False enemies: emission reductions, renewables, and efficiency

The EU’s new targets for 2030 are only for emissions trading. Anything adopted for renewables will not be binding, and we have yet to hear about efficiency at all. Craig Morris says we’re not going to get anywhere until we focus on all three.

Nuclear Power in the UK

The UK has successfully reduced carbon emissions from the power sector over the past two decades more than any other EU country except Germany. But instead of spearheading future progress, the two countries bicker over details – because their previous success came along much different paths. (Photo by Matthew Strmiska, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The debate over 2030 targets is generally described as one between the UK, which plans to promote nuclear and shale gas, and Germany, which promotes renewables. I didn’t make up the confrontation between the two countries – here is British Energy Secretary Edward Davey himself tweeting that “I won for UK.” So who lost?

Secretary Davey should not be misunderstood as an opponent of renewables. He’s not the person who called renewables “green crap” – that was apparently Prime Minister Cameron, Davey’s boss. Davey recently told the Guardian that, “Renewables in any context, any scenario, are going to boom in the 2020s.” In his official statement, he says the new CO2 target will also lead to “many more renewables” (sic). Logically, renewables then do not need further support.

There is, of course, one thing that will stop renewables from booming: existing capacity. In its REmap 2030 roadmap (PDF), the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) identifies “early retirement” of conventional capacity as one way of facilitating the further penetration of renewables (disclaimer: I served as the technical editor of that publication). Simply put, you’re not going to build wind turbines, solar panels, and biomass units if you’ve already got enough nuclear and natural gas turbines, for instance.

The UK does not, however. It is currently a major importer of electricity from the continent. The British need to build generation capacity but are not building renewables. The UK has a target of 15 percent renewable energy by 2020, though it is currently at less than five percent. The country plans to build nuclear and develop shale gas, and the British press sees the focus on carbon emissions for 2030 as facilitating those goals, not renewables. If enough nuclear plants and gas turbines are in the pipeline, the UK is not going to overbuild just to have renewables, too.

A text box from IRENA’s REmap 2030.

A text box from IRENA’s REmap 2030.

If we now adopt only carbon targets, how do we aim to meet them? A 40 percent reduction will eventually require a focus on heat and transportation, not just electricity, limiting the usefulness of nuclear. Lower emissions are easier when we reduce energy consumption, so why no efficiency target?

The discussion is being played out as though these goals were different options. In fact, they are tools in the same toolbox. Efficiency lowers consumption, renewables provide low-carbon energy (at a much lower price than new nuclear, incidentally), and emissions trading ensures that carbon is reduced within the gradually shrinking share of conventional energy.

But we’re not to do that. Could somebody please explain the logic of what we are to do? Some politicians say that we need to ensure that the transition to a low-carbon economy remains affordable and doesn’t hurt our economy. They then focus on carbon targets to protect us from the high cost of renewables, which are apparently harming a country with 5.2 percent unemployment in November (Germany), compared to 7.4 percent in the UK at the time. The British government is also willing to pay much more for new nuclear as onshore wind costs and new solar costs in Germany, allegedly in the name of protecting consumers from unnecessarily high costs.

The facts don’t matter, as the resistance to efficiency targets shows – what good reason do we have to oppose them? In the end, this is not just about the climate, not just about carbon emissions. It’s also about personalities “winning.” Over at the Carbon Brief, my colleague Mat Hope describes how top EU officials are willing to throw out all other targets so that binding carbon targets for 2030 can be a part of their legacy. So Davey, Barroso, and Hedegaard, congratulations: you win. Guess who loses? No, not Germany. Renewables and efficiency.

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of German Energy Transition. He directs Petite Planète and writes every workday for Renewables International.


Craig Morris (@PPchef) is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende.


  1. Kent Otho Doering says

    Thanks for the article. All the critics of the Deutsche Energiewende” point out the high Feed In Tariff rates. However, the new nuclear plant deal signed in England, calls for a guaranteed purchase of its produced power on a Feed In Tariff basis of appr. €0.15 Euros over a 35 year period. (That is more expensive than the much shorter running German F.I.T.s for offshore wind. The expiring F.I.T. period for rooftop solar is only 20 years. After that, the F.I.T.´ßs expire and the sellers get the going rates on theLeipzig market.

    (I note that the German solar F.I.T.s will expire when 52 gw of capacit are installed. Many expect installation rates to drop off after that. I do not, because “heat recapture” and “aqueous fuel technologies” will be slashing the fossil fuels needed to make the four basic materials of solar cells: sheet steel, copper, silicon, and glass.)
    further cutting the “linstalled panel price” from about € 2.00 per producing watt to well under €1,00 per producing watt. I also advisedly note that both Siprius U.S.A., in which Siemens has a minority holding, and the Fraunhofer Institute have both developed solar fresnel lens systems independently of each other, which boost power efficiencies from about 20% to 43.9 %.
    You are of course aware of “glass voltaics” or “turbo-solar-voltaic” systems developed by an ex CTO of M.B.B. (EADS) in Ottobrunn, which has a light to power conversion efficiency ratio of 10% per layer. ((wires in glass with a light d.c. charge have a 10% efficiency- on the pick up- wires psace 5 mm apart.) Now, replacing normal hardened glass covers on p.v.- add another 10% efficiency… meaning that efficiencies can be pushed from a current – 20% efficiency to a maximum of just over 50%. (More cannot be squeezed out of photons.) That, is panels with an effective capacity- of up to 500 watts per square meter will soon be a reality. And by boosting panel capacities by 150% that way, the German solar industry will get installed producing watt prices down to under € 0.50 cents per producing watt, at a point where they have more than “grid parity”,

    Those quiet developments go largely unnoticed. Many expect the annual installation rate to drop below 2.5 gw p.a., after the F.I.T. program expires. Due to materials processing cost reductions and improved efficiencies giving solar more than “grid parity” , I think we can expect continued installation rates of over 6 gw p.a..

    As far as I can see, the German side- (i.e. the viewpoint of Eurosolar e.v. and its spin-off IRENA organisation) can never be re-conciled with the conservative “nuke & light fossil” approach favoured by the Cameron Tories. Ever since he was laughed out of the Scottish parliament for opposing wind turbines next tohis gulf courses, Donald Trump has been a major supporter of the Britisch Tories to “ban wind”, along with the U.S. Billionaire Koch Brothers- who see renewables as cutting into their profit base.

    I advisedly note that the construction costs on new British nuclear – are 4.5 thousand Euros per producing kilowatt, more than twice the current installed price for solar, twice the price of offshore wind, four times the price of onshore wind or coal. The new commercial nuke deal calls for a guaranteed purchase, even in low demand night – early morning hour periods- which are easilly overed by ramped to minimum existing coal and wind.

    It pleases me to see you were an English language staff writer with IRENA. I have been personally aquainted with Dr. Axel Berg, S.P.D-. for over 22 years. And through Axel, I got to meet the late Hermann Scheer, S.P.D., who not only founded both Eurosolar.de. e.v. and IRENE e.v., but who had a significant hand in drafting the renewable energy laws- How lucky you were to be able to work close with Hermann Scheer.

    Thanks for your comments here on the Heinrich Boll Stiftung – “Energiewende”. “the U.s. blog site “Renewable Energy World” has a U.S. edited sub-site called “Eneregiewende”, but somehow I have the itchy feeling that neither the editor and chief writer, nor the other writers or the commenters on the blog site, are at all familiar with the larger nature of the shift or are more closely familiar with it… apparently gleaning most of their information from “Der Spiegel”, “Die Welt”
    which are not particularly known to be any bit friendly to renewables.

    Anyhow, thanks for your reporting on “Energytransition.de” for the Heinrich Boll Institute.
    You do a good job.
    Kent Doering, Munich.

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