10 questions on the energy transformation

And the most important answers: how Germany plans to phase out nuclear power and promote the breakthrough of renewable energies.

How will the energy transformation actually work?

Alternative energy sources will replace the nuclear power plants that are to be gradually switched off by the year 2022. When exactly each nuclear power station will be taken off the grid depends on the plant’s individual risk assessment and its importance to the power supply system. The Federal Network Agency is examining whether a particular nuclear plant should first be kept as a “cold reserve”. To compensate for their loss of earnings, nuclear power plant operators will be exempted from payments into the Federal Government’s Energy and Climate Fund. In order to close this income gap, the revenue the Federal Government receives from the trading of emission certificates will be paid directly into the fund from 2012. The fund promotes research into renewable energies, energy storage solutions and grid technologies, electromobility and energy efficiency measures. In addition to this, it is designed to safeguard power-intensive industries and support climate protection initiatives in developing and emerging countries as well as in Central and Eastern Europe.

How will the energy transformation affect infrastructure?

Nuclear power will be phased out completely, so other forms of energy will have to be fed into the grid very efficiently. Extensions to the power network are crucial. The Länder in southern Germany (Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria, Hesse) will be especially affected by the closure of nuclear power stations. This makes it all the more important that the wind energy produced mainly in the north is transferred to southern Germany with as little loss as possible. Hopes are resting on high-voltage direct-current transmission that enables electricity to be transported over long distances with low energy loss. In order to make the network extension transparent, the Federal Network Agency has already collected suggestions from citizens in a public procedure. The Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology is vigorously promoting research into “smart grids” which balance out fluctuations in power generation from renewable energies and respond flexibly to changes in demand. The aim is to change from “consumption-oriented generation” to “generation-optimized consumption”.

Which forms of energy will replace nuclear power?

The key objective is the highest possible proportion of renewable energies. Highly efficient fossil fuel-fired power plants will serve as a bridging technology on the way to this goal. Modern German coal-fired power plants are already world-class in terms of efficiency. In addition to this, Germany is a leader in the development of modern, low-emission combined cycle gas and steam turbine power plants. Nevertheless, the Federal Government’s energy strategy is geared above all to the use of renewable energies: the aim is to increase their proportion of final energy consumption (electricity, heat, fuel) to 30% by 2030, to 45% by 2040 and to 60% by 2050. Wind energy is the major player in this strategy because the potential, especially for offshore production, is still largely untapped. Photovoltaics are already well-developed, and targeted grid integration measures are being planned. Whilst the proportion of bioenergy and geothermal energy is due to be further increased, the potential of hydropower in Germany has been more or less fully exploited.

Which renewable energy innovations from Germany are nearing a breakthrough?

Developments range from high-efficiency organic solar cells to new exploration techniques for geothermal electricity generation: the Federal Ministry of Education and Research provides extensive support for innovations in the field of renewable energies. The Federal Environment Ministry is also supporting numerous projects. For instance, GE Wind Energy has joined forces with German research institutions and successfully tested designs for quieter wind turbines. Noise reduction helps to increase public acceptance of wind farms. In 2010 researchers at the Center for Solar Energy and Hydrogen Research Baden-Württemberg presented a thin-film solar cell with a world-record efficiency level of 20.3%. And not long ago, headed by the University of Stuttgart’s Institute of Building Construction and Design, a solar collector system was developed for glass facades. It does not only efficiently transform sunlight into heat, but also simultaneously provides sun protection and enables daylight guidance.

How is Germany investing in alternative energy?

Despite the world economic and financial crisis, investments in renewable energies in Germany rose in 2010 by around 30% against the previous year. A new record of 27 billion euros was reached. The Federal Government assumes that about 90% of this total was attributable to the Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG). The EEG amendment that was passed as part of the transition to the energy transformation provides for additional funding of alternative energy. Offshore wind farms are being supported by a five billion euro loan scheme. Remuneration for electricity from geothermal sources is to be considerably increased again in order to make this expandable technology more attractive. In the period between 2011 and 2014 the Federal Government is making 3.5 billion euros available for research and development in modern energy technologies.

What kind of economic opportunities is the new energy policy generating?

The renewable energies sector in Germany already provides almost 370,000 people with jobs. According to the Federal Environment Ministry this number could increase to more than half a million by 2030. Claudia Kemfert, energy expert at the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), also expects major growth opportunities in environmental protection sectors, such as waste processing, recycling and water treatment. According to Kemfert, some one million new jobs could be created as a result of the energy transformation. German companies in the renewable energies field are international leaders. Thanks to the successful export of plants and components, their total annual turnover of 8.6 billion euros in 2005 rose to 25.3 billion euros in 2010. The energy transformation will no doubt contribute considerably to continuing growth in this sector.

What will happen to nuclear power plants after they have been closed down?

They will be dismantled. To begin with, all of the spent fuel assemblies will be taken to nearby interim storage facilities. They will later be transferred to permanent disposal sites. There are two possibilities when dismantling a nuclear plant once the majority of its radioactive inventory has been removed: the plant can be dismantled immediately, or safely enclosed for later dismantling. The dismantling process starts from the outside and works inwards, from the pipelines to the reactor pressure vessel. After these parts have been dismantled the empty building will be cleaned. When all risks of any remaining radiation have been eliminated, the building will be demolished and the grounds of the old power station will be re-cultivated and the original natural state of the landscape will be recreated. This has already been accomplished several times in Germany, for instance in 1974 after the closure of the Niederaichbach nuclear power station, or in the case of Germany’s first nuclear power station, the Kahl experimental plant.

Will Germany be buying more nuclear power from abroad in the future?

The fact is that following the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, Germany responded by taking seven nuclear power stations off the grid, and nuclear power imports rose. However, the Federal Government does not see this as a real alternative. Especially since security of supply is ensured even without the output of the recently shut-down plants. Nevertheless, there are regular fluctuations in exports and import volumes in the internationally networked trade in electricity. For example, Germany quickly becomes an energy exporting country now when there are strong prevailing winds. What’s more, wind energy will be greatly expanded in the coming years. Basically, electricity generation by modern fossil-fuel-fired power stations, and especially using renewable energies, will have to be consistently promoted in order to prevent the development of import dependency. In the Federal Government’s strategy for the future, electricity from renewable energy sources enjoys clear priority.

What has to be done to improve energy efficiency?

At the moment far too much energy is being lost unnecessarily. In Germany, 40% of energy is consumed by private housing. This will change: the heating requirements of buildings are planned to decrease by 20% by 2020. The aim is to make the carbon-neutral house the standard of the future. It is planned to meet the energy needs of buildings from renewable sources by 2050. The Federal Government is using a newly created Energy Efficiency Fund to promote corresponding measures, such as energy-efficient building modernization and energy and electricity saving checks for private households. There will also be state support for people who manage to reduce energy consumption in their homes. The new Energy Storage Funding Initiative, which is equipped with an initial 200 million euros, is also aiming to increase efficiency: among other things it will strengthen basic research into preventing avoidable losses in the energy cycle.

What is Germany doing to promote renewable energy at the international level?

Germany is counting on international partnerships. One outstanding example is the Africa-EU Energy Partnership of 2007 in which Germany played a significant role as chair. In 2010 the partnership agreed to enable a further 100 million people to gain access to sustainable energy services. The Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development and the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) are involved as founding members of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, which promotes the environmentally friendly use of wood and alternative energy sources, such as biogas. Germany is also supporting the Mediterranean Solar Plan and the Desertec initiative for sustainable energy. Energy is also a key theme in German foreign policy because of its significance in climate change: during its one-month presidency in July 2011, Germany successfully pushed for the United Nations Security Council to recognize climate change as a security risk.