The Energiewende: Success or Failure?

German Energy Use 2003  -  2013

German Energy Use 2003 – 2013

Has the German Energiewende been a success or failure? It’s a mixed picture. The above graph shows that Germany has made a remarkable achievement ramping up renewable electricity production from 46 TWh/year in 2003 to 152 TWh/year in 2013, more than trebling production over the decade. The historical context of the Energiewende was that nuclear power was seen as the greatest threat: if one was now starting the process reducing coal consumption and carbon emissions would have been a higher priority, but always reducing both was considered important. Over the decade nuclear has been cut by 67.8 TWh/year, and hard coal by 22.5 TWh/year. Lignite (soft brown coal) and gas usage both increased slightly over the decade, by 3.8 and 3.9 TWh/year respectively. Net electricity exports rose considerably, by 25.6 TWh/year.

The one main failing of the Energiewende has been the inability to drive down overall energy consumption. The above graph shows a miniscule decline of 0.9 TWh/year over the decade for electricity. This is very much less than planned. Over the same decade oil use fell from 2,648,000 to 2,382,000 barrels per day: approximately a 10% fall. Huge achievements are being made reducing the energy consumption of many individual buildings and technologies. However at the same time new sources of energy wastage are being unintentionally incorporated into the system. For example more and more gadgets are being built with standby functions, and these energy vampires now use more electricity than all the trains and trams in Germany, for absolutely no benefit. Tax breaks for gas guzzling company cars are still allowed. Although new buildings and the best of the renovated older buildings are excellent, the rate of retrofitting the established building stock needs to ramped up from 1% to 3% per year.

Driving down overall energy consumption will be the key to fulfilling the promise of the Energiewende. This will probably mean outright bans on some of the worst forms of wastage, probably some new taxes, increased investment in building retrofitting. Investment in renewable energy generation, strengthening the grid and developing a large number of energy storage technologies will also be important, but the success of the energy transition will probably hang more on reducing demand than on any other single factor.

Overall much has been achieved, and humanity owes Germany a debt of gratitude for pioneering the transition to renewables. Germany has better political will to make this happen than most countries, and a much more difficult challenge due to its high concentration of people and industry and its relatively poor renewable energy resources.

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