06 Jan 2017 | Sören Amelang

Little headway in 2016 for Germany’s energy transition - think tank

Germany’s Energiewende – the country’s double shift to a low-carbon and nuclear-free economy – yielded mixed results in the past year, according to an analysis by energy think tank Agora Energiewende. Thanks to a partial switch from coal to gas and a continued rise in the share of renewables, the power sector of the world’s fourth-largest economy became more climate-friendly for the third year running. But because of “scarce evidence of climate protection in the industrial, heating, and transportation sectors”, the country’s total emissions grew, putting 2020 climate targets further out of reach.

Despite sizeable additions of new wind and solar energy facilities, comparatively weak wind and sunshine meant the share of renewables in Germany’s total power demand rose only slightly to 32.3 percent in 2016 from 31.5 percent in 2015, according to Agora’s* calculations.

“We had really bad weather for renewables in 2016,” Agora analyst Mara Marthe Kleiner, who co-authored the report, told the Clean Energy Wire.

“It is becoming ever clearer that we will have a power system dependent on the weather. The data underlines the need to build it in a way so it can remain stable, independent of weather conditions.”

Last year’s continued roll-out of wind and solar plants alone would have pointed to a larger increase of renewable power: While wind capacity grew by five gigawatts and solar capacity by one gigawatt, renewable power production only went up by four terawatt-hours.

Renewable energy proponents fear the most recent legislative changes will considerably slow the growth of green energy in the future. Germany decided in 2016 to overhaul its main mechanism of renewable support, the Renewable Energy Act, by switching from a system of fixed feed-in tariffs to auctions. The reform took effect at the beginning of this year.

Slow coal exit through the backdoor?

Thanks to falling gas prices, comparatively climate-friendly gas-fired power plants increased production by more than a quarter, according to the Agora review. In contrast, hard coal plants produced almost seven percent less electricity, while lignite plants cut output by three percent.

“If you extrapolate 2016’s decrease of coal for power production into the future, the last coal plant would go offline roughly in early 2038,” explained Agora director Patrick Graichen.

He added talks to build a broad consensus on a coal phase-out would have to start as quickly as possible after the country’s general elections in September 2017.

In an effort to reach its climate targets, Germany has begun to transfer around 13 percent of its lignite capacity into an emergency reserve. A number of plants are slated for withdrawal in 2017.

The decrease of coal use translated into a reduction of the power sector’s CO2 emissions by 1.6 percent in 2016.

But Germany’s total greenhouse gas emissions increased to 916 million tonnes in 2016 from 908 million tonnes in 2015, an increase of 0.9 percent, according to the calculations by Agora Energiewende, which echoed an earlier analysis by energy market research group AG Energiebilanzen.  

“The Energiewende does not only concern the power sector – now industry, heating and transport also have to contribute to climate protection,” said Graichen.

Especially the discussion about the decarbonisation of the transport sector gained considerable pace last year in Germany, partly due to the VW emissions scandal. Germany’s horsepower-proud carmakers BMW, Daimler and VW all announced a major push into a green transport future.

Still, it looks increasingly unlikely Germany will reach its target of cutting emissions 40 percent by 2020 compared to 1990 levels, and it has now started to take aim at 2030 targets with the adoption of the Climate Action Plan 2050 after a protracted battle.

Efficiency remains insufficient

Germany’s electricity use fell marginally, by 0.4 percent. “During the same year, the economy grew by 1.8 percent, continuing its happy decoupling from electricity demand. Yet the process continues to be too slow” to reach the government’s efficiency targets, according to the Agora analysis.

Because of large unused potential to save energy, efficiency is considered the “sleeping giant” of the Energiewende, but progress has been slow.

German net electricity exports hit a new record in 2016, totalling 55.5 terawatt hours or almost nine percent of power production. Agora already bemoaned last year that a surge in power exports hampered Germany’s efforts to protect the climate.

On May 8 at 1 pm, renewables covered 86.3 percent of electricity demand, a greater share than ever before. At the time, initial data indicated that renewables temporarily covered 90 or even 100 percent of demand – but the figure was revised down immediately afterwards.

 

*Like the Clean Energy Wire CLEW, Agora Energiewende is a project funded by Stiftung Mercator and the European Climate Foundation.

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