Harald Schwarz, Professor for energy distribution and high voltage technology at the Brandenburg University of Technology Cottbus – Sentencer, stated in an article released on 7th May 2021 on tagesschau.de that in 2023 Germany lacks 15 to 20 gigawatt of secured power output. This claim turns out to be mostly true.
In light of the energy transition, Germany has mapped out for the next decades to lower CO2 emissions. But the question arises whether simply building more solar and wind plants solves the problem. Germany has planned to stop producing energy with nuclear power plants by 2022 and reduce the power output of coal plants. According to the reference scenario from 2021 outlined by Fraunhofer ISE, the secured power output of nuclear energy, coal and oil will be reduced by approximately 14 gigawatt while the installed output of renewable energies increases by approximately 47 gigawatt in the next two years. Will this increase be enough to supply Germany with power, especially during winter?
Neither wind nor sun are completely reliable energy sources. Obviously solar energy can’t be produced at night and in winter the time the sun shines is too low to ensure a stable power supply. Additionally solar panels which are snowed in can’t produce energy. Wind plants only produce energy when winds are blowing. Therefore, these two renewable energies can’t contribute directly to the secured power output that Schwarz refers to. Another related issue is the location of wind plants. As the wind is stronger in the north of Germany more power plants are located there. However, the north is not as densely populated as well as there is less industry than in the south of Germany. Due to this imbalance, it is important to distribute power from where more is produced than needed to other parts of Germany. According to Schwartz, only small amounts of needed infrastructure were built because of long planning times and the time needed for receiving necessary permits.
Another critical infrastructure which is necessary to ensure that Germany does not black out is energy storage. As the reference scenario from 2021 by Fraunhofer ISE outlines, there will be 23 gigawatt of mobile storage and 5 gigawatt of stationary storage. Theoretically this could solve the problem of missing secured power output. But the storage is not always available, because mobile storage often refers to the batteries used in electric cars which are used as vehicles.
Are alternative technologies the solution?
To increase the stable power production biomass reactors can be an option. According to the German Environment Agency, biomass is already an important producer of energy. As of now biomass energy is mainly used for heating, but using this energy to produce power is possible. Another option can be gas reactors. Depending on the means of transmission, gas can be considered slightly environmentally friendlier than coal. To bridge the gap in secured power output more gas reactors might be necessary. New reactors need to be convertible to burn hydrogen, which is an environmentally friendly gas when burned.
But hydrogen is not the easy solution for the possible German energy problem. The production of hydrogen takes more energy than it can produce when burned again. Due to this factor hydrogen is only a viable solution when renewable energies produce more power than Germany needs at a given time. Therefore, the amount of installed renewable power plant capacities has to exceed the peak load by far. Only when Germany manages to produce more green power than is needed the energy supply can be guaranteed. In 2020, the produced energy by wind power plants often exceeded the needed amount of power. This is the case in winter, when it is very windy. Although solar energy does not deliver as much energy, wind can compensate the reduced output by far. The complete opposite can be seen in summer, however the amount of power is not always enough to satisfy the local power needs. Whenever renewable energies produce more power than the German energy network can take, power is exported to neighboring countries.
Despite all these upcoming problems the German ministry of economy and energy stated in a report from 2019, that the security of supply was guaranteed for the following years. According to the report they simulated 60 million scenarios like dark dulls or power plant failures and came to the conclusion that consumption and generation of power will still be balanced. However, critics stated that the power consumption calculated in the report was way too low. In the report, the ministry assumed an annual demand of 545 terawatt hours in 2030 in Germany, while the Energy Economics Institute of the Cologne University calculated a demand of about 750 terawatt hours.
Germany has committed itself to perform the energy transmission to a green power production. The ambitious plan to stop using nuclear power by 2022 and exit coal power as fast as possible results in problems that need to be addressed urgently. Not only the amount of installed power output of renewable energies needs to drastically increase, power storage capacities and the transmission network need to be addressed immediately. German bureaucracy is a big problem when facing this challenge, as there is little time to correct the inactivity of the past. Not only do the processes related to building need to speed up. More funds need to be allocated to these infrastructure projects. To bridge the time until enough storage and transmission infrastructure is available options such as an increased use of biomass and gas need to be considered.
In conclusion one can say, that Schwarz’s claim is mostly true. Using the data of the scenario of Fraunhofer ISE we discovered a lack of secured power output of approximately 14 gigawatt while Schwarz was talking about 15 to 20 gigawatt. Having in mind that it’s only a scenario the data is not completely reliable, and as the data for 2020 already differs there is no data that can be claimed one hundred percent secure for the future. Even though Schwarz’s claim turns out to be mostly true, it needs to be evaluated correctly. The upcoming lack of secured power output won’t necessarily lead to a blackout in Germany. Especially because in future scenarios like this, a lot of unpredictable factors need to be included. At least a blackout is rather unlikely to occur in winter as most wind power is produced during this season. Nevertheless, compensating the secured power output, that will be omitted is definitely going to be a big challenge for Germany in the next years.
RESEARCH | ARTICLE © Jakob Hertl & David Schober, Stuttgart Media University, Germany
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