DATE: May 6, 2019
SNIP: Over the last decade, journalists have held up Germany’s renewables energy transition, the Energiewende, as an environmental model for the world.
With Germany as inspiration, the United Nations and World Bank poured billions into renewables like wind, solar, and hydro in developing nations like Kenya.
But then, last year, Germany was forced to acknowledge that it had to delay its phase-out of coal, and would not meet its 2020 greenhouse gas reduction commitments. It announced plans to bulldoze an ancient church and forest in order to get at the coal underneath it.
Now comes a major article in the country’s largest newsweekly magazine, Der Spiegel, titled, “A Botched Job in Germany” (“Murks in Germany”). The magazine’s cover shows broken wind turbines and incomplete electrical transmission towers against a dark silhouette of Berlin.
Over the past five years alone, the Energiewende has cost Germany €32 billion ($36 billion) annually, and opposition to renewables is growing in the German countryside.
Solar and wind advocates say cheaper solar panels and wind turbines will make the future growth in renewables cheaper than past growth but there are reasons to believe the opposite will be the case.
Der Spiegel cites a recent estimate that it would cost Germany “€3.4 trillion ($3.8 trillion),” or seven times more than it spent from 2000 to 2025, to increase solar and wind three to five-fold by 2050.
Between 2000 and 2019, Germany grew renewables from 7% to 35% of its electricity. And as much of Germany’s renewable electricity comes from biomass, which scientists view as polluting and environmentally degrading, as from solar.
All of which raises a question: if renewables can’t cheaply power Germany, one of the richest and most technologically advanced countries in the world, how could a developing nation like Kenya ever expect them to allow it to “leapfrog” fossil fuels?
Journalists reported breathlessly on the cost declines in batteries, imagining a tipping point at which conventional electricity utilities would be “disrupted.”
But no amount of marketing could change the poor physics of resource-intensive and land-intensive renewables. Solar farms take 450 times more land than nuclear plants, and wind farms take 700 times more land than natural gas wells, to produce the same amount of energy.
The new wind farm in Kenya, inspired and financed by Germany and other well-meaning Western nations, is located on a major flight path of migratory birds. Scientists say it will kill hundreds of endangered eagles.
“It’s one of the three worst sites for a wind farm that I’ve seen in Africa in terms of its potential to kill threatened birds,” a biologist explained.
Kenya won’t be able to “leapfrog” fossil fuels with its wind farm. On the contrary, all of that unreliable wind energy is likely to increase the price of electricity and make Kenya’s slow climb out of poverty even slower.
Many Germans will, like Der Spiegel, claim the renewables transition was merely “botched,” but it wasn’t. The transition to renewables was doomed because modern industrial people, no matter how Romantic they are, do not want to return to pre-modern life.
The reason renewables can’t power modern civilization is because they were never meant to. One interesting question is why anybody ever thought they could.