Germany’s Green Energy Shift Increases Dependence On Russian Gas

  • Date: 24/03/14
  • Hans-Werner Sinn, WirtschaftsWoche

To ensure a stable supply of energy particularly in times of no wind and sunshine, Germany needs methane reservoirs and gas power plants. However, the green energy transition will continue to increase Germany’s dependence on Russian gas – and thus limits its foreign-policy capability to act. Do the Germans really know what they are doing?

The unresolved conflict in Ukraine does not only pose foreign and security risks for Germany. The escalation in the Crimea also endangers its oil and gas supplies – and thus the green energy transition. Germanys new energy policy cannot function without Russian gas. The reason lies in the intermittency of wind and solar power. Both renewable energy sources require a technology for backing up power generation during the year. This task can ultimately be provided by gas power plants.

The Ifo institute has now investigated whether it could be done differently. On the basis of the generation of wind and solar power during all 8,760 hours of the year 2011, it has calculated the required storage capacity for balancing this electricity. The installed capacity of both power sources at that time was 54 gigawatts. For some hours up to 27 gigawatts were generated, but at other times it was as low as 0.5 gigawatts. The average generation was 7.3 gigawatts. The secured capacity that was available in 99.5 percent of all hours was only 0.9 gigawatts.

In order to make the average usable and to raise the guaranteed capacity of 0.9 gigawatts as far as possible in the direction of the average, a storage technology is imperative. At the current state of technology, the most efficient are pump storage plants. For full balancing, however, Germany would require around 3,300 pump storage plants – 100 times as many as Germany currently has. New storage power plants, however, are difficult to build because they lead to angry citizen protests everywhere. At the Jochberg in Bavaria, people even raised scythes.

What if you do not balance out the whole intermittent electricity but only a part? In this model, the result is sobering, too. For the balancing of four-sevenths of the average generation around 440 pumped-storage power plants in Germany would still be required. This is also far beyond all political options.

Alternatively, one could store the energy in batteries. For this, however, 164 million battery packs of a BMW i3 would be necessary – four times as many as the numbers of cars in Germany. The one million electric cars, which are supposed to be driven on Germany’s roads in 2020, would provide only a paltry 0.6 percent of the required storage capacity. Moreover, these electric cars would not be allowed to drive during windless times of the year in order not to empty their batteries.

Russian gas is the only economically feasible solution

The storage problem can be solved effectively only through the establishment of so-called methane reservoirs. They take up less space, can also be built on flat land and are – at least when it comes to manufacturing costs – much cheaper. With this technique, the electricity peaks generated by wind and solar power are first used for the production of hydrogen. This is in turn converted into methane gas, with which the gas power plants generate electricity if and when needed.

However, the energy dissipation is an unsolvable problem in this storage technology. Since the technical efficiency in this process is only 25%, the electricity – after going through methanation and gas-fired power plant – would be for the customer at least four times as expensive.

In the end it is always cheaper to buy methane from Putin’s gas traders, store it in Germany and then use it as needed for the production of electricity in gas-fired power plants that already fill the gaps of wind and solar power. Russian gas costs about three cents a kilowatt hour, while wind gas from the methanation would be at least six times more expensive, not even counting the cost of methanation. If the wind power is generated at sea (off shore), it will be at least ten times more expensive.

The use of Russian gas is therefore the only economically viable solution to deal with the problem of intermittency. The intermittent electricity from wind and solar plants is balanced with electricity from methane stores that are filled by Putin’s people and then emptied intermittently. This results in uniformly available electricity. Only this mode actually works. All others ideas are figments of the imagination.

But thus a new risk emerges. Germany’s security is already compromised by dependence on Russian gas; after all, one third of the gas consumed in Germany comes from Russian territory. If, as planned, Germany shuts down its still running nuclear power plants and relies fully on wind and solar power, dependence on Russia will only increase further – and reduce the security of supply. This in turn will restrict Germany’s foreign-policy capability even further. Do the Germans really know what they are doing?

Translation Philipp Mueller

Full story (in German)