26 July 2012 by Pelle Neroth
So why are the Germans holding back while the LibDems in the Britsh coalition government crow about getting their Tory partners to back down in the issue of cutting subsidies to wind farms? Since chancellor Angela Merkel's abrupt decision to accelerate the exit from nuclear power last year after Fukushima, to assuage German public opinion, some of the most dramatic goals in the world for cutting emissions and energy use have been set up in Germany.
Merkel's goals are to increase renewable energy to at least 35% of the power generation mix by 2020 and 80% by 2050. Half of that is expected to be from wind turbines.
The problems have been several. Germany has suffered unexpected difficulties connecting new projects, mainly in the North Sea, to existing power supplies on the mainland. German legislation requires offshore wind turbines to be placed in at least 30 metres of water, which raises the technical challenges. There is a shortage of trained engineering expertise in this area. Another problem has been Germany's industrial geography. Wind in the north, industry in the south. Over three thousand kilometres of high voltage lines will have to be built to connect the turbines in the north to the industrial areas in the south.
Further, planning regulations have held up some onshore investments. Finally, perhaps more importantly this, there is growing scepticism in Germany as to whether wind farms are actually value for money for such environmental improvement as they provide. Two ministers in Ms Merkel's coalition government in the last week have cast doubt on whether the 2020 target could be achieved without enormous effort and whether it is even achievable. Jobs and competitiveness must come first, says the liberal economy minister Philipp Rösler. The concern centres on wind power.
German engineers are coming up with some creative proposals.
One is to use the railway network of Deutsche Bahn as "electricity highways" from northern to southern Germany. Construction of new power lines are being blocked everywhere by local citizens groups and local poiticians, but Deutsche Bahn already provides a ready 7750 km long network that covers the whole country. There are technical problems in that the rail network operates at 16.7Hz, a third of the regular network's 50 Hz, but the federal transport minister is supportive of the idea even though adaptations to turn the network into a power transmission grid would not be cheap: 7 billion euros, which would be passed on to households.
Another intriguing creative idea being pioneered at the Fraunhofer Institute for Wind Energy and Energy Systems hopes to deal with the challenges of storing energy from wind power at times of peak production. The Fraunhofer solution is to convert water and carbon dioxide into methane using electrolysis.
The electricity comes from the wind turbines, the gas can be used in Germany's gas fired power stations. It's carbon neutral - since it takes carbon out of the air in the initial stage - and it avoids the excess wind turbine-generated electricity going to waste. Normally, says the institute, you generate electricity from gas - but this is gas from electricity.
Yet these are very early stage developments so perhaps this is a moment to take a step back and ask whether wind is a viable renewable at all. The difficulty of storing wind energy from the large turbines for use another day is not the only problem. Another is the fact that the extreme intermittency, or "unreliability", of wind, means you need an almost full power station backup running parallel wth the wind power set up to ensure Germany is running at times of ultra high demand.
Which does not promote the idea of the phase-out at all. Worse, because wind has priority in the German electric grid, and conventional gasfired plans are having to adapt in compensation for the wind turbines' fickle output, the conventional plants are operating suboptimally. They are constantly ramping up and down their output to compensate for wind's intermittency. They are necessary backups, and it is expensive.
This wear-and-tear will reduce the turbines' effective lifetimes and this drop in efficiency that comes with the rapid output changes make the conventional plants a good deal less effective than during their normal operation, maybe thirty percent so, according to the Dutch expert Kees le Pair. Since lower efficiency means more carbon per kilowatt output the Dutch academic argues, having wind turbines in an energy mix may actually have a net unhelpful effect on a power grid's carbon output.
When wind turbines are connected to the grid, carbon output for the backup power plants is higher than it would otherwise have been. So you could almost say: having wind turbines around worsens global warming: Deeply counter intuitive! The problems with wind turbines don't end there. You might add to that the carbon emitted in their construction takes 18 months of turbine operation to amortise, and that onshore wind turbines are an eyesore.
So is wind still in the game only because politicians have been living in a dream or because the wind energy lobby is too close to politicians? It's almost tempting to think it has been like that. Japan put its nuclear plants on hold last year after the Fukushima disaster but is now looking to revive them again, having looked at the economics of the alternatives. Maybe Germany should do the same and reconsider its decision to phase out nuclear.
Pelle Neroth -- EU correspondent
Posted By: Pelle Neroth @ 26 July 2012 03:14 AM Energy
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