Bulletin of The Atomic Scientists: No Illusions about Germany’s “Energy Turnaround”

In a previous post I poked fun at the “Doomsday Clock” of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. For 60 years, the Bulletin has warned that we’re on the eve of destruction. In February 2016, it decided to rank climate change along with nuclear weapons as humanity’s “most pressing existential threats,” despite long-term increases in global population, per capita income, and life expectancy—the best overall indicators of human health and welfare.

The current issue of the Bulletin has an article by Christine Sturm on Germany’s Energiewende (“Energy Turnaround”), a set of policies designed to achieve a zero-carbon, nuclear-free electric power system by 2050. I assumed the article would be a puff piece. Anything but. Sturm offers a sober review of the history and prospects of Germany’s forced reliance on renewable energy.

Claims that Germany has proven that “any major industrial powerhouse” can run on renewables alone are “premature,” Sturm writes. Her article concludes as follows: 

The major challenge for any energy transition is to integrate intermittent sources of power into the existing energy systems. With the exception of energy sources such as biomass (that can deliver base load electricity similar to fossil and nuclear sources) and hydropower (that is relatively stable and has only seasonal variations), the other significant renewable energy sources (wind and solar) are characterized by strongly intermittent patterns.

In other words, the wind does not always blow steadily and predictably, and there are cloudy days.

Moreover, given that biomass and hydro potentials are finite and almost completely in use already, Germany’s energy system is increasingly dependent on intermittent sources of power. Despite all efforts to convert excess electrical power to hydrogen, methane, heat, or other storable commodities, and despite all progress made in battery research, there still is no technology in place at this time that can economically store electricity at a large scale.

Given that Germany’s electricity grid did not collapse, one might declare the intermittency problem as solved. Unfortunately, this ignores two essential aspects of the Energiewende that explain how Germany solved the intermittency problem until now. First, the problem of generating electricity on cloudy and windless days could only be managed because utilities were obliged to cover these intermittencies by maintaining and running fossil power plants as backup source, in an uneconomic mode. Second, Germany’s electricity generation on windy and sunny days often exceeds by far the grid’s balancing abilities, forcing the power surplus into the adjacent grids of neighboring countries, and obliging other countries to compensate for German intermittencies. These solutions are neither sustainable nor possible in a carbon-free economy. Moreover, whether bold Energiewende-like concepts will be successful or not essentially depends on our ability to really solve the intermittency problem.

Thus, despite what some op-ed writers may have said, Germany’s energy-turnaround is most assuredly neither cheap nor a done deal, technologically speaking. There are still many issues to be sorted out, and we have more work to do.