energiewende

Energiewende, The German Energy Transition. In a 1954 the Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Lewis Strauss in a speech predicted that “It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electric energy too cheap to meter.” While later disputed whether the optimism was based on high expectations of fusion energy or on nuclear power in general, the phrase has stuck with critics of over-promises of not only nuclear energy but also of other “new technologies”.

If not “too cheap to meter” in 2004 the German Minister for Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, Jürgen Trittin, came close, when he (in)famously stated that the surcharge (“Umlage”) for the German Energy Transition (“Energiewende”) to renewable energy, primarily wind and solar, for a household would amount to “only around one euro per month, the price of a scoop of ice cream”.

The reality turned out differently. A German household has now (2018) some of the highest prices for electricity in Europe, 33.9 cents/kWh, including the surcharge for the energy transition. As a comparison the average retail electricity price (2018) in Europe is about 24 cents/kWh and in the United States is 13.9 cents/KWh.



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There is a slogan for electric transmission that it is not about how much power you generate. It is about how much you deliver. There is a lot of truth to that. It was the innovations of electric transmission well over 100 years ago that enabled the modern electric system by bringing remote generation to the load.

Today a robust transmission grid is a prerequisite to economically and reliably balance generation and load. With more variable generation resources on the system, wind and solar, transmission is again the enabler. However, regardless how strong the rational for strengthening the transmission grid may be, the opposition against building new transmission can be equally strong or stronger. At few places it is more evident than in Germany.

Picture credit: picture.alliance/dpa/SwenPfoertner.


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Germany is the 4th largest economy in the world. Consequently, when Germany launched its Energiewende to transform its electric industry from fossil fuels to 80 % renewable by 2050, it got worldwide attention. If such a large economy could make this transformation and stay competitive as a nation, other large economies should also be able to follow.

Germany started out with trademark German determination. To make transformation even more aggressive, after the Fukushima nuclear incident, they decided in 2011 to exit all nuclear by 2022. Progress has been impressive. By 2015 renewable energy represented 31 % of all electric energy consumption.

If California was a nation, it would be the world’s 6th largest economy. In an executive order, B-30-15, the statewide goal was set to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40 % below 1990 levels by 2030. As part of this goal California has set the ambitious goal to transform their electric consumption to reach 50% of renewables by 2030.  At the end of 2015 renewable energy has reached 26 %. However, contrary to Germany this target does not include large hydro! Trying to compare apples and apples with Germany by including large hydro, California was well over 30 % of all electric consumption from renewables.

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“When you come to a fork in the road, take it!” was Yogi Berra’s way to give directions to his house. In his case he was right, since both roads led to his house. In the case of the German Energiewende it is not as clear what road to take and some roads may not even lead to the destination.

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Achieving 100% renewable energy was not so long ago seen as a dream. Now recognized to be viable, many cities around the world have set such targets.

Still it is not a trivial task to get to 100% renewable energy, while at the same time ensure reliable and affordable electric power. A key enabling factor is being connected to a large and robust electric grid.  It gives access to remote renewable resources and it is the most cost efficient way to balance the variability of wind and solar. Let’s take a closer look at a couple of cases.

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The German Energiewende is the largest undertaking in the world to transition to renewable energy. Rightfully it is getting a lot of attention.  There already many lessons to be learnt of what to do and also some of what not to do.

Smaller in magnitude but also well worth paying attention to are two American versions of Energiewende. One is a state, Hawaii, and the other is a city, Fort Collins, Colorado.



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Sunday August 18 Germany set a new renewable record. That day at 2 pm generation from renewable energy sources provided 75 % of all power needed to satisfy the total demand of electric energy.

Less noticed was that Burlington Electric Department, Vermont, in September with the purchase of a 7.4 MW hydroelectric facility achieved its goal of reaching 100 % from renewable energy.

While Germany’s August 18 record was a peak, Burlington’s 100 % is basically on a continuous basis.

What makes Burlington Electric’s achievement additionally impressive is that retail electricity rates in Burlington are less than half of the rates in Germany, 13.7 cents/kWh (time of use rate 2014) versus 36.25 cents/kWh (average 2013).



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