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When Green Dreams Beget Brown Nightmares

Germany’s energy revolution—its energiewende—was supposed to blaze a trail, and show off a new way countries could meet their energy needs without wrecking their environment or the climate. It was an audacious experiment, but it’s hard to read much success out of it these days.

Yes, renewable energy is booming in Germany, after guaranteed long-term above-market rates called feed-in tariffs were offered to wind and solar power producers, but the costs of those subsidies have been passed along to consumers in the form of green surcharges. For businesses, that affects bottom lines, and many German firms are looking to site production abroad, where energy is cheaper (in the shale gas-rich United States, for instance). For households, that’s been a kind of pernicious regressive tax, as the poor are more likely to notice their ever-rising electricity bills.

But accompanying the growth of renewables in Germany’s energy mix has been a renaissance for a decidedly brown energy source: coal. In the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, Germany began phasing out its nuclear reactors. Berlin took from that crisis that it ought to eliminate nuclear, an effectively zero-carbon energy source, from its energy mix, despite the fact that Germany is situated far away from the fault lines that threaten Japan’s reactors. Solar panels and wind turbines can’t replace nuclear energy; they supply two distinct kinds of energy. Nuclear can be relied on to supply grids consistently, 24/7, 365, while solar and wind can only contribute when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing. To meet its baseload energy needs, Germany turned to its domestic deposits of lignite, an especially dirty form of coal. As the Wall Street Journal reports, that’s how the supposedly green-minded energiewende has rejuvenated German coal use:

Berlin’s “energy revolution” is going great—if you own a coal mine. The German shift to renewable power sources that started in 2000 has brought the green share of German electricity up to around 25%. But the rest of the energy mix has become more heavily concentrated on coal, which now accounts for some 45% of power generation and growing. Embarrassingly for such an eco-conscious country, Germany is on track to miss its carbon emissions reduction goal by 2020. […]

Ordinary Germans foot the bill for these market distortions, having ponied up an estimated €100 billion ($129 billion) extra on their electricity bills since 2000 to fund the renewable drive. The government estimates this revolution could cost a total of €1 trillion by 2040.

Berlin is scaling back some taxpayer subsidies for green power. But Germans still also pay for the energy revolution when job-creating investment goes to countries with lower power costs, as happened earlier this year when chemical company BASF said it would cut its investments in Germany to one-quarter of its global total from one-third, and when bad incentives skew generation toward dirtier coal instead of cleaner natural gas.

Is this what greens envisioned when they hailed the start of the energiewende as a major policy success? It’s hard to imagine a worse set of outcomes for Germany—higher electricity prices, a rising reliance on the dirtiest fossil fuel around (coal), an accelerated phase out of one of the only zero-carbon baseload power sources around (nuclear), and a less diverse, less secure energy mix that leaves Germany exposed to the machinations of exporters like Russia.

Trail blazers are meant to provide examples for followers, and in this respect Germany’s energiewende has been a success: policymakers around the world can observe and learn from Berlin’s mistakes.

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  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    And to top it all off “Global Warming” is the greatest hoax in history.

  • Boritz

    Greens claim they are against dirty energy and for clean energy. The truth is they are against energy that is affordable, dense and continuously available whether it is dirty (hydrocarbons that are liquid at STP) or rather clean such as gas.

  • Rick Johnson

    The Greens do not care about the environment. They seek an anti-industrial revolution. Destroying our ability to produce cheap energy is a key part of that plan. If you look at their antics through from this perspective, it all makes sense.

    • Ken G

      Spot on.

    • Despiser_of_Libs

      Green is nothing but the “new red”…

      • Rick Johnson

        Marx and the communists were pro-growth and pro-industry.

        The Greens are anti-prosperity. That’s the important difference.

  • ddh

    Solar power was a particularly inappropriate technology for Germany, given its cloudy weather and peak demand for energy during the dark northern winter.

    Also, if you are going to italicize Energiewende as a foreign word, please note that German capitalizes all nouns.

  • Despiser_of_Libs

    Liberalism makes smart people do really DUMB things…

    No amount of education can overcome Liberal stupidity…

  • George Purcell

    Ever single element of this was both predicable and predicted.

  • GlobalTrvlr

    The costs are even higher than what you have shown. For instance, when they shut down the nuclear plants, (and we are doing the same with both coal & nuclear in the US), you have written off the useful life of that asset, damaging the company & shareholders. Especially for nuclear, there are still a lot of ongoing costs to either bring the plant down to a certain level with the expectation that people may come to their senses and want to restart the plants, or to totally decommission the plants. These are enormous costs that need to be counted when totaling up the cost benefit of going “green”.

    Then, along with the fact that nuclear and coal plants are “base load” plants, good for 7x24x365, what they also provide is the system stability – the fact that when you plug something in you can rely on the frequency to be between 49.9 and 50.1 Hz. Even when you have large load impacts or rejections, or the load swings throughout the day. In order to replace the “big iron” stability aspects, now utilities and grid operators have to buy synchronous condensers, and other power system stabilizer equipment that they did not need when they had generators online. Germany has been spending in the $1B per year range on these, as has Denmark and other countries that ran headlong into the green initiative.

    An analogy would be this. The new Boeing Dreamliner uses two jet engines rated about 100,000 HP. A decent size coal fired generator is about 6x that and a nuclear 10x that. A wind turbine is about 1-3MW. So, retiring a coal fired generator and replacing it with a wind turbines is essentially like taking of the two engines of a Boeing Dreamiliner and strapping on 6,000 Beechcraft propeller engines to the plane, and then trying to fly it. Not very stable, and getting them all to work together is impossible. Oh, and the plane won’t fly about 40% of the time due to lack of fuel. That is how going to renewables is screwing up the electrical systems, and why there are hidden costs in the $10x B’s.

    Another hidden cost are the new interconnects between countries, many of them very long and underwater – very expensive. It is the only way that they can keep the lights on is to rely on others to have some power when they don’t.

    Quite a mess, that most people do not have a clue about.

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