Study: can conservation and the energy transition co-exist?

By Petra Reinken

Windräder an der Nordseeküste
Here’s the good news: yes, we can! Christina von Haaren of the Institute of Environmental Planning at the University of Hanover and her team are currently preparing a study for the Federal Ministry of the Environment in Germany to find out whether Germany can achieve its energy transition by 2050 in a fashion that is environmentally sound. The key question is whether the goals of the electricity revolution in Germany and the principles of environmental protection can be streamlined. And indeed: shortly before the completion of the research scientists say that yes, it is possible.

However, Fritz Brickwedde from the German Renewable Energy Federation (BEE), sitting next to von Haaren during the recent presentation of the study’s preliminary results in Berlin, shook his head. Germany had long lost its status as a trailblazer in the field of renewable energies, the former secretary general of the German Federal Environmental Foundation (DBU) said. „We are missing our goals every day because we have the wrong tax incentives.“ As an example Brickwedde cited a tax incentive the Federal government has created for oil-fired heating systems, saying: „When it comes to the energy transition, we are acting counterproductively and inconsistently.“

The general reaction from the podium to Brickwedde’s arguments was that the regulatory framework could after all be changed. Christina von Haaren for one wasn’t ready to have her optimism taken away from her. Her study features three scenarios under which Germany’s electricity needs can be fully covered through renewable energy sources by the year 2050 without any harm to the environment. What’s remarkable: all three scenarios in the study are based on the assumption that solar energy will make up significantly more than half of Germany’s future electricity mix and that all eligible roofs in residential areas will feature photovoltaic cells. Land-based wind energy would become the other main pillar of the energy transition – depending on the scenario it would cover between 19 and 32 per cent of Germany’s electricity needs. However, von Haaren does acknowledge that “political frameworks and a social awakening are necessary in order to make the energy transition sustainable and achievable by 2050.”

The largest portion of the discussion between the five panellists focused on the topic of wind energy, and specifically on the availability of eligible space and distance rules. The important issue of “power to gas”, which relates to the storing of excess wind energy was not addressed even though the technology could make the construction of further long distance electricity links obsolete.

Another issue that wasn’t mentioned was the question of why high energy savings are being factored into many projections regardless of the fact that in the past expected savings have almost always been neutralised by rebound effects and the introduction of new energy intensive equipment. Furthermore, nobody challenged the twice-mentioned sentiment that the energy transition in the automotive world was almost entirely unconnected to environmental issues. In reality, an electric car requires just as much traffic space as a conventional car does – every bridge and every bypass road has a negative impact on nature.

But maybe in the end it’s simply about this clear statement: yes, we can! If that is the case then what are we waiting for?

An abriged version of the preliminary study results in German is available here.

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