16.12.22 “Phasing out natural gas within five years is possible” Interview with Wolfram Axthelm, Managing Director of the German Wind Energy Association and the German Renewable Energy Association • Reading time: 4 min.

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Summary

Wolfram Axthelm is the Managing Director of the German Wind Energy Association and the German Renewable Energy Association. He believes that there is no going back to the world of fossil fuels. 

Germany has had to manage without Russian gas for at least six months now. Can renewable energies benefit from this situation? 

There was a boom in solar energy last year, but we recently saw a fall in the number of approvals for wind turbines. Processes like the expansion of renewables do not happen overnight. At the moment, a lot depends on how we overcome the supply chain problems, because we are affected by them just like all other industries. However, one positive note is that the German government is moving in the right direction with its Easter Package. The legislation states that the expansion of renewables is of “paramount public interest” from now on. It is up to the German federal states to ensure that their public authorities apply this paragraph. Another positive development is that the legislation has standardized the rules on wildlife conservation and the federal states are now required to make available two percent of their land for renewables. 

Wolfram Axthelm, Managing Director of the German Wind Energy Association and the German Renewable Energy Association

Does this mean that renewables can now start to take off? 

A great deal depends on how quickly the German government passes the Grid Expansion Acceleration Act that has been announced. We are hoping for the first quarter of next year. This is what will really accelerate the planning and approval processes. As things currently stand, the authorities can repeatedly extend the deadlines, which means that approval processes can drag out for four or five years. The Acceleration Act must set mandatory deadlines and restrict the number of extensions to one. 

Where are things moving more quickly: wind energy or solar energy? 

It is clear that solar power is growing faster because there has been huge demand from private households and industry and because local government makes the planning decisions. But wind power could also be expanded quickly and on a large scale, for example by replacing old turbines with new ones, which is known as repowering. There are huge opportunities in this area. Germany currently has 29,000 turbines and their output on average is 1.8 megawatts. The new turbines produce 5.3 megawatts. 

But what will happen when the wind is not blowing? At the moment, gas power stations step in when renewables cannot deliver. How will this gap be filled in the future? 

When we talk about possible gaps in the energy supply, skeptics always paint the picture of nationwide “dark doldrums.” Most of them use the example of a week in February 2012. But even then the wind was blowing in some areas. This is why it is important to have a mix of different solutions. There must be solar generation in the north, just as there must be wind generation in the south. Ultimately we are moving from a centralized to a decentralized generation system and this will require decentralized back-up solutions. We will not need any large power stations in the future. Instead we will have a large number of small turbines spread across the country. And biogas, for example, can step in when other forms of energy are not available. There are already 9,000 of these plants. They just need to be able to operate more flexibly. Unfortunately, the levy on revenues planned by the German government will prevent this from happening. The German Parliament urgently needs to make a U-turn on the levy. Alongside biogas, decentralized back-up power plants running on hydrogen are also a possibility, but they would probably only need to operate for 100 hours a year. 

But the economists say that building a power plant with such a low level of utilization is not financially viable… 

This is one of the questions that we need to discuss when we get together to talk about the future design of the market. 

Your association says in a study that Germany can produce enough hydrogen to meet its own needs, but other studies take a different view… 

That always depends on the design of the study. We believe that we can manufacture enough hydrogen here, but that does not mean that we should aim to be independent. The decisive factor will be to ensure that the production is decentralized and benefits the grid. The electrolyzers should be located at hotspots of electricity generation, where the peaks can be used to produce hydrogen. 

The German Minister for Economic Affairs Robert Habeck has just announced that Germany has signed a “super” 15-year LNG supply deal with Qatar. What is your view on this? Do you believe that Germany could phase out natural gas earlier than this? 

LNG – whether it comes from Qatar or the USA – is not a transitional solution that we should be using for a long time. We must phase out fossil fuels quickly and completely. Paradoxically, the LNG question has clearly demonstrated that where there is the political will, things can move fast. The speed of LNG developments must therefore be the benchmark for renewables. But the events of February 24th have made it very clear that gas is not a viable bridge technology and that the gap cannot be closed with expensive LNG. 

What do you believe is the alternative? 

We need to focus on renewables. The manufacturers of electrolyzers, for example, are straining at the leash and industrial businesses are also extremely interested in generating their own supplies of renewable energy. But new rules are needed to make this possible. For instance, if an industrial company wants to replace its own coal-fired power plant with wind turbines, the legislation specifies that they must be built within “geographical proximity.” However, there is not always enough space for this on the company’s site. Everything depends on removing obstacles like these. If the market players are allowed to get to work quickly, a lot of things will happen simultaneously.

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