The transition to alternative energies will not come free, but it is feasible and necessary in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It will only be accepted if the energy supply of the future can be made reliable, affordable and climate-friendly. Furthermore, it will also only be accepted if it does not threaten jobs and growth in Germany, but instead allows, or even creates, further growth.
Increasing the proportion of energy gained from renewable sources is at the heart of the efforts, but this is not the most urgent challenge we face at the moment. I am convinced that the truly urgent problems currently lie elsewhere:
• Sufficient electricity at the correct frequency must be available at every millisecond. Many processes in industry require this reliability.
• Even in the future, we will need an efficient electricity grid at all voltage levels.
• The expansion of renewable energies must be oriented towards efficiency criteria.
This stands out already: In future, it will not be possible to accommodate every peak load of renewable energy. In times of insufficient interconnect capacity and continuing feed priority for renewable energy, this means that we must urgently create storage capacity and develop new storage options. To do this, Niedersachen has set up the State Initiative for Energy Storage and Systems in order to network and interconnect efforts in this area. Many companies have already expressed interest in and committed themselves to the initiative.
At the same time, we cannot go without fossil fuel power plants altogether in the future. Investment is urgently needed, whether in new construction or restoration. In Niedersachsen, we offer ideal conditions for investors. We have done our homework when it comes to spatial planning for a large number of new power plants.
At the same time, it is not us who are investing – it is the companies themselves, if it pays off. However, the basis for this kind of multi-billion-euro investments, in the form of at least partially predictable sales of electricity from conventional energy sources, is currently missing. The federal government must adjust the conditions here.
The current instruments of the German Renewable Energies Act (EEG) must be scrutinised in terms of their perspectives if we want to ensure a reliable energy supply at all times with the security of conventional (reserve) power plants, just as industry needs it.
The discussion about the transition to alternative energies is increasing both the public’s understanding and acceptance of the individual measures. I am convinced that broad-based discussion is necessary. In Niedersachsen, we have had good experiences in discussing and developing energy concepts with all groups in society. Business associations and companies have been involved in this very constructively. We need very specific acceptance for taller and more efficient wind turbines, for example. Our focus here is particularly on repowering and demand-based switch-on.
After all, it is important to involve citizens in planning decisions well in advance and to take their interests into account appropriately in the process. This can ultimately only be done locally. It is the role of the states and regions. Technical planning at a federal level cannot regulate the details required.
The grid expansion required also needs to be discussed and the option of partial underground cabling close to settlements used. This increases both acceptance and the exploitation of potential for increasing transmission performance. But it is also clear that there is no way around expanding the grid.
The state government has declared its aim for Niedersachsen to remain an industrial state. We committed to this in the energy concept. Primary industry is needed for the transition to alternative energies if it is to succeed. That is why we want energy-intensive industries to remain competitive and ease the burden accordingly. Given the conditions at the moment, exemption from network fees and the EEG reallocation charge is justified. It is important that companies are able to use energy at a cost, quality and conditions which continue to allow them to remain competitive both internationally and within the group. The aim of this industrial policy is to create more jobs in the energy sector and to allow growth in this area, both in generation and in the production of systems.
But up to what proportion of renewables are feed priority and guaranteed remuneration a good idea? The affordability of the transition to alternative energies must be kept in mind. We cannot put too great a strain on industry, business or people. Niedersachen backed the limitations put in place by the EEG remuneration for photovoltaics, passed by the federal parliament. The Chair of the Monolies Commission, Justus Haucup, put it correctly: “There is no human right to extra profits for solar power.”
That is why it is important to develop the EEG further and to think about and plan for the time after the EEG. We have to get the costs for the general public under control. I do not want de-industrialisation! With the EEG in its present form, the transition to alternative energies will drive energy costs up to unacceptable levels. The EEG must therefore be challenged and reworked at a fundamental level. First, we need new ways to achieve cost efficiency. After all, all renewables will eventually have to face up to the market eventually. One by one, technologies will be released from sponsorship into the market as they become fully developed.
We have experienced a huge expansion in renewable energies in recent years. The number of PV plants has increased dramatically. Many biogas plants have been built in the last two years. I am particularly pleased about the expansion of wind energy on land. At the end of 2009, there were around 5,200 plants in Niedersachsen, with an installed capacity of around 6,400 MW. At the end of 2011, there were around 300 extra plants, with an installed capacity of over 7,000 MW. By 2020, we want to double the installed capacity of the wind power plants in Niedersachsen, i.e. onshore, to over 14,000 MW. This is our central contribution to the success of the transition to alternative energies.
Furthermore, we have created the conditions needed for offshore wind energy. The majority of offshore wind parks are connected to the grid in Niedersachsen. However, effective expansion of regenerative power generation will not be possible without expansion of the electricity grid. The fact that the transmission network operators have declared themselves ready to stem the huge investment demand of euros 20 billion is reason to be optimistic. But we also expect them to keep their promises.
I am convinced that the authority of the states when it comes to planning has many practical benefits for network expansion. We are running an extensive PR campaign on the most urgent routes. If we want to structure the transition to alternative energies in cooperation with people, we also need to hold discussions locally. All in all, we need to continue to improve the culture of dialogue, appeal more strongly for understanding and work together with the people to find solutions.
But we also have to be realistic in the transition to alternative energies. With the exception of biogas and water power, renewables are not capable of covering the base load. Sufficient storage is not (yet) available. That is why we need to solve the problem in the long term by subsidising research and development and in the short term by building new power plants.
The majority of renewable energies feed into the grid unevenly. Solar power does not flow at night, while no power is generated by wind turbines in a dead calm. We need power plants which can provide the control energy and idle power. Supply and demand can be adapted to each other in parts on a voluntary basis if necessary – in my liberal view. Smart grids solve some of the problems, but by no means all of them. That is why we need conventional power plants today and in the next few years and decades to deliver electricity as a kind of “emergency power generator” when renewables cannot do so sufficiently or at all.
In the long term, we need storage which allows us to call up energy when renewables which do not feed the grid constantly cannot deliver the electricity needed.
Adiabat compressed air storage systems are more efficient and are therefore being examined in more detail. Driving forward battery technology is also a sensible approach.
Power to gas technology is currently being discussed in the long-term storage sector. This is an interesting approach, although it remains very inefficient. Generating hydrogen using electricity which cannot be used in any other way and would therefore lend itself to storage would be a good idea if it became economical. Using electrolysis to generate hydrogen which can then be stored in caverns, either as it is or converted into methane, or mixed with natural gas, opens up the possibility of long-term storage. In addition, both are substances which have a wide range of uses themselves.
• We need acceptance for the transition to alternative energies.
• The costs must be kept in check. We need control energy from conventional power plants.
• We need long-term storage.
• The transition to alternative energies cannot succeed without companies and people backing it and pitching in.
Born in Switzerland in 1973, the author was Minister for the Environment, Energy and Climate Protection in the state of Niedersachsen in 2012/2013. He holds a doctorate in law and temporarily worked as a state prosecutor and judge, most recently at Neustadt am Rübenberge District Court. From 2008 to 2012, Dr. Birkner was a state secretary in Niedersachsen’s Ministry of the Environment, Energy and Climate Protection.