23.04.20 The energy transition is taking too long” Interview with Prof. Claudia Kemfert, Energy Economist • 5 min.

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Claudia Kemfert

People everywhere have the right to a clean and reliable energy supply, says Claudia Kemfert of the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin). But we need to change how we go about providing it to them. Kemfert believes that nuclear power is too expensive and coal no longer viable. So what are our options?

Professor Kemfert, what will the energy system of the future look like?

It will be renewable, distributed, flexible, smart, and local. Renewables will be the mainstay. Smart grids, digitization, and artificial intelligence will make it possible for renewables to provide all our electricity. The three Ds—distributed, digital, and dynamic—will be the key enablers.

Will demand for energy rise or fall in the future?

We can actually use less energy if we get serious about conserving it and enhancing efficiency. Energy-plus houses produce more energy than they consume. They’re well insulated, use solar panels to generate electricity and heat, and store surplus output in a battery or other system. These prosumers will be interconnected so they can also share or sell their green energy to each other. Once mobility is fully electric and congestion avoidance, traffic optimization, and transport integration systems are in place, the transport sector too will use far less energy than it does today. I’m not talking about simply replacing hundreds of millions of diesel- and gas-powered vehicles with the same number of electric vehicles. After all, the average car spends about 23 hours of the day parked. As the growing popularity of car-sharing shows, individual mobility doesn’t necessarily require individual ownership. Some modes of transport—river, maritime, and air—can’t be electrified. We should restrict the use of energy-intensive conversion technologies like power-to-gas to producing climate-friendly synthetic fuels for barges, ships, and airplanes. If we do all this, overall energy demand could be lower than it is today.

How is climate change affecting energy generation?

It’s making extreme weather events more frequent and more intense. Such events pose challenges to all energy systems, conventional as well as renewable. Nuclear and coal-fired power stations, for instance, may need to be taken offline during a heat wave or water shortage because they lack sufficient cooling water. Severe storms and floods can damage critical infrastructure. Energy companies need to factor such risks into their planning and be prepared for extreme weather. Renewables facilities are decentralized and therefore no more vulnerable to severe weather than their conventional counterparts. On the contrary, they’re decentralized, flexible, and closely integrated, which actually makes them more adaptable, more resilient, and more amenable to effective preventive measures. Solar is particularly well suited to dealing with spikes in cooling demand during hot weather. When wind speeds become dangerously high, wind turbines stop turning because their blades automatically feather; that is, align themselves with the wind direction to prevent damage. When this happens during a severe storm, other climate-friendly energy sources—biomass, hydro, geothermal, solar along with storage energy—can pick up the slack. Smart control technology provides an additional layer of protection against extreme weather events. For these reasons, energy systems that aspire to being 100% green need to incorporate the full range of renewables technologies as well as smart grids and storage devices.

Is the energy transition happening fast enough?

Definitely not. Quite the opposite. Germany’s expansion of renewables capacity needs to be at least twice as fast as it currently is. Otherwise, the country could face power shortages. Its phaseout of coal should likewise be happening at a much faster rate. What’s more, Germany has yet to take any serious steps to make transport climate-friendlier.

Could nuclear power make a comeback?

The return of nuclear is a myth. Countries with market-driven energy systems are building almost no new nuclear power stations. Only countries with weak democratic institutions, state-controlled energy systems, and geopolitical ambitions are building them. And even there new nuclear plants need to be highly subsidized. In all other countries, nuclear’s share of the generation mix continues to shrink. The enormous construction costs make nuclear energy uncompetitive. If the costs of dismantling and waste storage are factored in, nuclear energy is several orders of magnitude more expensive than all other energy sources. Renewables, by contrast, are getting cheaper all time, making them much more competitive than nuclear.

Are coal-fired power stations still tenable in Germany?

Absolutely not. Mining lignite ravages the environment, and burning it to produce electricity harms the earth’s climate. Moreover, it takes a long time for coal-fired power plants to come online or change how much electricity they produce. So from a practical standpoint they’re simply too inflexible for an advanced, renewables-based energy systems. 

The deadline for Germany’s coal phaseout is 2038 at the latest. Will this relatively long time frame hinder innovation in renewables? 

Yes, investment in cutting-edge technologies is being postponed.

The coal phaseout will be tough on the people and regions that have long depended on coal mining. Do you have an answer?

Structural assistance programs can help the people in those regions find jobs in sustainable industries. The key is for the assistance to targeted at innovative projects and research and development. There also need to be incentives for sustainable companies to relocate to these regions.

Is cheap energy a human right?

Every person on the planet has the right to a clean and reliable energy supply. This is true for today’s and future generations. Renewables are getting cheaper all the time and will ultimately provide access to clean energy for everyone, unless artificial barriers are put in the way. 

How can renewables expansion be accelerated?

By lowering regulatory barriers and eliminating restrictions to market access. In Germany, the setback requirement for wind turbines—that is, the minimum distance they have to be from residential areas—has to be adjusted. Furthermore, communities and regions need to be given a financial stake in wind farms built nearby. And of course the coal phaseout needs to be accelerated and the various types of renewables need to be expanded. Germany has a scheme under which developers submit bids to compete for the right to build offshore wind farms. This scheme needs to be expanded so that more capacity can be added. Finally, there need to be more incentives for distributed generation solutions and for energy storage technologies.

How can we keep the politics and anxiety out of the climate debate?

By focusing on solutions. Everyone has a role to play in dealing with climate change, no matter who or where they are. Companies and communities, organizations large and small: they all can identify and implement ways to shrink their climate footprint.

What can individuals do to conserve energy?

A lot. Scrutinize your energy consumption, switch to energy-saving devices, update your home’s insulation, ride a bike or public transport, purchase green power, and buy local. Companies can make their production processes more energy efficient and convert their vehicles fleets to electric. Company offices too harbor huge energy-saving potential, from using less paper to switching to energy-efficient lightbulbs.

How do you protect the climate?

I’ve been mindful of my climate footprint for over two decades. I’m a vegetarian, live in a well-insulated building, purchase green power and regional products, and travel exclusively by bicycle and public transport. I also try to avoid business travel if possible and instead use video conferencing. If I absolutely have to fly somewhere for business, I offset the associated emissions by donating to international climate-protection projects.

About Claudia Kemfert

Claudia Kemfert has been Professor of Energy Economics and Sustainability at Berlin’s Hertie School of Governance since 2009 and Head of the Energy, Transportation and Environment department at the German Institute of Economic Research (DIW Berlin) since 2004. In 2016 she was appointed to the German federal government’s Advisory Council on the Environment. 


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