Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

SA can take a lesson from Germany’s Energiewende, or energy turnaround, in planning better for the eventual closure of its coal-fired power stations. This was said on Monday by Markus Steigenberger, deputy executive director of Agora Energiewende, an independent German think-tank funded mostly by philanthropists.

In March Eskom announced it would be closing five of its old coal-fired power stations over the next 10 years because its obligation to buy renewable energy would give it surplus power. The announcement has infuriated trade unions.

The Energiewende is a plan presented in 2010 to make the German economy carbon neutral by increasing the contribution from renewables such as wind, solar and biomass and decreasing the contribution from coal and nuclear power. It is a speedier and more ambitious programme than any other country has attempted. Critics argue it has resulted in extremely high energy costs and that the intermittency of renewable energy would have rendered Germany’s power grid highly unstable if it had not been able to buy the less carbon-friendly power generated by its European neighbours.

Steigenberger told a presentation hosted by the Centre for Environmental Rights and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung that Germany is aiming for more than 80% of energy from renewables by 2050, from 3% in 1990. On average, the contribution is now about 33%. Because of seasonal differences, the contribution from solar, wind and biomass ranges between 11% and 86% of the country’s electricity generation.

Coal-fired power accounts for about 40% of Germany’s electricity, and coal mines employ about 20,000 people in the eastern regions.

Germany has cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 27% compared with 1990 levels, but the rate of decline has flattened in the past few years because the country has been too slow to phase out its coal-fired power stations, Steigenberger says. The issue of replacing these jobs in the short term is one that many countries are trying to solve. Various studies have shown that renewable energy generates more jobs in the long term, both directly and indirectly — but the industry is not necessarily going to re-employ coal miners.

Though Germany has converted some of its coal-fired plants to cycle up and down as quickly as gas-fired plants do, to complement renewable generation, most of the plants are inflexible in a system that needs more flexibility. Flexibility can come from grid-scale energy storage, but that is still too expensive, Steigenberger says. A cheaper option would be to offer incentives to biomass energy producers to encourage them to store gas and deliver it when solar and wind cannot. Germany should also be using other methods to improve flexibility, such as demand-side management and the integration of the power, heat and transport sectors.

Despite the fluctuations in the delivery of renewable energy, Germany’s system reliability is high, and improving, Steigenberger says. This could be because system operators in Germany have improved their skills and are able to respond quickly.

Steigenberger says Germany’s electricity costs are high because of the "cost rucksack". The country made the mistake of signing up about 21GW of power from solar sources in 2009-2011 with 20-year guarantees at a cost of about 40 euro cents per kilowatt hour, compared with current costs of about 5.9c/kWh.

Germany’s energy-intensive businesses receive exemptions on their bills, so the cost is borne more heavily by households. Consumers pay about 30c/kWh hour, the second-highest price in Europe after Denmark. But German consumers are more energy efficient than those in comparable developed countries such as America or Japan, where the kilowatt costs are lower, which means their average electricity bills are similar, Steigenberger says.

He says regular surveys show that 80%-90% of German people support in principle the phasing out of carbon-emitting and nuclear power, though they feel the government can do better. There is also local resistance to wind plants or the phasing out of coal power. One of the reasons the public is so supportive of renewable power is that Germany has about 1.8m small generation units in which many people have a financial stake.

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