At a mid-January meeting in parliament buildings in London, Professor Fritz Vahrenholt provided a very detailed monologue on the motivations behind Germany’s energy transition, and why he feels it’s misguided and potentially disastrous.
Had the lecture been delivered by somebody from the coal power sector, they might have been written off as a ‘climate denier’, but given Vahrenholt’s background and pedigree as a backer of renewable energy, he is not so easily dismissed and his position must cause some unease for those so adamant that climate change is manmade.
It should give pause for thought too to the public at large. Governments and media around the world, not just in Germany, are convinced that man is responsible for the recently observed temperature rises and Polar ice cap reduction.
But Vahrenholt believes that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the main body from which the rest of the world takes its cue on such matters, is not approaching the problem with the correct scientific rigour.
The merits of the science aside, he takes most issue with the behaviour of his own country’s government for ‘trying to save the world.’
Germany has the second highest electricity prices in Europe, and in phasing out nuclear while stimulating over-production of renewables, it has reduced power prices to a pitiful extent, and ironically came to rely on coal. The last two factors mean the prospect of a lack of investment in the country’s future energy infrastructure, while targets for reducing CO2 look likely to be missed.
Much of Germany’s current problems arise from what he believes was an emotional reaction to the Fukushima disaster by Chancellor Angela Merkel – an order to accelerate the phasing out of a power source that had provided 30 per cent of the country’s electricity.
Vahrenholt says there is an endgame for the Energiewende, ‘though this reckless policy has worked until now’, referring to the German proverb ‘the donkey goes on to the ice until it breaks.’
“There will come a point when the rural population, or wildlife protection agencies, or a weakening economy or failures in the grid itself will force a return to conventional generation.”
He said one of the reasons the German population still backed the policy is because they are still relatively economically prosperous, with a weak euro and the work done by Merkel’s predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, continuing to sustain the economy.
“The second reason it works is that energy intensive industries are exempted from the levy. They are profiting because of the overcapacity from renewables leading to sinking prices.”
Vahrenholt mocked the government’s current strategy of trebling wind farm capacity as the wind cannot be predicted and their output fluctuates enormously.
"Nil multiplied by x is still nil," he said, while the price keeps mounting, and the carbon price remains too low to encourage carbon capture and storage at lignite plants which remain essential to fill the intermittency gaps, as gas-fired power plants are mothballed or closed completely.
He reserved his gravest criticism for the damage being wrought on the German countryside where the use of biofuels is having a bad impact. Pesticide use and monoculture has led to major declines in bird of prey numbers.
He calculated that to maintain the policy there would have to be a wind turbine ‘every 2.7km whether the landscape is lakes, wood or towns.’
A particularly acute sign of the failure of the policy is the current rate of progress and expense in bringing renewables from wind plants in the north to the south, where nuclear shutdowns are most keenly felt.
“6100 km cables are planned to be built but four years later only 80 km have been laid. Government has underestimated the resistance to the imposition of overhead power lines on this scale– so all plans have been torn up and they are now going underground at huge extra cost, which will of course also be added on to household bills.”
“We are talking about DC cables which have never been built at this scale underground. In the best case scenario these cables will be laid five years after the nuclear shutdown.”
Re-dispatching of power is another feature of the new reality for the German electricity system. The grid operator would previously be called upon to interfere between power plants and customers once a day on average. This procedure now occurs 20 times a day, amounting to 6000 interventions a year in order to have guarantee system stability.
Because the merit order that facilitated market prices for power no longer works, thanks to the success of renewable energy, no new conventional power plants are being built. 69 power plants with a total capacity of 8000 MW are in the red as a result, as power plants are no longer profitable in the current scenario.
Due to a lack of supply in southern Germany the government was forced to intervene, creating a law whereby plants were only permitted to close by the grid agency with a minimum lead time of one year. These requests are being denied anyway, according to Vahrenholt, who very much paints a picture of a government making it all up on an ad-hoc basis.
“A term used in banking was system relevancy = the same term is now in use for power plants who are not allowed to close in Germany even on negative figures.”
“The owner of the plant receives only the operational cost,” Vahrenholt said, with obvious implications for investment in new plants.
Noting the latest figures showing a 2.5 per cent rise in CO2 in Germany last year, he also expressed doubt about the claims for storage (prohibitively expensive) and electro mobility (limited solution) as potential answers, making for a very dark narrative indeed.
To add more to an already gloomy picture, the professor said the Energiewende was creating an ‘ecological disaster’ through its assertiveness in building wind farms and biogas plants.
“Turning grassland into monoculture maize means deserts of maize replacing other food sources and ruining ecologies, a disaster for biodiversity. Birds of prey are also victims of the green religion. Take the lesser spotted eagle - there are only 100 braces left in Germany. The red kite lose 1000 each year due to wind turbines. The common buzzard is losing 11000 per year. The environment minister says the red kite could be gone by 2025.”
“The same problem exists for bats. Wind turbines are going into forests and other sensitive areas – because we want to save the world and destroy our nature.”
“In the transportation of equipment to the forest, paths are created and bats take that freeway and fly directly into turbines. They go through but their lungs are bursting and evolution has not prepared them so 240 000 bats are killed each year in Germany even though by law it is forbidden to kill a bat.”
He said the chance of a ‘policy correction’ would only happen under certain circumstances:
The average global temperature doesn’t rise as much as predicted
Loss of German competitiveness becomes acutely felt
the spoiling of the German landscape becomes a major political issue.
The glimmer of hope in Vahrenholt’s thinking is that future generations would have technology such as thorium reactors or nuclear fission that could save the day, but ‘it will take a long time to redress this misguided energy policy.’
When contacted by Power Engineering International, the IPCC and the World Meteorological Organisation who compiled the latest data on global temperatures, expressed disagreement with Varhenholt’s analysis.
Although the IPCC said they generally cannot comment on scientific studies or opinions outside of their published assessment reports, they did state, “Some recent reports and studies say that even if El Nino was removed the temperatures are still record high. These studies have not been assessed by the IPCC but they will probably be part of our next Assessment Report which will be finalized between 2021 in 2022 and/or the Special Reports that will be finalized between September 2018 and September 2019. We will also be assessing the data compiled by NASA, NOOA and the other met offices.”
Clare Nullis, Media Officer at the World Meteorological Organisation told Power Engineering International, “It was the third straight year of record heat. El Niño played a role and the temperature departures from average were highest in the first part of the year. But El Niño only contributes to short term variations in the climate. What we are seeing here is long term climate warming from human activity. NASA and NOAA joint press release calculated that El Niño increased the temperature anomaly by 0.12 degrees C in 2016 but it would have been the warmest on record without El Niño.”
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Across the academic world it is fair to say that there are not many of his peers who share his views on the climate picture. Here is a flavour of those views:
Prof Piers Forster, Director of the Priestley International Centre for Climate at the University of Leeds, said:
“Even if you remove the extra warming due to El Nino, 2016 was the warmest year ever recorded. Such warm years increase heavy rainfall and damage crops. 2017 will likely be cooler. However, unless we have a major volcanic eruption, I expect the record to be broken again within a few years.”
Prof Gabi Hegerl, Professor of Climate System Science at the University of Edinburgh, said:
“For science, another record, and another year to test our models and narrow down projections of future climate. Meanwhile, cumulative carbon is increasing. Time is getting tight for avoiding dangerous climate change.”
Prof Peter Stott, Acting Director of the Met Office Hadley Centre, said:
“The final figures confirm that 2016 was yet another extremely warm year. In the HadCRUT4 dataset the temperature for last year was very close to the year before, temperatures for 2016 exceeding those for 2015 by a small margin. 2015 was remarkable for having stood out so clearly from previous years as the warmest year since 1850 and now 2016 turns out to have been just as warm.
“A particularly strong El Niño event contributed about 0.2C to the annual average for 2016, which was about 1.1C above the long term average from 1850 to 1900. However, the main contributor to warming over the last 150 years is human influence on climate from increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.”
“Multiple lines of independent evidence confirm that the planet has warmed over the last 150 years: warmer oceans, warmer land, warmer lower atmosphere and melting ice. This long-term trend is the main cause for the record warmth of 2015 and 2016, surpassing all previous years – even ones with strong El Niño events – in the HadCRUT4 global temperature record.”
Prof Mark Maslin, Professor of Climatology at University College London, said:
“The idea of a pause or a hiatus in global warming must now be abandoned with the announcement that 2016 was the warmest year on record. Climate change is one of the great challenges of the twenty first century and shows no signs of slowing down. The decarbonization of the global economy is the ultimate goal to prevent the worst effects of climate change. The hottest year on record is such a clear warning siren that even President-elect Trump cannot ignore.”
Prof Dave Reay, Professor of Carbon Management at the University of Edinburgh, said:
“That 2016 was the hottest year on record comes as no big surprise. The combination of a strong El Nino event with human-induced climate warming was the perfect recipe for another record-breaker. What's more worrying is that, even without the El Nino event, global temperatures would have been up in record territory.
“Short-lived swings in global temperature due to things like El Nino or volcanic eruptions have always been the waves atop the long term tidal cycle that is climate. Through our carbon emissions we have now radically altered this cycle and the tide is rising fast.”
Prof Michael Grubb, Professor of International Energy and Climate Change at University College London, said:
“One great challenge for our times is to ensure that scientific realities triumph over political expediencies.
“Given the UK’s strong track record on climate change, perhaps Boris Johnson could comment on the global temperature trends and the UK’s future climate diplomacy?
Dr Chris Huntingford from the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology said:
“There is often much emotion about climate change, but it is worth remembering that at the heart of the debate is an issue of physics. As greenhouse gas concentrations rise, then this adjusts how easily energy from the Sun is re-released back out to space. Higher atmospheric carbon dioxide levels imply higher temperatures, and hence on-going use of fossil fuels can be expected to repeatedly cause previous warming records to be broken.”
Hui Yang, visiting scientist to the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and from Peking University, said:
“One of the challenges of climate science is to understand how further general increases in the temperature of the planet will translate in to adjustments to weather features and including extreme events. If warming continues, society may need to increase preparations for and manage any risks associated with changing weather patterns.”
Prof Meric Srokosz, Marine Physics and Ocean Climate Scientist at the National Oceanography Centre (NOC), University of Southampton, said:
"The continuing rise in atmospheric CO2, now over 400ppm, is leading to an inexorable rise in global temperatures and the latest global average temperature figures for 2016, showing it to be the warmest year on record, are further evidence of humanity's impact on our planet."