Recently, our Craig Morris did a three-part book review of the original “Energiewende: growth and prosperity without petroleum and uranium” from 1980. He then spoke with one of the authors, Florentin Krause, who had a few bones to pick with Craig’s reading – and with the current implementation of the concept in Germany.
Mr Krause, the term that you and your colleagues coined more than 30 years ago – Energiewende – has become the centerpiece of German energy policy. What do you think about the energy transition today, and did you ever imagine the movement would be so successful?
The shift in German energy policy toward our scenarios is encouraging, but it comes at a high price: without the disaster at Fukushima the German nuclear phaseout might’ve been delayed and drawn out further for quite some time. However, Germany is fortunate in that the grassroots environmental movement of the 1970s and 80s was able to articulate itself in the electoral system in the form of the Green party. Our work appeared at the right time and in the right form to become something of a political idea and platform that has proved a resilient framework for progressive thinking about energy policy in Germany. And our work did away with the claimed monopoly on technological competence that the energy industry used to assert: that there were no technically feasible alternatives to its ideas. It was very important in the German context that our technological analyses were grounded in empirical reality.
My concern at this time is that the concept might be co-opted and watered down as it is being adopted as government policy. Certainly, the turnaround for the German energy system that we envisioned was much more complete and radical than pushing the electricity sector towards more renewables. It is easily forgotten that high end-use efficiency is the trump card that makes a climate saving strategy feasible, and also affordable. I currently see a campaign underway that tries to use the fact that renewables-based electricity is still more expensive than conventional electricity to discredit the basic approach in the mind of the average German consumer. What is forgotten is that the large but mostly invisible cost savings to consumers from high-efficiency equipment can more than pay for such extra costs on the supply side. But efficiency lacks the kind of loud lobby that is so effective at peddling the interests of the big utilities.
One of the main questions I had in reading the book was how assumptions may have changed over the decades. Looking back, it seems that the focus was more on energy independence back then in the wake of two oil crises and indeed, you propose phasing out petroleum. Passive House will help us phase out oil as a source of domestic heat, but Germany has no ambitious plans for the transport sector, though neighboring Denmark believes it can go 100 percent renewable for electricity, heat, and transportation. Is the German energy transition really just an electricity transition, and what would you propose to phase out oil in the transport sector today.
In our work we presented a vision that included all sectors of the economy, and not just electricity supply sector. But the electricity supply sector uses far more capital than the other sectors, and centralized electricity systems are inherently inflexible. Both for this reason and because of the environmental consequences associated with electricity, this sector had to be given high priority. While many of our ideas about feasible energy efficiency improvements have advanced toward gradual implementation, the German car industry has been a laggard and a disappointment.
The German emphasis on high-efficiency diesel engines would seem to offer opportunities for diesel hybrids that yield very high gas mileage, and electrical vehicles are important as a technology for both the end-user and for the electricity system. I could envision a progressive electrification of the transport sector, and a conversion toward biomass fuels for that part of the sector where electric drives are less practical, as a path for phasing out oil in the transport sector.
Germany is roundly criticized today for its commitment to a nuclear phaseout without an explicit coal phaseout (though coal consumption and carbon emissions are drastically down over the past two decades). The international debate now focuses less on energy independence than on climate change. Would you still recommend the combination of renewables, efficiency, and domestic coal for Germany?
We did not in fact recommend the use of renewables, efficiency and domestic coal for Germany. None of our scenarios suggest increasing coal consumption. That consumption stays constant in the worst case and drops almost half in the best case. So a more accurate summary would be that our work illustrated the feasibility of phasing out nuclear power while both reducing oil dependence and reducing carbon emissions.
Our work explored the technical and economic degrees of freedom that exists for German energy policy, and illustrated these freedoms of choice in the form of 3 limiting case scenarios. Two of these scenarios did indeed consider continued reliance on German coal at base year levels, but these were not literal proposals, nor were they forecasts.
A third scenario showed how energy efficiency gains in manufacturing plants, houses, cars and appliances could be used to reduce both oil and gas and domestic coal consumption. At the time of our writing in 1980, both the oil crises and the ongoing Cold War were important considerations, Soviet gas imports were problematic, so our work was more circumscribed in its exploration of phasing out coal, exploring only a partial (roughly 50%) phaseout.
You are correct that, in the historical context of 1980, we did emphasize the possibility of reducing or eliminating dependence on imported petroleum, but not at the cost of increasing coal consumption or giving up on the goal of reducing carbon emissions.
In the book, you mention carbon emissions a handful of times. Looking back, how aware were progressive thinkers like yourself in the late 1970s about climate change, and how high up on the agenda was lowering carbon emissions?
To my knowledge, our work was the first scenario study for Germany that incorporated the concern over carbon emissions. This was 12 years before the 1992 UN climate conference in Rio de Janeiro. We were a lonely voice at the time. To us, carbon emissions were important because we understood our work to articulate a path toward a sustainable energy future. Sustainability meant an inclusion of all major environmental insults from the energy system.
Craig Morris (@PPchef) posed the questions.