand massively, especially through the electrification of the heating market, e-mobility and the increasing need for electrolysis capacities to produce green hydrogen.

    In 2030, 65 percent of gross electricity consumption in Germany is to come from renewable sources. This is envisaged by the Climate Protection Act, which will be amended in 2021. But forecasts do not agree on how high actual consumption will be in 2030. Some depends on how the expected electrification and the expansion of sector coupling (the joint networking of electricity, heat and transport) are weighted. The highest estimate here is that of the German Energy Agency (dena), with up to 886 terawatt hours (TWh). The German Renewable Energy Federation (BEE) sees consumption at 740 TWh, Agora Energiewende at 650 TWh. The German government has also revised its forecast upward to this value, having until recently assumed a maximum of 582 TWh. By comparison, in 2019 - before the Corona pandemic - electricity consumption in Germany was 575 TWh.

    Massive expansion of renewables required
    In order to cover two-thirds of the additional demand, which according to the study will be between 80 and 300 TWh by 2030, from renewables, a massive expansion of photovoltaic, biomass and wind energy plants will be necessary. The German Association of Energy and Water Industries (BDEW) estimates that this would mean "about 100 gigawatts (GW) for onshore wind turbines, 11 GW for biomass, and at least 150 GW for PV (rooftop and ground-mounted)" by 2030. These values are each about one-third higher than the EEG's targets.

    The "traffic light" parties SPD, Greens and FDP had agreed in their coalition agreement at the end of 2021 to accelerate the expansion process of renewables. In view of the sluggish procedures for planning and approving new plants and infrastructure projects - such as the urgently needed grid expansion - this represents an enormous challenge. It can only be solved by largely de-bureaucratizing and streamlining the procedures. According to a recent study by the World Wind Energy Association (WWEA), the planning process for wind turbines in Germany takes an average of 70 months, with subsequent approval taking a further two years. In plain language: a wind farm that is to make its contribution to the energy transition in 2030 must be planned by 2022 at the latest.

    Base load security as a central challenge
    But it is not only the rate of expansion of renewables that needs to be significantly increased - the issue of securing base load also poses a serious challenge. In the past, nuclear and coal-fired power plants reliably ensured that fluctuations in the grid could be balanced out. However, neither wind nor PV plants can be regulated "at the push of a button" - in the event of a "dark lull" they do not supply any electricity. So far, there is no battery storage technology or sufficient capacity of pumped storage plants to provide enough electricity when needed. Experts at the Energy and Climate Protection Foundation estimate that "the sum of pumped storage capacity and battery storage will amount to 0.06 terawatt hours at best," but in a dark slack period, "about 20 terawatt hours could be needed to bridge generation valleys in renewables."

    While overproduction of electricity from renewables can be absorbed by sector coupling (for example, by converting it into heat), powerful power plants are still needed to cushion dark doldrums. The gas-fired power plants envisaged for this purpose in the coalition agreement of the traffic light party are to be designed in such a way that they can be converted to climate-neutral gases ("H2-ready").

    However, the strategy of relying on gas as a bridging technology has suffered a massive setback due to the current gas shortage in the wake of the Russian war against Ukraine. As a result, increased use of coal again, at least for a transitional period, and the decision to stretch nuclear power until April 2023 are unavoidable for securing base load. In addition, the high energy demand along the value chain must also be covered, which is needed to eliminate the infrastructure deficits in the switch to renewables. Above all, the expansion of grid capacity, for example to transmit green offshore electricity from the coast to southern Germany, requires favorable availability of energy and raw materials. Put simply, the current energy shortage could additionally slow down the shift toward renewables.

    To meet the challenges of rising energy demand and grid stability during dark periods, technology openness and the use of bridging technologies will therefore always have to be embedded in a smart strategy that does not lose sight of the Paris target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. With regard to the increased use of LNG, the political systems of potential source countries such as Qatar, the controversial fracking in the U.S., but also a further use of nuclear power will still be the subject of bitter discussions. The "traffic light" coalition will not run out of things to talk about in terms of energy policy.

    Hans Bellstedt Public Affairs GmbH

    Geschäftsführender Gesellschafter:
    Dr. Hans Bellstedt
    Französische Straße 14 · D-10117 Berlin
    tel +49 30 83 21 680 20
    fax +49 30 83 21 680 88