Category Archives: Energy

Energiewende: Protest & Politics

The Energiewende is the idea, and the policy objective, to gradually phase out all fossil fuels and also nuclear power, and develop a more energy efficient and renewably powered German economy. The term was first coined in 1980. It remains a policy objective, but German politics has been riven between the foot draggers and the real energy transition enthusiasts. I have followed developments over the decades. In 2014 I spent a month in Frankfurt studying the process and posted a blog, ‘Energiewende: Success or Failure’.

Now, nearly a decade later, much has changed, and it is time to look again. The German Green Party was the most enthusiastic supporter of the policy, while the larger CDU & SPD parties were both in the foot dragging camp. Both the CDU & SPD supported the construction of the Nord Stream 1 and 2 gas pipelines, bringing gas from Russia. The Greens opposed this, but were overruled. Gerhard Schroder, the former Chancellor and leader of the SPD became a member of the board of Nord Stream 2, which was dominated by Russian energy giant Gazprom. Angela Merkel also supported Nord Stream.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24th February 2022 exposed German economic dependency on Russian gas. Politically Germany had to abruptly stop fossil fuel imports from Russia, and then the Russians blew up their own pipeline. The pressure was on to find alternative sources of energy, and quickly.

The German Green Party was now the minor party in a coalition government with the Olaf Scholz’s SPD. Robert Habeck, as Vice Chancellor and Minister for Economic Affairs got the poisoned chalice of a job of finding emergency alternatives to Russian gas. He had long supported the Energiewende. Had the policies he advocated been acted upon the impossible role he now finds himself in would not have been necessary. He now reluctantly has to keep more coal and nuclear plants going and go begging to Qatar for LPG, as well as increasing gas imports from Holland, Norway and others. Environmental activists were horrified. Protest focused on an open cast coal mine at Luetzerath, where a couple of weeks ago Greta Thunberg joined the long-standing protest, getting much media attention.

I have much sympathy for both Robert Habeck and Greta Thunberg. However I see some hope. These pro coal, LPG and nuclear power actions will probably be short term temporary fixes. The cost of solar and wind power has declined rapidly, and the growth of their deployment has been increasingly rapid. Germany was one of the early pioneers of wind and solar, and by 2003 they were generating 46 TWh from renewables, by 2013 this had risen to 152 TWh, which rose to 256 TWh in 2022. (See above graph)

It looks inevitable that solar, wind, energy storage and transmission systems will now see very much larger investments. The longstanding Energiewende goal of 100% renewables now looks both the cheapest and most politically appealing policy. It is a tragedy that larger investments in renewables and demand reduction were not pursued more vigorously and consistently over the last couple of decades. Dependency on Russian gas and the current desperate measures would all have been unnecessary. There are painful political paradoxes: Robert Habeck and the German Greens are being held responsible for the consequences of policies they themselves spent years opposing. Such is politics!

Energy ideas and debates

Last night I joined a Green Party webinar on ‘Overcoming the Energy Crisis’. It was chaired by Green Peer Natalie Bennett in conversation with co-leader Adrian Ramsay, Martin Farley, Tax and Fiscal Policy Working Group, Tony Firkins, Secretary, Energy Policy Working Group and Nadine Storey, Convener, Climate Economics Working Group. It was generally a very good discussion, and all these people are very much more in touch with the UK political parties’ policies than I am. However a couple of key words did not get mentioned: co-operatives and agrivoltaics. As anyone who has read my book ‘System Change Now!’ will recall, these are two key areas with huge potential benefits.

I am a member of seven small local renewable energy co-operatives. They are all great, but have their limitations. There is a need to go bigger, to increase the ambition of projects, to allow for greater professionalism, and to draw on a greater range of volunteers. On 19th November ‘The Big Solar Co-op’ had a gathering in Shrewsbury. (More on The Big Solar Co-op, Investment, the gathering)

A vast number of large roofs suitable for solar have been identified, and are now being investigated to see which will make the most workable projects. The Big Solar Co-op currently has a share-offer open, with the aim of raising sufficient funds to install 100MW of solar. I know supporting renewable energy co-operatives has long been a policy of the Green Party, so it was a pity it did not get mentioned last night. My book takes the idea of community ownership of energy a whole lot further, sketching out how all 8 billion of us could own and control most, if not all, of the global energy supply.

On the Green Party webinar Tony Firkins made the point that solar power should be on roofs, and not on good agricultural land. Adrian Ramsey made the point that in his view some solar would also need to be field scale. Some mention was made that having solar panels on a field need not be bad for biodiversity or stop food production. The word agrivoltaics implies the optimal combination of field scale solar with enhancing biodiversity and also food production, all off the same land, and it is a pity this could not have been better debated last night. It is a concept that has truly vast potential. I write a lot about it in the book, and have blogged about it. (More on: definition, a great project in USA, and some trials of new panels in Holland)

The Green Party webinar was advertised to be one hour long, and Natalie Bennett chaired it so that it did draw to a close exactly to the minute of one hour, which was great. So it is not surprising that energy co-operatives or agrivoltaics were not discussed. Other more immediately pressing aspects of our current energy crisis were focused upon. I would however love to contribute to a debate on energy that did focus more on these two aspects, co-operatives and agrivoltaics, which have such great potential.

Patchy Progress

In the twelve years that I have been writing this blog I have repeatedly argued that the switch to 100% renewables is necessary to combat the climate emergency, and with the right policy incentives it could be achieved relatively quickly and with multiple other benefits. I have consistently made the case that solar power would be the major power source for most of humanity.

The above graph shows how over the last decade solar power, and to a lesser extent wind power, have come to dominate new installations of electricity generation globally. The annual rate of solar installations rose from 32 GigaWatts in 2012 to 182 GW in 2021, more than a fivefold increase. Many commentators are predicting that by 2030 annual additions of solar power will be over 1 TW (ie 1,000 GW), again, more than a five-fold increase within a decade.

Global demand for energy continues to increase, almost totally driven by rising demand in the rapidly developing nations of the global south. Over this last decade we have seen the collapse of coal in Europe and North America, mainly displaced by wind and solar. Over the coming decade we will probably see the global decline of coal, followed by declines in gas and oil. There are many technical developments and changes happening in the world that point the way to a renewably powered future. Over the coming months I intend to write a number of blogs about some of these extraordinary and relatively poorly reported trends.

Progress is usually a very uneven process. Whether it is issues of economic equality and well functioning governance or the roll out of renewable energy technology some countries are making tremendous progress and others are not. Russia and Estonia have similar climates and potential to develop renewables and, until 1991, were part of the same system of governance. The difference between them now is staggering. Russia has one of the worst governments in the world and Estonia one of the best. This is reflected in everything from rates of literacy to life expectancy, from the elimination of poverty to their ability to peacefully co-operate with their neighbours. It is also reflected in their energy policies: Russia has virtually no renewable energy development while Estonia has just increased its’ 2030 target for renewable electricity, from 40% to 100%.