The German windfall

Stephen Sykes | 13 years ago

I am writing down these observations whilst on a family holiday in Germany. We are being taken on a guided tour up the top of Lüneburg’s stunning Saint Nicholas’s Church. The view from the tower in the traffic-free centre of Lüneburg, north Germany is, in every sense, far-reaching.

On the horizon to the north, 40 kilometers away, the Krümmel Nuclear Power Plant, the cause of much controversy across the surrounding Schleswig Holstein region, is starkly visible. A leukemia cluster in the towns near the plant has given rise to high levels of apprehension , albeit that scientific studies have not found a causal link (a common difficulty with allegations of environmental damage).

Local citizens in Lüneburg are becoming steadily less anxious though. The Krümmel Nuclear Power Plant will be decommissioned soon. In May 2011 the German Coalition Government announced that all 17 of its nuclear power plants will be closed by 2022.

Mass demonstrations across Germany, especially in the north, followed in the wake of this year’s Fukushima nuclear crisis in Japan. The protests were so vociferous that they forced Chancellor Angela Merkel into a dramatic policy u-turn – from favouring extending the lives of the nuclear plant (which currently generate 17% of Germany’s energy mix) to closing them down altogether. Germany will, as a result, become the world’s most industrialised country to turn its back on nuclear power.

Looking towards the horizon to the west of Lüneburg’s Saint Nicholas’s Church, the enormous white blades of a cluster of wind turbines are turning, generating clean electricity for the town’s population of 75,000 people. Located along a ridge, these turbines are 100 metres high from the base of the wind column to the top of the blade. The lower sections of wind turbines in Germany are often painted in graduated shades of green to blend into the landscape. Plenty more of these wind turbines installed across Germany over the coming decade as renewable energy plugs the energy gap left as nuclear power winds down.

Renewables – chiefly wind, but also solar, biogas, ground source energy, etc – already contribute 17% to Germany’s energy mix. Growth in capacity is accelerating, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs in manufacturing, installation, maintenance, finance, insurance and other support services to meet increasing national and international demand.  By the time the nuclear plants are closed in 2022 approximately 40% of German energy will come from ‘clean’ sources (i.e. sources other than nuclear, coal, oil or gas). This percentage is striking when compared with other EU countries.

Pointing to the Krümmel Nuclear Power Plant, the tour guide says “that is our past”, and as she nods towards the wind turbines in the west, she adds with a smile “and over there  is our future”.  The contrast between old energy and new energy could not be explained more succinctly or compellingly. It triggers thoughts of another fairly stark contrast – that between the concrete achievements of the clear leader of sustainability in Europe, Germany, and the rather more modest efforts of the UK to step up to the challenge of greening our own energy supplies.

One striking distinction between the two countries is the level of public education and hence support for (or more often in the UK hostility against) changing the way we power our homes and businesses. It is noteworthy that there were no serious protests in the UK in response to the Fukushima nuclear crisis in Japan.

A UK paper described wind power industry as “the greatest scam of our age ”. The Government’s support for wind energy – onshore and offshore – was derided as an “obsession” and “one of the greatest political blunders of our time”. If this opinion is to be useful to the country, and not only good for making headlines and raising tempers, then why do journalists not offer any alternatives which could address the UK’s looming energy gap which, as the paper acknowledged, is heading our way.

In Germany, by contrast, the environmental, economic and moral campaign for more green energy was victorious years ago, and the public are not impressed with the ill-informed rants of sceptics. The German public seem to better understand the necessity for change due to the climate change and energy security consequences of continued reliance on oil, gas and ‘dirty’ coal (not least because of recent price hikes which hit businesses and citizens equally hard). They also appreciate the issues relating to nuclear fuel and nuclear waste.
Clearly, the UK needs policy measures to limit the demand for energy,  as well as measures to encourage a wide energy mix which must include wind, as well as many other technologies. (If anyone has any doubts about this they should take the time to read David McKay’s excellent book – freely available to download – ‘Sustainable Energy – without the hot air ’).

There are some encouraging signs that the development of the UK’s energy mix is progressing, but measures to tackle demand (i.e. by reducing it) are not yet making much headway. The UK’s legal target under the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive is to generate 15% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. The country currently generates approximately 7%. At one of the recent Castle Debates , Sarah Rhodes, the Head of Land-based Renewable at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, described the challenge for the UK as ‘massive’. The UK needs, for example, 14GW (or 14 billion watts of electricity!) of onshore wind by 2020. Currently, the UK has almost 4GW in operation, with a further 1.5GW under construction, and a further 3GW consented but waiting to overcome issues such as radar interference. That still leaves a shortfall of 5.5GW to be addressed in the next 9 years.
Meanwhile, UK onshore wind continues to face the sorts of difficulties which have long been overcome in Germany. In the UK the consent rate for wind projects through the local planning system is low, with only 1 in 3 applications receiving planning consent in 2010.

What then is to be done? The changes to energy policy and practice in Germany have come about through a combination of firm and effective public pressure being brought to bear on the Government from its well-informed citizens, as well as an appreciation that renewable energy presents an enormous global business opportunity which is clearly being embraced. In the UK the Government’s foremost challenge is actually to better educate people so that widespread ignorance and scepticism gives way to understanding and support for change. Aside from the worthy efforts of the Secretary of State at the Department for Energy and Climate Change, there are precious few signs that the UK’s Coalition Government has grasped the magnitude of this vital educational challenge.

By 2020 the UK’s green energy champions are still likely to be in headlong battle with the sceptics and the forces of conservatism. By that time – and assuming that all goes well – the UK is set to generate only around 1/3rd of the renewable energy output of Germany. If our performance slips then we will fall even further behind. It is very much to be hoped that the UK’s sustainable energy outlook will be more positive in nine or ten year’s time. Evidently, much courage, leadership and active education initiatives will be needed if the UK is to get to where it needs to be – who will step up to the challenge?

About the author

Stephen Sykes

Stephen is an entrepreneur. He has built businesses in the following sectors: data, insurance, remediation and consulting.  With a background in environmental law, Stephen is the Chair of the UK Environmental Law Association, director of the Castle Debates and a Visiting Fellow at Birkbeck's Centre for Innovation Management Research.