"Home grown" problems of the German energy transition

By Prof. Dr. Angelika Niebler, MEP, (pictured)
Winter 2018

Can you imagine a life without electricity, warmth and mobility? Modern life would be unimaginable without these basic guarantees, which is why Germany is committed to realise a stable supply of energy, which is economically viable and environmentally friendly. Germany is in the process of overhauling its energy supply, moving away from nuclear and fossil fuels towards more renewables and better energy efficiency.

Germany has put itself in an exceptional situation. We have committed ourselves to reach four energy transition targets: 40 - 45 per cent share of renewables to be reached in the power consumption by 2025, all remaining nuclear power plants to be shut down by 2022, 40 per cent greenhouse gas emission reduction by 2020 (from 1990 level), 50 per cent planned reduction in the primary energy consumption by 2050 compared to 2008.

Germany has started a new area in energy policy in June 2011 when the Merkel government decided in the wake of the nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima, Japan, to shut down eight nuclear power plants and limit the operation of the remaining nine until 2022. 80 per cent of parliamentarians in the German Bundestag voted for the bill with the remaining 20 per cent only objecting, as they wanted an even faster exit. Internationally, the perception that “German angst” caused the government to go in this direction is misleading. The nuclear phase out is as much a part of the German Energiewende as the move towards a low carbon economy and has been discussed over years.

This decision has set Germany on a different path than the ones our European neighbours take. Europe has not decided to phase out nuclear power - but Germany did! While the nuclear phase out is a positive sign towards a future that is secure and environmentally friendly, it has put Germany in a tricky situation. We have set ourselves a dual goal with the energy transition: moving away from fossil fuel-based energy generation to a largely carbon-free energy sector, while also phasing out nuclear energy by 2022. In the year 2000 nuclear energy accounted for 29,5 per cent of the power generation mix, in 2016 the share was down to 13 per cent and by 2022 all nuclear plants are supposed to be offline.

Most of Germany’s problems with the energy transition today can therefore be described as "home grown". The consequences of which are partly absurd. With the massive expansion of renewable energies, there are times in which Germany is flooding its neighbours’ energy systems with its surplus energy due to grid congestions. In times when it is very sunny and windy, Germany’s energy system cannot handle the additional energy produced, as conventional nuclear and fossil fuel plants cannot be shut down on short notice. The cumulative amount is extending Germany’s energy need, which results in unwanted surges of power through the networks of our neighbouring countries.

The problem increases because of the missing grid extension between the north of Germany, where most of the renewable energy, mostly from wind, is produced and the south of Germany, where an extensive amount of energy is needed. The shift from fossil fuels and nuclear power towards more renewable energy can only succeed if the infrastructure is there to support this shift. So far, Germany's grid is just not up for the task of making proper use of all the renewable power produced. New cross-country power connections are urgently needed but face enormous public resistance.

The Energiewende can only exceed if there is progress with the grid extension. Keeping the grid stable with a high amount of volatile renewables and inflexible conventional power generators in the systems costs our country close to one billion euro each year. With more nuclear power plants in the south scheduled to shut down, even more power from the north will be needed in the south of the country. If the bottlenecks cannot be resolved, there is the risk that Germany will be split into two power-market bidding zones. Additionally to the public resistance of grid extensions, it is also argued that existing capacities can be utilised more efficiently by a smarter automated system able to react to fluctuating renewable power generation.

The missing infrastructure is causing many clashes. The government is pushing for an expansion of the grid, citizens do not want them to be built near their homes and consumers protest against higher energy bills. Now, more than ever, the completion of a true European internal energy market is the only way forward to guarantee that Europe is contributing its share towards a low carbon future. Europe can only strive in accelerating the renewable uptake, provide security of supply and stay economically competitive if the internal market is working!

Prof. Dr. Angelika Niebler is a Member of the European Parliament from Bavaria representing Upper Bavaria and Munich since 1999. She is Chairwoman of the CSU-delegation and Co-Chairwoman of the CDU/CSU-delegation. Angelika Niebler is Member of the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy and of the Committee on Women's Rights and Gender Equality as well as substitute Member of the Committee on Legal Affairs.

Since 2009, Angelika Niebler is Chairwoman of the Bavarian Women's Union and serves since 2015 as Party Vice-Chair of the CSU. In November 2018 she was also elected President of the Economic Advisory Council Bavaria. Since 1991, Professor Niebler has worked as a lawyer in different law firms in Munich (since 2015 of-counsel at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher). Since 2009, she has been lecturing at the Faculty of Business Management at the Munich University of Applied Sciences where she was appointed as Honorary Professor in 2016.