What is the energy transition

Climate change

Michael Kopatz

Study of social sciences; Dr. Phil., Currently project leader in the research group "Energy, Transport and Climate Policy" of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment, Energy. His main areas of work are: Effects of the energy transition on poverty households, strategies to alleviate energy poverty, local climate protection, resilience economics, transformation of The world of work - shorter working hours, the sufficiency revolution: tools for a socio-cultural transformation.

Germany can show that an industrialized country can achieve the energy transition. By the year 2050 we will be able to get by with almost no coal, oil and natural gas and no nuclear energy whatsoever. This can be done in a socially balanced way without energy-intensive industries leaving the country.

Wind power plants between corn fields in Lower Saxony. (& copy picture alliance / Blickwinkel)


Anyone who graduated from school in 2013 will assume that the energy transition is a current development. But already over 30 years ago a book with the title "Energy turnaround. Growth and prosperity without crude oil and uranium" [1] was published. Since then, calculations have been published over and over again that show that we can cut energy consumption in half by 2050 and get by with almost no coal, oil and natural gas and that even without nuclear power, the lights will not go out. In this way, Germany can not only make its contribution to climate and environmental protection, but also significantly reduce its energy bills in the medium to long term. In the meantime, various studies have even shown that 100 percent of our electricity can be generated with environmentally friendly energy sources.

In Germany, the central trigger for the social discussion about environmentally friendly energies was the "anti-nuclear power movement". It was created in the 1970s and is still active today. Another driver was the oil price crises of 1973 and 1979. High prices for oil and gas make energy efficiency and the search for alternatives attractive. As a result, the first Red-Green Federal Government initiated the long-term phase-out of nuclear energy in 2000. This so-called "atomic consensus" made a fundamental rethink necessary. On the one hand, the electricity had to be made available elsewhere, and on the other, Federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl announced in 1990 that Germany would reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 25 percent by 2005 and thus do something about climate change. So it was also important to reduce the generation of electricity from coal. Since then there have been numerous political resolutions that have gradually turned the energy supply around. Two notable milestones are the so-called Meseberg resolutions of 2007 and the energy concept of the federal government of 2010. Both contain in part very extensive targets and numerous concrete measures.

Nevertheless, the 2013 graduates are not entirely wrong. Because only since the reactor disaster in Fukushima in 2011 is the "energy turnaround" on everyone's lips. However, the focus is mostly on the generation, transport and use of electricity and the phase out of nuclear energy. It is true that the black and yellow government had just announced the "exit from the exit" in 2010 and decided on longer operating times for the nuclear power plants. But the nuclear accident in March 2011 at the Fukushima nuclear power plant led to a rethink in politics. Eight nuclear reactors were disconnected from the grid almost overnight. Those responsible then decided to phase out completely by 2022. They reaffirmed the broader goals of climate protection, energy efficiency and the expansion of renewable energies.

The operators of the highly profitable nuclear power plants were annoyed. They had to cope with a significant slump in sales and profits. In addition, as the energy transition progresses, fewer and fewer coal-fired power plants are required. Renewable energies, on the other hand, are predominantly in the hands of the citizens. Five million households have now become electricity producers. The large electricity companies are therefore facing a profound process of change.

Primary energy consumption can be reduced significantly, while at the same time renewable energies are massively expanded. (& copy leading study 2011 of the BMU)
Various scientific scenarios show that the energy transition is possible. If we fully exploit the potential of energy efficiency, we can reduce energy consumption by over 50 percent by 2050. At the same time, the contribution of renewable energies can be at least tripled compared to today, so that the consumption of oil, gas and coal can even be reduced by 80 percent. As a result, the costs for energy imports and the dependency on the supplier countries are massively reduced.

Nevertheless, the expansion of renewable energies is being discussed intensively in public. To ensure that the power supply is secure even without nuclear power, new power lines and storage facilities - such as storage lakes - must be created. The citizens affected on site usually reject both, as well as wind turbines on their own doorstep. Critics of the energy transition primarily address the high electricity prices. These drove the so-called electricity-intensive industries abroad and poor people found themselves in dire straits because they could hardly pay their bills. [2] It is also to be complained that state-of-the-art power plants are currently unprofitable because the market price is too low and therefore have to be shut down in whole or in part. Inefficient and long-depreciated large-scale plants, on the other hand, ran at full speed, for example based on lignite.

The energy transition is an enormous social, economic and technical effort for Germany. Hundreds of stakeholders - some with conflicting goals - want to influence the design of the legal framework in their favor. Your goals are sometimes diametrically opposed. This is a difficult situation for political decision-makers.

Implementation measures and results

Sustainable power generation

In an effort to reduce energy consumption and to convert generation to sun, wind, water and plants, numerous laws and ordinances have been initiated so far. The best known is the Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG). It obliges the operators of the power grids, for example, to give priority to connecting wind turbines to the grid and to purchase the electricity generated. In addition, anyone who builds a photovoltaic system (PV) on the roof receives a fixed remuneration for each kilowatt hour generated for the next 20 years. From the cost of purchasing and installing the PV modules and the expected annual hours of sunshine, it is easy to calculate whether and when solar power is worthwhile. Attracted by this investment security, many citizens and companies have invested in environmentally friendly power generation. The effect exceeded all expectations: in 2013, a quarter of the electricity was generated by renewable energies. Many people now complain about the high costs. The law has, so to speak, fallen victim to its own success and is now being reformed. The aim of the reform is to reduce costs and distribute them fairly. There should be a reliable framework for investors and renewables should be introduced to the market at the same time.

At the same time, electricity generation from coal and gas is becoming more and more efficient. This is particularly successful thanks to comparatively small power plants distributed in residential areas, whose waste heat is used for heating. This increases the efficiency compared to the large power plant in the country from 30-45 to 90 percent. In addition, a large part of the electricity no longer has to be transported that far.

For the success of the energy transition, systems and devices in companies and households should become more efficient. Corresponding tips can be found regularly in the media: When buying household appliances, pay attention to A +++, switchable power strips should avoid standby losses, use energy-saving lamps and much more. Many German citizens have taken such advice to heart. However, highly efficient devices do not become standard simply through internal insight. The usually higher price has a deterrent effect. Some foresight is required, because after a few years the more efficient device turns out to be cheaper due to the saved kilowatt hours. In order to relieve the citizens of such decisions, European guidelines meanwhile set some standards. Numerous inefficient devices are no longer allowed to be sold. From 2017 vacuum cleaners will only be available with a maximum of 900 watts. The standby losses from music systems or satellite receivers, for example, are now only 0.5 watts - instead of the previous 70 watts. The energy-saving lamp became compulsory and helped LED technology to make a rapid breakthrough. There are also similarly large savings in electrical drives and lighting in industry, commerce, trade and services.

However, it is problematic if additional and larger equipment is constantly being purchased, e.g. clothes dryers, larger televisions and refrigerators. Cell phones, iPads, WiFi routers and digital picture frames have become a matter of course in households. Overall, this development has so far largely overcompensated for the efficiency gains. Electricity consumption as a whole and in households rose by around 20 percent between 1990 and 2011. [3] However, there have been signs of a trend reversal in recent years. The goals of the energy concept of reducing electricity consumption by 10 percent by 2020 and by 25 percent by 2050 can still be achieved - but only with additional efforts by politicians, consumers and the economy for more energy efficiency and even if the trend is towards more and more and larger buildings and equipment is broken.

Warmth: efficient and kind to nature

Private households are responsible for a good quarter of the total final energy consumption in Germany. Around 85 percent of this is used for heating and hot water preparation. [4] Around ten times as much energy is required for heating in older houses as in efficient new buildings. The success of the energy transition therefore depends largely on whether we manage to reduce the cost of heating energy, including in non-residential buildings.

It is necessary that the windows are renewed and an economical heating is installed, if necessary based on wood. It is more complex to clad the walls with insulating material - especially in old buildings with decorated facades. Since this measure only pays for itself in the long term, landlords tend to be reluctant to insulate. After all, you don't have to pay for the heating costs.

The advances in the thermal insulation of buildings are now evident. Everywhere you can see how houses are usually clad with styrofoam panels. And so it has so far been possible to reduce the energy requirement per square meter of living space by over ten percent. [5] Actually a reason to be happy, but at the same time new apartments and houses were constantly being built, even in rapidly shrinking cities. Otherwise the savings would be far greater. As a result, however, the heat requirement per person only decreased minimally. This means, on the one hand, that the renovation of buildings should be significantly accelerated and, on the other hand, that limiting the increase in living space, especially in shrinking cities and regions, could drastically increase the effectiveness of the cost-saving measures. Not to be forgotten is the use of process heat in industry. Even if more has been saved here in the past than in the case of buildings, there is still more to be gained.

Mobility revolution

Around a third of the energy is required for the transport sector. It is therefore not surprising that there are also some changes pending in the transport of goods and people. In principle, the concepts here are structured in a similar way to those for heat and electricity. The mantra of sustainable transport policy is: avoid, relocate, reduce: avoid unnecessary journeys and transports, shift traffic to environmentally friendly means of transport wherever possible, and develop economical vehicles everywhere and optimize traffic flows.

It is important that the responsibility for the success of the mobility transition does not lie with the individual alone. Automobile locomotion is so deeply cultural and anchored in the infrastructures that information and campaigns alone hardly bring about changes. In addition to expanding public transport, it is necessary that we create the framework conditions for the mobility transition. For example, the number of flights should be limited, e.g. through taxes and an absolute limit on the number of passengers as well as take-offs and landings. If that does not happen, even the best efficiency technology can only stabilize kerosene consumption. There is already CO for cars2- Limits that will be tightened further.

Don't be afraid of the "blackout"

A possible "blackout" «is repeatedly warned in the public debate. So far, however, power outages have been extremely rare. Power failures have been statistically recorded and published since 2006. [6] It seldom happened that the citizens had to do without electricity for several hours. This has remained the case to this day, although the electricity from the sun, wind and water fluctuates significantly and some nuclear power plants have been taken off the grid. And the predicted "blackouts" did not materialize. The energy transition can continue without disasters in the future. To do this, however, it is necessary, on the one hand, for particularly flexible generators such as gas-fired power plants to compensate for fluctuations in the network. Because depending on the weather conditions, solar and wind power plants deliver varying amounts of electricity.

On the other hand, many large consumers have technical possibilities to reduce their electricity consumption in times when electricity is scarce, for example by having a large cold store lower the temperature more strongly in excess times and, conversely, stopping the cooling when electricity is scarce. Of course, that doesn't happen by itself. Appropriate funding mechanisms and legal requirements are required.

Another challenge of the energy transition is the strengthening and expansion of the power grid. The power supply was built centrally for decades. Nuclear and coal-fired power plants with considerable generating capacities were mostly built far outside of metropolitan areas. From there, the electricity is transported to the cities via overhead lines. Between 1970 and 1993 alone, the German high-voltage network was expanded by 34,000 kilometers to 84,000 kilometers. [7] This was particularly necessary for the transport of nuclear power.

Smaller plants are now gradually generating electricity across the whole of Germany. In addition, the aim is to transport part of the wind power from northern Germany to the south. This makes new routes necessary. To what extent is controversial. It is quite possible that several thousand kilometers of new high-voltage lines will have to be built. Compared to previous expansion projects, this is a minor thing, but the residents affected are forming their resistance. There is a lot of negotiation and argument. The pressure is high: If the grid expansion does not progress quickly enough, the stability of the power supply is potentially at risk.

The costs

The energy transition brings with it a huge structural change, especially in the electricity sector. Electricity generation, for example with a photovoltaic system, was much more expensive in the early 2000s than with coal. The additional costs were passed on to households and small businesses via the electricity price - currently around six cents per kilowatt hour. In addition, the expansion of the grid, the coordination of electricity generation and consumption as well as the provision of flexible power plants and electricity storage facilities cause additional costs.

Paradoxically, the prices are currently increasing, the cheaper green electricity is. Because anyone who operates a solar system or a wind turbine feeds the electricity into the grid and receives a fixed remuneration for it. The network operators sell the green electricity on the electricity exchange. Since the prices achieved there are far below the fixed remuneration rates, the difference is passed on to the small and medium-sized electricity consumers. The increased supply of green electricity leads to lower prices on the exchange because the inflexible coal-fired power plants are still running, so that the difference between the electricity price on the exchange and the fixed purchase price and thus the levy increases. For example, if wind power is paid for at a fixed rate of nine cents and sold on the exchange for four cents, then five cents must be offset. At the same time, however, the energy suppliers would have to pass on the lower costs for the remaining electricity, which they can now buy more cheaply on the exchange, to the consumers. Because of these effects, a reform of the levy for renewable energies is being planned. Since the guaranteed remuneration has also been massively reduced, new systems only cause comparatively low costs.

Environmentally friendly electricity also appears particularly costly because, among other things, new wind farms compete against depreciated coal-fired power plants. This can be seen when the generation prices for new power plants are calculated. In Great Britain, for example, it has been shown that a new nuclear power plant cannot be operated economically. But because it was politically wanted, investors were guaranteed to buy nuclear power for eleven cents for 35 years.In Germany, large PV systems receive a payment of 9.88 cents for 20 years. There are still six to nine cents for wind power. Renewable energies are in trend not in spite of, but because of the costs. In many countries, especially in China, the energy transition is being intensively promoted. This development can be explained by the low costs. When licenses for electricity generation were auctioned in Brazil, the wind farms prevailed. Investors only asked four cents per kilowatt hour. No new fossil fuel power plant could keep up. [8]

If the subsidies for renewable energies were immediately set to zero, electricity prices would rise even further. The reason: Because the power plant park in Germany is outdated, almost all systems would have to be replaced without the energy transition and there would be no avoiding the expansion and modernization of the power grid. In any case, the costs for this can be reduced significantly through more efficient use of energy, as we have seen above.

Overall, there is a positive economic benefit from the energy transition. This is the result of a study sponsored by the Federal Environment Ministry. According to this, renewable energies were subsidized with 13.5 billion euros in 2011, for example. However, this is offset by benefits of 21 billion euros, for example through reduced environmental and climate damage (eight billion euros), municipal investments (7.5 billion) and avoided energy imports (2.9 billion). [9] The energy efficiency usually pays for itself through the avoided energy costs alone. By 2020, energy costs in Germany could fall by 15 billion euros per year thanks to energy efficiency in buildings and companies. In Europe, renewable energies are subsidized with 30 billion euros a year in state money. The governments still supported conventional energies with far more tax billions: 35 billion euros for nuclear plants and 26 billion euros for fossil power plants.

It's worth going on

With the energy transition, Germany has made a start towards the climate-friendly restructuring of the energy system, which is attracting considerable international attention. It would be fatal to compensate for rising energy and raw material prices through higher subsidies and social transfers alone. Because it is precisely high energy prices that give the necessary signal to cope with the restructuring in the energy system that lies ahead of us. If we make decisive use of energy efficiency and renewable energies and the political framework conditions are right, the costs can soon be significantly lower than with the previous energy generation and use. A decade ago, experts considered that around a quarter of all electricity in this country would come from renewable energies a decade ago. It shows once again that today's visions can be tomorrow's realities.