How Spiegel gets Energiewende wrong
Last week, German news weekly Der Spiegel once again cast Germany's energy transition in a bad light. But in order to do so, it picked cherries, contradicted itself, and painted an unrecognizable picture of Germany.
In a report last week (in English), Der Spiegel gets a number of things right. Take offshore wind – Germany probably does not need all of that power concentrated along its northern coast, and the cost of grid delays will be passed on to consumers. Furthermore, German Environmental Minister Peter Altmaier is right when he complains about the 16 German states not coordinating their actions.
Der Spiegel also mentions the important issue of renewables making conventional power plants increasingly unprofitable (one could add Swiss power plants as well). It is unclear what exactly Germany will do to remedy the situation, but unfortunately, Der Spiegel does not mention the flipside of that coin – spot market power prices are down dramatically not only for sellers of wholesale power, but also for buyers (i.e., industry).
Instead, Der Spiegel writes that "the rising cost of electricity is also a burden on businesses" and cites EU Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger (German) speaking of a "marked increase in the number of blackouts and voltage fluctuations in the grid." Not only are power prices down for wholesale buyers, but grid reliability is up.
The magazine then suggests that "consumer advocates" are concerned about the cost impact of renewables on the poor, but it cites two welfare organizations, which are not exactly consumer advocates. One of these groups "estimates that about 200,000" welfare recipients had their power shut off last year when they could not pay their bills, but neither the magazine nor the group says whether this figure is higher or lower than in previous years. In fact, no one knows, because Germany has never collated any such figures on "energy poverty" unlike the UK, for instance. The German Greens are now calling for such statistics to be tallied.
Perhaps the best consumer advocate group to ask would have been Germany's Association of Energy Consumers (Bund der Energieverbraucher), a staunch supporter of renewable energy. But then their comments would not have supported the magazine's opinion.
Insulation better than solar
Der Spiegel then writes that PV "contributes the least to a reliable power supply in Germany, which isn't exactly famous for abundant sunshine." But the next sentence does not follow: "the comparatively efficient building renovation programs… have come to a standstill." How will building renovations make our power supply more reliable?
This non sequitur is not mere sloppy editing; it's actually what Der Spiegel thinks. Later, the article states, "The sad truth is that Germany spends billions on wind turbines and solar panels, only to see a significant portion of the energy lost through poorly insulated windows." Actually, Germans use their electricity for appliances, not heating. Only one out of 25 German households has an electric heating system.
The magazine then points out that Germany has a tremendous stock of old buildings constructed before 1979 (when the building code first contained requirements for energy conservation), and the energy consumption of these buildings "could be reduced by two thirds" if they were weatherized. Here, Der Spiegel has nimbly switched from electricity to energy, which includes heat and fuel, so we are still comparing apples and oranges.
The challenge in renovating buildings is that not every homeowner has the upfront cash, so people tend to renovate only up to the point where current energy prices make a return on the investment seem likely; few people factor in future price hikes a decade or so away, which are uncertain anyway. And in the case of rented property, renovations face the following dilemma: the building owner has to pay for the investment, but the tenant – not the landlord – benefits from lower utilities.
Der Spiegel now seems to support stricter requirements for energy efficiency in buildings: "The latest amendment to the German Energy Savings Regulation of 2007 shows how little attention politicians pay to efficiency. The amendment merely includes a minor tightening of requirements for new construction." Yet, the magazine fiercely attacks all efforts to raise the bar. For instance, only last May Der Spiegel claimed (article in German) that stricter requirements for building renovations would "raise costs for building owners and tenants although the benefits for the environment are questionable."
But let's go back to that term "reliable power supply." Der Spiegel writes that Germany has a "cold reserve" of conventional plants because "virtually every solar plant and every wind turbine has to be backed up by a conventional power plant. Without this double structure, the power supply would collapse." Yet, the cold reserve preexists all of this wind and solar. It turns out that Germany has always had a cold reserve because conventional plants also unexpectedly malfunction, fuel prices can change dramatically, dry spells can reduce the water supply for condensation power plants (basically, all coal and nuclear plants), etc. Indeed, the German Wikipedia entry for Kaltreserve does not even mention renewables.
Der Spiegel also writes of industrial plants being shut down in February to prevent a power outage, but the magazine does not mention that during those days Germany exported the equivalent of the output from four nuclear plants to France so that the French would not experience a blackout.
In Germany, "there are power plants that are not connected to the grid, power masts without lines, and power lines leading to nowhere," writes Der Spiegel. Later, we see an example: a ground-mounted solar array was completed ahead of schedule in order to be eligible for higher compensation when the government lowered support for solar. Now, the array will have to wait "for a few more months" to get grid connection.
What Der Spiegel does not explain is that other countries would love to have that kind of speed. A wait of a few months would largely be considered progress in China and the United States. What is considered a delay in Germany would be a good target for other countries.
Overall, Der Spiegel seems less interested in providing an accurate portrayal of an issue and more interested in finding examples that may not be typical, but raise the reader's blood pressure. Reading Der Spiegel is often like eating a bowl of freshly picked cherries with bile on top. (Craig Morris)