In the guide below, we discuss some key aspects of Germany’s renewable energy transition – also known as ‘Energiewende’.
We look at:
– What the transition involves
– Germany’s current energy mix (for primary energy, and also just electricity generation)
– Issues that might have been encountered so far, and potential effects of the transition
– What some of the long term responses by Germany have been (to the transition)
– How some reports suggest Germany could improve some aspects of the transition
It’s worth noting this is only an introductory level guide, and, a deeper and more detailed assessment is needed for a more comprehensive understanding of the energy transition.
What Was/Is Germany’s Renewable Energy Transition? (Energiewende)
Germany’s energy transition involves moving from an energy mix where the predominant energy sources were coal, natural gas and nuclear, to a higher share of solar and wind, hydroelectricity, and to a lesser extent, bio energy.
The purpose of transitioning between these energy sources is moving towards lower carbon energy sources, and to decrease emissions as a result
Nuclear energy has already commenced being phased out/retired, and coal is planned to be next.
Energy efficiency and energy demand management are other focusses of the transition (and the new energy plan)
Germany’s Current Energy Mix
From the data below, it appears that fossil fuels still make up most of Germany’s primary energy consumption, and are also responsible for most of their electricity generation (alongside nuclear).
Primary Energy Consumption
Primary energy consumption includes other sectors outside of just electricity generation, such as transport fuels, space heating and cooling, and so on.
As of 2021 … more than 75% [of Germany’s primary energy consumption came …] from fossil sources, 6.2% from nuclear energy and 16.1% from renewables … (wikipedia.org)
Gross Electricity Generation
statista.com has a pie graph that shows the main energy sources used for Germany’s gross electricity generation in 2021
The leading energy sources were (paraphrased):
Wind at 20.3%, Lignite (brown coal) at 18.7%, Natural gas at 15.4%, Nuclear at 11.9%, Hard coal at 9.4%, and Solar PV at 8.4%. Other energy sources make up the rest.
From the above figures, coal and natural gas alone make up over 43% of gross electricity generation
wikipedia.org also has a year by year graph, that shows the % share of each energy source for electricity generation
This graph shows wind and solar PV growing significantly in terms of electricity production over the last few decades
So, the trend might be that some renewables like solar and wind have been growing
Potential Issues, & Potential Impact Of The Energy Transition So Far
Some of the issues arising from, or the impact of the transition so far, might be:
Electricity Prices Increasing
In recent times, Germany has had some of the highest electricity prices not only in Europe, but also in the world.
Several reports and graphs online, such as one from ourworldindata.org, show that Germany’s total annual CO2 emissions have trended downwards on average from 1980 through to 2021
Germany has seen a 27% [GHG] decrease between 1990 and 2014 (wikipedia.org)
However, paraphrased from stopthesethings.com, France (who uses a large % of nuclear) has lower emissions than Germany, and Poland is coal-powered, but has cut it’s emissions faster than Germany
So, some might question Germany’s choice of energy sources in their transition when comparing their emission reductions to other countries
Meeting Emissions Targets
Despite decreasing annual emissions, Germany may not have met some of their emissions targets/goals
But, some might question whether the targets were too ambitious to begin with.
[As of 2019, Germany was] far from meeting the [future emissions] targets it set for itself … (spiegel.de)
Costs (Of The Transition)
It might be difficult to estimate all the direct and indirect costs of the transition for various reasons.
However, some estimates indicate hundreds of billions have already been spent on the renewable transition, and it could end up costing Germany a trillion dollars in a few decades time.
Some reports suggest that these estimates don’t include the costs for supporting infrastructure (like backup energy), research costs, and other costs to support renewable energy and the transition. So, the net costs could be even more than the estimates when everything is accounted for.
From spiegel.de: ‘[The Energiewende] has cost at least 160 billion euros in the last five years [up to 2019]’
From wattsupwiththat.com: ‘[The Energiewende cost] 200 billion euros by 2015’
Hundreds of billions of euros have been [spent] on subsidies to wind and solar
… currently the green energy levy costs €56 million every day.
And, the level of subsidy for wind and solar sees Germans paying €20 billion a year for power that gets sold on the power exchange for around €2 billion.
[The] legal commitments to support renewable energy alone would add up to about 680 billion euros by 2022, and … the costs of grid extension, back-up power generation capacities, research & development, electric mobility, and the modernisation of buildings would have to be added to this figure
Paraphrased, wikipedia.org mentions that Germany spends over a billion euros each year just on energy research (to solve technical and social issues raised by the transition)
A good breakdown of the costs of the transition can be found at cleanenergywire.org
Paraphrased, stopthesethings.com suggests the renewable energy transition could end up costing Germany a trillion dollars
And cleanenergywire.org indicates that it could cost ‘… one trillion euros by the end of the 2030s without policies in place to lower the costs’
reneweconomy.com.au and cleanenergywire.org mention (paraphrased) a potential ‘indirect’ cost of using solar or wind energy, whereby ‘re-dispatch measures’ may create additional costs (when dealing with the oversupply of solar and wind)
The amount of so-called “re-dispatch measures” has risen strongly.
Redispatch is when the grid operator forces a power station to lower production in a region with oversupply, and directs another plant in a low-production region to higher output.
The cost is passed on to consumers.
Related to the above point:
Backup energy sources may have to be turned off at times (when there is an oversupply of power to the grid), which has an investment and economic impact (such as electricity producers having to pay consumers to take electricity when there is a surplus)
A lack of electricity to the grid means supply is lacking, and this may push prices up temporarily
Additionally it might also be difficult to calculate or estimate:
– What transition has cost vs what the cost would have been to proceed with conventional energy sources
– What cost savings renewables might have provided when it comes to air pollution, emissions, and so on
Costs vs Results Of The Transition
spiegel.de mentions that the costs of the transition are ‘… in extreme disproportion to the results’
This is something other countries may consider when undergoing their own energy transitions.
Reliability & Security Of Electricity Supply & Power Grid
Some reports indicate that, along with Switzerland and Denmark, Germany has one of the most reliable and secure electricity supplies in Europe (as far as minutes of interruptions to supply per year go)
Whether this is a result of the renewables energy sources used by Germany, or other factors like their energy grid and infrastructure, is something to consider.
There are some reports that indicate that Germany has experienced more blackouts as a result of variable solar and wind energy
The reasons given are that the grid isn’t designed to handle the inconsistent power that comes from variable solar and wind energy sources, and that German grid operators haven’t been able to balance asymmetric production of green electricity across their networks – which is difficult to do.
However, a conflicting report from reneweconomy.com.au indicates otherwise (paraphrased):
Power blackouts are more often caused by extreme weather events as security of power supply is also correlated with electricity cables underground vs above ground (above ground cables are correlated with more blackouts because of disruptive factors like fallen trees and tree branches).
Germany has 80% of its cables buried underground, which is a far higher % than the US (at 40%), Australia, and many Southern European countries.
As a result, energy sources hav little impact of security of power supply
Phasing Out Of Some Energy Sources
Nuclear is the energy source that has been most heavily phased out so far, and there may have been issues arising from this.
Coal is yet to be phased out to this extent, but might be planned for the future.
Some fossil fuels may not be able to be phased out completely, because they might be required as backup energy sources, or dispatchable energy sources, for variable/intermittent energy sources like solar and wind energy.
Some disagree with phasing out nuclear energy, for different reasons such as:
It can be an affordable energy sources in some ways, and phasing it out eliminates lower cost energy sources in the energy market
It eliminates nuclear energy related jobs and economic opportunities
Paraphrased from spiegel.de, most of the electricity that Germany needs is still produced by burning coal, which is partially a result of the backup energy needed for variable solar and wind energy
wattsupwiththat.com mentions that other countries may have issues in trying to replicate Germany’s approach because fossil fuels and nuclear will be required for certain functions:
[For other countries that currently rely primarily on fossil fuels and nuclear power, if they want to match Germany’s production from renewables] … such countries will be able to replace only about one quarter of their fossil and nuclear power, because these power plants must remain in operation to ensure frequency regulation, balance and back-up power [and this has a range of implications]
Other Potential Effects & Impact
Other potential issues and effects from the energy transition might be:
– Over capacity and under capacity
This is essentially the grid having too much power, or not enough power fed into it
It can strain the grid, and may result in load shedding, and other practices to protect the electricity network
Some reports indicate that it comes from the variable nature of solar and wind energy, whereby the amount of power coming into the grid fluctuates at any one time (instead of being consistent)
[Due to strong flows from variable solar and wind energy, there can been problems with over capacity of German grids, and excess power can be offloaded/transmitted to Poland and Czech Republic]
… the Czech Republic and Poland are currently installing four phase shifters at their borders with Germany that can block unwanted currents
[Variable flows from solar and wind can also cause too little power (under capacity) to be going into German power grids]
[Grid stability issues also causes electricity bidding and trading problems with countries like Austria, where existing bidding zones may have to be split]
– Co-ordination of transmission of power
Grid operators may have had to co-ordinate the transmission of power via transmission lines from wind farms in the North, to recipients in the South of Germany
– Congested transmission lines
Where there is an influx of power from variable energy sources
– Mismatch of supply and demand of electricity at any one time
Where variables energy sources can’t supply enough power, or where they are supplying too much compared to the demand at any one time
– Other energy sources having to turn their supply off
Where solar and wind are producing too much power at any one time, other energy sources may have to turn their supply off, as there have been feed in tariffs and other measures introduced
– Other energy sources having to ramp up quickly
When solar and wind aren’t supply enough power for the total grid demand, other energy sources have to ramp up quickly to bridge the deficit
– Other miscellaneous issues
[As of 2019 Germany has] a lack of grids and electricity storage (spiegel.de)
[Solar and wind can introduce problems related to producing too little power, too much power, power system frequency imposing limits on solar and wind production, having to disconnect wind and solar sources at certain times, forced power exports (load shedding) at negative electricity prices, allowing to AC frequency to drift too high or too low and risking blackouts like what happened in South Australia, and other issues]
[A lot of these costs can be passed onto electricity consumers]
wattsupwiththat.com goes into more detail about the full range of the issues experienced by the German power system in lieu of increased variable solar and wind reliance
Have There Been Any Benefits From The Energy Transition So Far?
Potential benefits might incude:
– Cost savings in fuel imports
Due to increased energy efficiency and an overall decline in energy demand, Germany will … save €3,5 bn in fuel imports [in 2020] (cleantechnica.com)
– Potential cost savings on addressing certain environmental issues that some fossil fuel energy sources may contribute to
Such as air pollution, and carbon emissions.
How Might Germany Improve Different Aspects Of Their Energy Transition?
Paraphrased and summarised from spiegel.de and other reports, potential improvements for the transition might be:
Surplus/excess power from variable energy sources like solar and wind, might be able to be used to produce methane and hydrogen, which could then be fed into the natural gas network
Surplus/excess wind power could also be turned it into methane or hydrogen, and then turned into e-fuels, which could make use of existing infrastructure like fuel-storage facilities, pipelines and gas stations of the petroleum industry
Overall, Germany might need to integrate all sectors (such as transport, building efficiency, and industrial sectors), technologies and markets, and, the system might need to be more interconnected, as opposed to just focussing on producing and distributing electricity from wind, sun and water.
As just one example, outside of just the energy sources being used, how people travel and how they live might make a difference to sustainability related factors like emissions
Other potential improvements might be:
Energy policy that supports realistic energy goals, social goals, and other goals
Specific focus on solutions to ‘smooth out’ the effects of variable energy sources like solar and wind (such as implementation of energy storage)
Better co-ordination between political parties, renewable energy park builders, those responsible for grid connections, planning authorities, municipalities and individual citizens – this allows progress on the energy system to happen faster
Transparent tracking of the energy transition, and transparent updates on how it’s progressing against pre determined performance indicators and goals
Having the trust and support of the German public
Make it easier to get investment in, as well approval for new energy projects (and remove ‘red tape’)
spiegel.de goes into more detail about the list of challenges and potential solutions for Germany in their energy transition in their guide
What Have Been Some Long Term Responses To The Energy Transition By Germany?
One response that Germany has made is that they have abolished a renewable energy surcharge/levy (from the Renewable Energy Sources Act), to make electricity more affordable.
Some might suggest that this response was an admission that surcharges/levies/taxes imposed to support solar and wind were making electricity too expensive.
Comparing Germany’s Energy Transition To Energy Transitions In Other Countries
The US has transitioned somewhat from coal natural gas in the last few decades, instead of straight to solar and wind, and they have had a some positive results with their emission trend over the last 20 to 30 years
Some may question whether Germany transitioned to solar and wind energy too fast, and on too large of a scale in such a short time span.
Should Germany Have Focussed On Emissions In Other Sectors, Instead Of Electricity Related Emissions?
Some might question whether it’s worth focussing on what can be done to reduce emissions in other sectors too.
[In the past, German politicians have] admitted vehicle traffic was the biggest hurdle to reducing greenhouse emissions …
[Germany has done something about electricity production, but not as much about traffic, industrial and building emissions]
Can Germany Go Fossil Fuel Free In The Future?
One report might suggest that it might be costly, and it might be expensive for businesses and eventually consumers (because of taxes and other incurred costs).
spiegel.de mentions that:
Technologically speaking, it’s possible to make the energy system free of fossil fuels by 2050 … in a high-tech country like Germany [as] everything is ready: the studies, the strategies, the facilities …
[But, this second part of the energy transition would be] expensive and exhausting …
… the association of scientists, has formulated recommendations for how politicians, businesses and society can reach [this goal, and] Germany [would need] to increase its solar- and wind-facility capacity by a factor of five to seven, make synthetic fuel a pillar of the energy system and introduce a CO2 tax in all sectors.
According to ESYS predictions, the transformation would cost 2 percent of the country’s annual GDP. Currently, that would be about 70 billion euros.
[And] By 2050, the costs would add up to 2 to 3.4 trillion euros, depending on the scenario. Other forecasts fluctuate between 500 million and about 2 trillion euros.
In addition to the information provided above, we’ve also discussed elsewhere in this guide how fossil fuels and nuclear might be compulsory to perform specific functions in the energy system.
Other Potential Challenges Germany May Have In The Future In Continuing With The Energy Transition
There might be several challenges Germany might face in the future if they plan on continuing with the transition.
Some of those challenges might include:
Impact on electricity prices
Fossil fuel energy sources are still required as backup energy sources, and to perform other functions in the energy system
The public may have lost some faith in the transition
Progress on the transition may be lacking in some areas
Large energy storage batteries are currently very expensive
Challenges Relating Specifically To Scale Of Change
The scale of any future energy transition plans might also be too big to achieve in a shot time frame.
Germany has a target of getting 60% of their total energy consumption from renewables by 2050, [and, to do this,] they must multiply the current power production from solar and wind by a factor of 15.
They must also expand their output from conventional power plants by an equal amount, to balance and backup the intermittent renewable energy. Germany might import some of this balancing power, but even then the scale of this endeavor is enormous.
Challenges Relating To Resource Consumption, & Sustainability
There might also be a large amount of non renewable resources required to continue with the transition, and, ironically, more fossil fuels might be required for the extraction, processing an manufacturing of equipment for renewables and other parts of the energy system
[To meet Germany’s 2050 energy target] the amount of land, concrete, steel, copper, rare earth metals, lithium, cadmium, hydrocarbon-based composites and other raw materials required [to construct equipment and infrastructure for the different energy sources is significant]
[Additionally, these materials aren’t renewable, and they all require fossil fuels to extract, process and manufacture solar, wind, and power plant equipment]
1. Various ‘Better Meets Reality’ guides
16. Hannah Ritchie, Max Roser and Pablo Rosado (2020) – “CO₂ and Greenhouse Gas Emissions”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/co2-and-greenhouse-gas-emissions’ [Online Resource]. Available at https://ourworldindata.org/co2/country/germany
18. https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2019-08-13-mantashe-is-right-south-africa-must-build-more-nuclear-energy/','' ); } ?>