German emissions rise as greens bicker over energy policy: lessons for Canada

Canadian environmentalists like to cite Germany as a model of how to reduce greenhouse gases (GHGs) without using nuclear power. Germany, they like to point out, has chosen to go with renewable energy—mainly wind and solar—as the way to meet the carbon emission reductions agreed to in the Kyoto Treaty.

They are right: Germany’s official position is indeed to bank on renewables while phasing out nuclear by 2023. But there’s a difference between an official position and its chance of fulfillment in the real world. In the case of Germany, it’s a massive difference.

Canadian greens might be interested—or if they’re from Ontario, mortified—to know that the more stridently anti-nuclear politicians in Germany are advocating new coal and gas plants as a way of warding off a certain electricity supply crisis.

That’s right, coal and gas. Germany must bring at least 12,000 megawatts of baseload electricity supply into service by 2020 (the year in which the nuclear phaseout will begin). That means they’d better start building the generating capacity now. And now that the rubber has hit the road, German politicians are beginning to realize the difficulty, if not impossibility, of plugging the gap left by nuclear’s departure with renewables.

This is due to a problem I mentioned back in June 2006. Wind generators, a big part of Germany’s renewable energy plan, are very large machines: a 1.5 megawatt General Electric wind turbine is like a Boeing 747 on a pole. You need literally hundreds of them to match the output of a single nuclear or fossil-fired generating unit.

This will require a lot of new power transmission lines. Building new transmission lines is a nightmare: you have to purchase rights of way from hundreds if not thousands of property owners, many of whom don’t want to sell. This is exactly what’s happening in Germany. According to Mark Hibbs of Platts, the anti-nuclear head of Germany’s energy planning agency admitted recently that fellow environmentalists are blocking the construction of transmission lines vital for bringing power from windmills in the north to consumers in the south.

So German power planners and their political bosses are scrambling to come up with a plan to keep the lights on after 2020. Hence the new enthusiasm for coal and gas. And why is coal even in that mix? Because it is both cheap and domestically available. Even German greens are beginning to understand the value of cheap, reliable power.

Meanwhile, the European Commission said on May 23 that GHG emissions from Germany’s power generation sector rose by 12 million tonnes between 2005 and 2007. In their zeal to admonish the rest of the world to meet Kyoto targets, German greens are making sure their own emissions will continue to rise.

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[…] So whose approach to climate change policy is better? I have called for carbon cap and trade many times, as a way of easing industry and the public into accepting higher prices for commodities like electricity. But the critical question for anyone evaluating a cap and trade or carbon taxation scheme is what the scheme proposes to do with the revenues it brings in. In the case of electricity generation, if the proceeds go toward financing low- or zero-emission generators—and if the “low- or zero-emission” category includes nuclear power—then these scheme will achieve meaningful emission reductions. If not, the scheme is just smoke and mirrors. And, like the European Emission Trading Scheme which the premiers touted as the leading edge of emission reduction efforts, this carries the danger of building expectations that are impossible to meet. Germany is facing real embarrassment because of rising emissions after years of platitudinous pronouncements on climate policy; see article. […]