Does Germany need to stop generating electricity from coal?
Absolutely. Germany needs to halve its emissions in the next 10 years and to be carbon neutral within 15 to 20 years. That’s never going to happen if coal-fired power plants remain in operation. Germany needs to phase out coal by 2030 at the latest. Otherwise, it will miss all its emissions targets and fail to meet its obligations under the Paris Climate Agreement.
And yet Datteln 4, a new coal-fired power plant in west-central Germany, recently entered service.
Yes, that’s unfortunately true. Environmentalists and climate activists have warned against building new coal plants since the 1990s. And yet here we are. Allowing Datteln 4 to come online was a big mistake. Its planning didn’t conform with applicable laws. Its construction was so faulty that the state government had to intervene so that the plant could be completed. Yet there were even more delays. It was actually meant to be connected to the grid years ago.
Moreover, Datteln 4 may end up being decommissioned within a few years.
Precisely. To my mind, a company that makes a completely illogical decision to build a coal-fired power plant like Datteln 4 should have to bear the commercial risk if the plant can’t be operated anymore. A company that makes bad business decisions needs to accept the consequences.
Do you think that’s going to happen?
Not a chance. In Germany, corporations tend to get a free pass from lawmakers. It’s a travesty that will adversely affect with the lives and health of future generations.
Volker Quaschning, Professor of Renewable Energy Systems
What do you propose?
There needs to be the political will to draw a line in the sand and say no more corporate welfare. When small business owners make the wrong decisions, they have to live with the consequences. They may have to declare bankruptcy and could lose their life savings. Why, then, do big energy corporations get a free ride? I just don’t get it. They never go under. Instead, the government throws bailout money at them. In the lignite-mining region of eastern Germany, for example, the government paid €2 billion in compensation for the decommissioning of power plants that were going to be shut down anyway. The whole thing’s a joke.
You consider Germany’s timetable for phasing out coal too leisurely. Do you also think it’s crowding out renewables investments?
Definitely. Germany’s decision to protect coal-fired power plants until 2038 will perforce slow the expansion of renewables. From the perspective of the plant operators and their investors, of course it makes sense to lobby for the longest possible operating lifetimes and the biggest possible bailout. What else would the owner of so many stranded assets do? A big, cumbersome oil tanker can’t change course quickly. Uniper and its coal plants are effectively the bad bank of Germany’s energy sector.
Even though energy companies want to delay the coal phaseout for as long as possible, they like to portray themselves as sustainable.
Yes, it’s called greenwashing. They talk big about climate protection. But behind the scenes they’re lobbying policymakers to extend their assets’ operating lifetimes. Which undermines Germany’s ability to meet its climate targets.
Is Germany’s energy transition still achievable?
Yes, but only through dramatic growth in wind, solar, and storage capacity. If renewables expansion is rapid enough, Germany can shut down all of its coal-fired power plants within 10 years. Unfortunately, the current rate of renewables expansion is reducing Germany’s carbon emissions by less than 1 percent a year. If Germany still wants to meet its targets under the Paris Agreement, the federal government needs to get serious and increase renewables growth fivefold.
But that doesn’t seem to be happening yet.
That’s because of the timeframes involved. The climate crisis won’t destroy Germany in the next couple years. Its threat to civilization probably won’t materialize for several decades. Politicians only think as far ahead as the next election. If the fallout of Germany’s misguided climate policy was only six months away, politicians would act with greater urgency. If a meteor was speeding toward Earth and we knew that a particular coal-fired power plant was responsible for the meteor, the plant would be shut down in no time. Today’s policymakers probably won’t live to see the consequences of their decisions. They certainly won’t be held politically accountable.
What would a sustainable energy strategy for Germany look like?
The potential ingredients of Germany’s energy mix are fairly obvious. Hydro, biomass, and geothermal have very limited potential or are very expensive. Together, they wouldn’t even meet 20 percent of Germany’s energy needs. Consequently, wind needs to supply most of Germany’s energy, solar another third, and other renewables the rest. If necessary, Germany will need to import clean energy. Considering the urgency of the situation, however, import isn’t a realistic solution.
How can Germany accelerate renewables buildout?
Urban rooftops offer almost unlimited potential for solar capacity. Berlin is currently using just 1 percent of its rooftop potential. We wouldn’t even have to expand line capacity—just install solar panels. That said, Germany has a shortage of technicians. But if big energy companies are really going to lay off a lot of employees, we could potentially retrain them to install renewables technology. But Germany also needs laws that support a faster renewables buildout, which isn’t currently the case. That’s why a big drop in the installation of solar panels on buildings is expected next year. Government subsidies have declined so much in the last couple years that new solar arrays almost don’t make financial sense anymore. Unfortunately, Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs seems little inclined to propose amendments to existing legislation.
Will Germany see a nuclear power renaissance?
No, that would be crazy. Nuclear energy is highly overrated. It accounts for less than 3 percent of Germany’s energy mix. From a climate-protection perspective, it doesn’t really make a difference whether Germany keeps using it or not. Besides, nuclear power plants (NPPs) are fairly inflexible and therefore can’t be used to balance out the fluctuations in wind and solar output. That’s why continuing to operate Germany’s NPPs makes neither technical nor environmental sense. Nevertheless, I suspect this issue will be debated again when the NPPs are due for decommissioning. And that won’t be because nuclear power is a great alternative. It’s just that pace of renewables growth in Germany is too slow even to offset the nuclear phaseout. Germany’s energy policies have failed so spectacularly that even keeping the country’s NPPs online won’t fix them.
Do people have a right to affordable energy?
That depends on what you mean by affordable. Let’s ask a different question: is energy really expensive in Germany? Considering how much energy all of us, even low-income households, waste, it’s hard to claim that energy is expensive. The average household in Germany spends less than 2 percent of its available income on electricity. Mobile phone bills are often a lot bigger. A hundred years ago, households spent a much larger percentage of their income on energy. Today, energy costs a lot less than it’s actually worth. The problem is that consumers have gotten used to low energy prices and have increased their expenditures in other areas. Consequently, many people want energy to remain cheap. But overconsuming energy now has a price, a price that will be paid by the next generation, the environment, and the planet. Consumers need to adjust their priorities: conserve energy and pay a bit more for clean energy. If this causes economic hardship for vulnerable customers, Germany is rich enough to come to their assistance.
How can climate change be discussed seriously and realistically without fear-mongering?
I’m actually very optimistic about getting climate change under control. Humanity isn’t on a sinking ship with no salvation in sight. We’ve got the technology and the money to solve the most urgent problems. But if we still fail to take action, I’d be very concerned. Science shows that the potential consequences represent a real existential threat for the next generation. I guess many people just lack awareness That’s the only explanation I have for the lack of action so far. Does that mean fear-mongering is warranted? I don’t know. But the urgency of the situation needs to be made abundantly clear, as does the identity of those responsible for it. Climate protection is a generational conflict. Everyone has to take a position on it. Do I want to be responsible for making the planet almost uninhabitable for my children’s generation? To my mind, the only possible answer is no. This answer necessarily entails a willingness to take action and to pay a bit more for renewable energy. It’s not about complete self-abnegation. We don’t have to return to the Stone Age to ensure humanity’s survival. Tackling climate change will change society for the better. Expanding renewables will create jobs and could even help solve a number of pressing social problems.
Why isn’t this happening at the rate it needs to?
When it comes to long-term problems, people are excellent procrastinators. Besides, hope springs eternal. People figure that things have always worked out fine in the last 30 years, so they probably will in the future too.
What impact has climate change had on you personally?
I’ve focused on energy and climate protection for 30 years. I’ve tried to live accordingly. The Fridays for the Future movement inspired me to make a few more changes last year. I used to fly as little as possible, but now I never do. I consider flying indefensible, although I must admit I’m privileged to have a job where I can choose whether I fly or not. I used to be a vegetarian, but now my family and I are all vegan. A meat-rich diet alone results in more carbon emission in a year than all the lifestyle choices of someone in Africa put together. And meat production is responsible for one sixth of global greenhouse gas emissions. It’s never too late to change your diet. Doing so would be good for the planet, your wallet, and your health.
Volker Quaschning is Professor of Renewable Energy Systems at the University of Applied Sciences in Berlin.