Fritz Vahrenholt, you are often described as a climate denier. Do you dispute the fact that climate change is happening?
No. I know that the earth has been getting warmer for around 150 years. The human race is responsible for a considerable part of that, because we are emitting CO2 into the atmosphere. I do not dispute that. But the question we need to ask is how big our contribution is. In the past, before the industrial revolution, there were temperature fluctuations of a similar magnitude. You only need to think of the medieval warm period around 1000 years ago. However, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says that 100 percent of global warming is man-made and that nature plays almost no part in it. But my research shows that the decline in the amount of clouds over the last 20 years has had a major impact on global warming.
How dangerous do you think the rise in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is?
The IPCC is uncertain about the impact of CO2. According to its calculations, a doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from 280 ppm (parts per million) in 1860 to 560 ppm (the current figure is 420 ppm) would lead to a temperature rise of between 2.5 and 4 degrees Celsius. That is a very broad range. My estimate of “climate sensitivity” is close to the bottom end of this scale.
Would it not be sensible to play it safe and assume that the worst-case scenario will become reality?
That is naturally a legitimate position. We could concentrate all our money and industrial resources on preventing the highly unlikely eventuality of a temperature rise of 4.4 degrees by 2100. That is the IPPC’s most pessimistic scenario. But then we would have no money left for improving water supplies and healthcare systems throughout the world or living standards in developing countries. And we would be destroying our own prosperity. Jobs are already being moved out of Germany because our electricity prices are going sky-high. That is definitely a consequence of the German and European energy transition. The phase-out of nuclear power, coal, and eventually oil and gas will result in energy shortages and high prices. One SME in the metal and plastics industry is going out of business almost every day because of the high cost of gas and electricity.
So shouldn’t we move over to renewable energy?
For 14 years, I held senior management positions in major German energy companies. I built up the wind and solar energy business at Shell. REpower Systems, the company that I founded, became the second largest manufacturer of wind turbines in Germany. The first offshore wind turbine erected by RWE Innogy, where I was CEO for four years, is called “Fritz” after me. So I know what I am talking about and I have made a big contribution to getting renewable energies to where they are today. That is why for me they are a very important component of the future energy system. But it is madness to rely 100 percent on weather-dependent sources, because the closer you get to 100 percent, the bigger the increasingly expensive back-up in the form of conventional power stations has to be. You always have to take into consideration the fact that sometimes the sun will not be shining and the wind will not be blowing. In Germany we need up to 80 gigawatts of electricity and sometimes the sun and the wind provide only 10 gigawatts or even less. And tripling the capacity will not help in the dark doldrums, because three times zero is still zero. I found it rather depressing that the new German Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Action did not explain in his first press conference how Germany is going to go about building between 40 and 60 new gas-fired power stations in a very short period of time.
In the future, we are going to use storage systems to cover lulls in weather-dependent sources. Is that not a good solution?
A private short-term storage system makes sense if you have solar panels on your roof. But this is a quite different situation. We need large long-term storage facilities that will store peak production of solar energy in the summer for use in the winter, for example. The new German government is aiming to almost quadruple the installed photovoltaic output to 200 gigawatts by 2030. This means that in extreme cases in the summer we will be producing three times our electricity requirement and we will have to store the excess for the winter, when the sun hardly ever shines. But how will we do this? There are no suitable locations for pumped storage power plants in Germany and large batteries are completely unaffordable. This only leaves hydrogen, which is also a very expensive option. During electrolysis, storage, distribution, and reconversion to electricity, three quarters of the energy is lost. This also applies to flexible gas turbines used as back-ups. You have to generate four kilowatts of wind energy to get one kilowatt out at the end. Given a generation cost of six cents, that amounts to around 24 cents per kilowatt hour, which is far too expensive for industry.
So you are saying that we are sawing off the branch we are sitting on. Why should supporters of the energy transition do that?
That’s a very interesting question. In Germany in particular, we want to save the world whatever it costs and even if no one goes along with us. For many other countries, phasing out fossil fuels is not a major problem, because they have plenty of nuclear energy or hydropower.
What would your ideal energy mix consist of?
Here we need to look not only at the demand for electricity. Instead we must consider total energy consumption, which includes the energy used for transport and heat production, for example. In the past, the stability of industrial societies depended on the use of three different energy sources: electricity for light and power, gas for heating, and oil for transport. In the future, we are aiming to meet this entire demand from one type of energy: renewable electricity from wind and solar. However, that currently covers less than ten percent of our total energy consumption, in other words 180 out of around 2,300 TWh. This means that at some point we will be faced with the choice of driving or cooking, lighting or heating. My preferred energy mix is based on three components: one third renewables, one third coal and gas with carbon capture and storage (CCS), and one third nuclear power. That is the model for the future and it will become established throughout Europe. Germany is intending to go its own way and, for this reason, it will experience a very problematic period of erratic price increases. This will, of course, have consequences for jobs and the earning power of the entire national economy.
What is your assessment of the policies of the new German government?
Robert Habeck, the new Minister for Economic Affairs, indicated the direction that things will be going in during his first press conference. It is no longer all about growth or employment. The only important issue now is meeting the CO2 targets. This narrow focus on only one objective is based on the assumption that the worst-case scenario will become reality. It is true that our planet would not be able to withstand 4 degrees of warming, it would be a genuine disaster. But there is very little evidence that this is actually what is going to happen. The IPCC scenarios that form the basis for this involve burning all the coal, oil, and gas deposits that we currently know about by 2080, which is totally unrealistic. I think it would be very unwise to commit economic suicide for fear of disaster and also to be the only country in the world that is doing so.