Germany Great Energy Experiment

Germany Great Energy Experiment Image
Germany intends to produce 40% of its electric power from big wind and big solar by 2020 -- and 80% of its power from big green by 2050. German politicians say it will work. They are betting the entire country on it. The cost of Germany's great energy experiment -- Energiewende -- has risen to upwards of 250 billion over the next 8 years. That is about 7% of Germany's 2011 GDP. Electricity costs are already going up, and German electricity consumers must pay a 15% renewable-energy surcharge tax with every monthly bill.

Germany's government is betting its industry and its economy that green energy technologists can somehow pull a herd of rabbits out of a thimble, and save the day. Pathetic Germany: Who can save you now? In 2010, the German government declared that it would undertake what has popularly come to be called an Energiewende-an energy turn, or energy revolution. This switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy is the most ambitious ever attempted by a heavily industrialized country: it aims to cut greenhouse-gas emissions 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2020, and 80 percent by midcentury. The goal was challenging, but it was made somewhat easier by the fact that Germany already generated more than 20 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, which produces almost no greenhouse gases. Then last year, responding to public concern over the post-tsunami nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, Chancellor Angela Merkel ordered the eight oldest German nuclear plants shut down right away. A few months later, the government finalized a plan to shut the remaining nine by 2022. Now the Energiewende includes a turn away from Germany's biggest source of low--carbon electricity.

To some German economists, the country's energy policy is simply wrong-headed. Hans-Werner Sinn, president of the Ifo Institute for Economic Research at the University of Munich, is especially scathing. "The Energiewende is a turn into nowhere-land, because the green technologies are just not sufficient to provide a replacement for modern society's energy needs," he says. "It is wrong to shut down the atomic power plants, because this is a cheap source of energy, and wind and solar power are by no means able to provide a replacement. They are much more expensive, and the energy that comes out is of inferior quality. Energy-intensive industries will move out, and the competitiveness of the German manufacturing sector will be reduced or wages will be depressed."

The problems with Germany's plan are too many, too obvious, and too grave to dismiss. And yet that is exactly what Germany's politicians are doing, to the ultimate demise of the nation's industrial might and its economy. And when Germany goes, it will drag the rest of Europe down with it. There is much about the current policy that arguably isn't logical. In the short term at least, the decision to close the nuclear plants means that the Energiewende will actually push utilities to rely more heavily on coal. Last year, for example, RWE fired up two long-planned new boilers at an existing facility near the Belgian border that burns the dirtiest fossil fuel of them all: brown lignite coal. Though these boilers are cleaner than the ones they're replacing, the coal plant is the largest of its kind in the world, and it's going full blast these days to keep up with power demand.

...Inevitably, some hot July week will come when a high-pressure system stalls over Europe, stilling turbines just when sunburned Germans reach for their air conditioners. Until large-scale, cheap storage is available, gas power plants, which can start up quickly and efficiently, will be the most practical way to cope with these situations. But there's little incentive to build such plants. Owners of gas plants meant to meet peak power needs can no longer count on running for a certain number of hours, since the need will no longer fall on predictable workday afternoons but come and go with the sun and wind. Says -Ottmar -Edenhofer, chief economist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, "The design of the electricity market will change fundamentally. You have fluctuating demand, and at the same time a fluctuating supply. The linkage and the interplay in these two dimensions has become the subject of intense research. There could be new and emerging market failures." failures? Certainly. But more importantly, power failures. As power blackouts and cascading failures become more common across Germany -- and thus across Europe -- Germans will find themselves immersed in the true experience of big green: Freezing or roasting in the dark. Without enough cheap, reliable power to support the high-technology industry and the transportation system, Germany's economy-and that of Europe as a whole-could be in trouble. Already some German firms are building new manufacturing facilities elsewhere; for example, last year the chemical producer Wacker -Chemie decided to build a polysilicon plant in Tennessee, partly because energy costs in Germany were so high. Weale says, "The quality of the supply would only have to deteriorate a little bit and it would be quite serious for this high--technology industry. We've already seen, even without the lights going out, that industry is getting nervous."

Not long ago, German politicians were talking about having to spend 25 billion on new power infrastructure to facilitate new offshore wind installations and new solar power plants. Now, they are talking about up to 250 billion -- a significant portion of German GDP.

But in reality, German economists admit that no one knows how high the ultimate cost of the Energiewende will grow to be.

And in the end, what will Germany have? A former economic powerhouse of Europe, reduced to dependency upon intermittent unreliable forms of energy. A nation in demographic decline, stripped of its most profitable industrial producers -- because these producers could not depend upon Germany's power supply.

Rarely has a nation gone through the rapid ups and downs that Germany has undergone over the past century. It is not certain that the much depleted German character can survive the next collapse.