Inspirational Change: German Electricity

I love this graph. It reveals that two important trends have both accelerated over this last year. Electricity demand in Germany has fallen more quickly than ever and renewable forms of electricity have increased significantly, which, taken together, has meant that coal, lignite, gas and nuclear power have simultaneously fallen. This proves the success of the German ‘Energiewende’ policy.

The graph shows how use of the most polluting ways of generating electricity (lignite, coal, gas, oil and nuclear) collectively peaked in 2003, plateaued until 2006 and then, first slowly, then increasingly quickly, declined. This was made possible between 2003 and 2017 by the increasing deployment of renewables, notably wind and solar. Overall demand peaked in 2017, and has since fallen significantly, which coupled with the continued increase in renewables, has meant increasingly rapid falls in the more polluting technologies. Very good news in many ways: falling carbon emissions, declining local air pollution, and wider economic and social gains from new jobs, health benefits, money saved on fuel imports etc.

The 2020 to 2022 period saw some extraordinary challenges. First Covid, which reduced demand, then the post-Covid bounce in demand overlapped with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine which interrupted gas supply, coupled with a severe drought that meant that most of Europe’s hydro-electric facilities were only partially operating, which had the knock-on effect of meaning French nuclear power stations had insufficient water to operate and had to shut down. All these factors were behind the slight increase in lignite, coal and nuclear that occurred around 2021 and I blogged about last year.

I posted a blog in 2014 ‘The Energiewende: Success or Failure’. I think we can now say, yes, it has been a success. Germany is moving toward 100% renewable energy generation.

More than a dozen countries already get all, or very nearly all, their electricity from renewables: New Zealand, Iceland, Costa Rica, Bhutan, Uruguay, Albania, Paraguay, Kyrgyzstan and a few others. None have huge populations or a lot of industry, and all have very good renewable energy resources, mostly hydro. Why the German Energiewende is significant is that it was the first populous, heavily industrialized country to make this a specified policy objective. Now most countries are moving in this general direction. The Ember website has data for nearly all countries. Many countries in the global south are still witnessing increases in electricity demand, and so globally coal use increased slightly last year. However it looks increasingly likely that global coal use will peak this year, or maybe next, then plateau for a couple of years before beginning an increasingly rapid decline. China’s massive recent investments in renewables are a harbinger of this.

To combat the global climate and ecological crisis humanity needs to change in many ways. One of the most obvious, and important, is to stop burning fossil fuels. Changing how we generate electricity is a big part of this, and the falling demand and increasing use of renewables that this graph shows for Germany gives inspiration for other countries to follow. It makes economic and ecological sense. Every year this transition becomes easier as renewable energy gets better and cheaper, energy storage technologies improve and grids are interconnected. This is one area where humanity is (albeit falteringly, chaotically and despite powerful vested interests) moving in the right direction.

Mauritania & the Megaton Moon

GreenGo’s Megaton Moon proposed project: a vast wind and solar farm in Mauritainia, using the Mauritanian flag as inspiration for the layout.

At COP28 in Dubai 118 countries have signed up to a voluntary pledge to triple renewable energy generation and double energy efficiency by 2030. These pledges are a very variable thing: some countries will take them seriously and implement policies aimed at achieving these goals. For other countries it is, no doubt, just a meaningless public relations exercise. However there are other countries which will massively surpass the goal of tripling renewable energy production. It is this last group that interest me most. Let us look at just one.

In Mauritania only about half the population have access to electricity, and the country only used 1.88TWh in 2021. Mauritania has huge expanses of flat, windswept, sunny deserts, ideal for building large scale wind and solar projects. GreenGo Energy is a Danish based clean energy company that was founded in 2011, and has partnered with several cleantech funding organizations, such as Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners, who have an impressive track record.

GreenGo and the Mauritanian government are proposing to build a massive wind and solar project in Mauritania with a capacity to generate 190TWh per year, which would be a hundred-fold increase in Mauritania’s electricity supply. Some of the energy would be used to desalinate seawater and increase agricultural production, some would be used to help supply more of the Mauritanian people with electricity and to help the country build hospitals, schools and housing, but all of this would use only a small part of the wind and solar generated electricity. Much would be used to make green hydrogen, which could then be used locally or exported, either as hydrogen or as ammonia or e-methanol. Making this green hydrogen at such scale in such a favourable location for sun and wind deployment should mean very cheap energy, perhaps half the cost it could be produced for in Europe. People and industry have always moved to where energy is most abundant and cheap. It is where new economic opportunities emerge. I wrote about this in my book ‘System Change Now!’ where I speculated about such massive projects and mentioned Mauritania as one of a number of countries well suited to host such megaprojects.

BP, the oil giant, announced a year ago that they had signed-up a memorandum of understanding with the government of Mauritania to explore the feasibility of producing green hydrogen in Mauritania. I have not heard if they have made any progress.

It seems likely that someone will get a big project of this nature built in Mauritania. There are always many stages involved in these kinds of projects and raising the vast sums of money involved is not easy. To my mind the GreenGo project looks more likely to happen than the BP one, but only time will tell. Chris Goodall, in his excellent Carbon Commentary Newsletter, points out that transporting hydrogen by pipeline is very much cheaper than sending electricity via cable, or presumably transporting hydrogen in specialized ships, and he speculates about the possibility of a hydrogen pipe connecting Mauritania to Europe. Demand for green hydrogen is very strong in Europe and a cheap and abundant supply will be necessary to help decarbonize Europe, and the World, and in the process bring a better and more prosperous future for Mauritania and for Africa generally.

The Mauritanian economy is currently dominated by mining, and they have ambitious plans to double iron ore production by 2026. With the cheap wind and solar generated electricity and green hydrogen that the GreenGo project promises, Mauritania would then be able to convert their ore directly into steel at the mine site, which would reduce the need to transport bulky iron ore for export. They could of course also electrify the railway linking the mine to the port. I speculated about all this in my book, long before I heard of the plans of BP or GreenGo Energy. Mauritania has the ideal resource base from which to build an inclusive and sustainable form of prosperity, for Mauritania, and also to help the rest of the world. To do all of this requires a lot of good decision making by politicians, companies and investors. It is a country I shall continue to watch.

The BBC and the Climate Crisis

Doug Parr, Greenpeace’s Chief Scientist, tweeted this graph from the IEA, and stated ‘Anyone would think, given their prominence, that oil companies were at the centre of the energy transition. But the numbers show they aren’t- they are peripheral, and should be treated as such until they change’

I would love to see the BBC tackle the climate and biodiversity crisis properly. So far, in all my decades of watching TV I’ve never once seen the kind of programme that I think the county, and the world, is crying out to see.

A couple of weeks ago Panorama tried to address the issues with a programme called ‘Why Are We Still Searching for Fossil Fuels?’ In it Richard Bilton looks at the expansion plans of fossil fuel companies and shows how far they exceed any safe carbon budget. We are on course for catastrophic climate change. 20 minutes and 55 seconds into the programme Richard Bilton states ‘The oil and gas companies are so enormous, they operate at such vast volumes, it is really hard to get a solution to climate change without their involvement.’ This fundamentally misunderstands the processes of change, and makes telling the more positive stories in relation to the climate and biodiversity crisis impossible to tell. Nearly all the exciting innovation is coming from new start-ups and not from the old energy incumbents. (The above pie chart shows how little of the cleantech investments are coming from fossil companies: just 1%. They are irrelevent)

In 2017 I posted a blog under the title ‘Can Companies Change?’ In it I contrasted the Danish company DONG, formally the Danish Oil and Gas Company, who gradually developed into the world’s largest offshore wind developer, sold off all their fossil fuel interests and changed their name to Orsted. They are one of the very few fossil fuel companies to make this kind of transition. Peabody, formally the world’s largest coal producer, failed to change, and filed for bankruptcy in 2016. Most of the big oil and gas companies have dabbled in renewables, but for most of them it is a tiny share of their total capital investments. Probably they have now left it too late to change. It seems ever more likely that many of the big oil and gas companies will fail to change and go bankrupt as demand for their products withers in the face of cleantech expansion.

The fast growing renewables and cleantech sector is utterly dominated by new start-ups. That is where technical innovation is happening. Social innovation is happening in many ways, often led by cities. Ecological restoration is being led by many farmers and pioneering organizations.

A number of programmes could focus on solar power. The improved performance and falling price of solar panels is rapidly expanding their deployment in most, but not all, countries. It would be good to hear more about community ownership projects like The Big Solar Co-op, the way China is massively investing in solar power, and how solar is transforming villages across Africa. Offshore wind is really taking off in many places, and it would be good to hear more about this. Surplus wind and solar power will need to be stored for times of little sun or wind, and energy storage, like solar panels, are undergoing rapid change. Recent advances in, for example, sodium-ion batteries for grid electricity storage or e-methanol for fuelling shipping are signs of profound change. In the EU primary energy demand peaked in 2006 and has been slowly declining since.* As renewables exponentially expand, the demand for fossil fuels will inevitably dwindle. Other regions, such as Latin America, are following this path, and eventually all countries will.

Many cities are decreasing car dependency through investing in walking, cycling, public transport, and also as more people work from home, cities will see their need for cars and oil decrease rapidly, and air quality and human health improve. On numerous rewilding and ecological farming projects biodiversity is beginning to recover, and to flourish. This can be done while also producing energy, more and better food and employment. I would love to see programmes about these things made and presented by the people pioneering them, not by BBC journalists, none of whom seem to have much understanding about any of these changes.

Over the thirteen years that I’ve been writing these blogs, and over the coming years, I’ll try and continue to write about some of these profound and positive changes that give hope in the face of the climate and biodiversity crisis. Many of the technologies and land use systems that so inspire me would make excellent television: they are very visual things, but I’ve never seen any of them given the coverage they deserve on television.

Wolfgang Blau, co-founder of the Oxford Climate Journalism Network, tweeted on 22nd November that ‘We are worrying too much about the climate science deniers and not enough about the much, much larger part of the population that is very worried about global warming but doesn’t hear enough about the many emerging solutions’.

I couldn’t agree more!

  • (* Thomas Pellerin-Carlin, with data from the Energy Institute Statistical Review of World Energy 2023)