By Dr. John Hollins, Chair CACOR Board of Directors.
At first sight, it is perhaps surprising that Germany, a leader in the natural sciences and engineering for 200 years, and a leader in the management of grand projects — the author of Auftragstaktik (mission command) which enabled it to rapidly win the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) and perform beyond its size in two World Wars — cannot deliver on its political goal to reduce emissions through massive deployment of renewable energy.
I reported in 2013 ( attached…) on the performance in 2012 of Germany’s fleet of (at the time) 60 GW of solar photovotaic and wind systems (That was almost as much capacity as Ontario and Quebec combined). I drew three lessons, in part courtesy of my friend Jean-Eudes Moncomble, Secrétaire général du Conseil français de l’énergie.
1. The capacity of the electrical grid in Europe cannot cope with the new renewables on the German scale, with no prospect for reinforcement of the grid given a high level of public opposition to new construction.
2. The costs of adjusting thermal generation to follow the substantial variability in the generation of the new renewables are so high that producers do not reduce their output only to increase it within minutes or hours. This leads to enormous volatility in the price of electricity on the European grid, including negative prices — producers don’t just give their electricity away, they pay the consumer to take it.
3. Although 25% of annual demand was met by renewables in 2012, the overall result in practice was that more greenhouse gases were emitted in the production of the remaining 75% than were formerly emitted in meeting the full load with conventional generation, not counting importation of electricity from coal-fired plants in Poland; on top of that Germany imported electricity from an aged Soviet (Chernobyl-type) nuclear reactor in the Southern Czech Republic.
This is a tragedy because the German government (with a more scientifically and technologically literate parliament than Canada) instead of depending on conventional economics and wishful thinking could have readily informed its policy and programs using energy systems analysis (à la Club of Rome), both through its domestic capacity and its international connections. Canada could do likewise, drawing on the work, for example, of CACOR’s Robert Hoffman and colleagues, and find a way forward that would actually work.
This German experience is a major reason why I think that far more attention should be paid to adaptation to global warming, as much as is paid to mitigation. If Germany cannot get it right, who can? My friend Paul Koch (founding Chair of the Ottawa Sustainability Fund) put it this way in a recent message: I’m afraid that ‘the train has left the station’ regarding climate change and only time will tell how it will play out. I was pleased to learn courtesy of CACOR-climate (Jean Brasseur) that CBC Radio’s The Current is addressing adaptation through a series of programs.
The real lesson for the scientists and engineers in the crowd is perhaps that politics is the art of the possible and, à la Ian White, that engagement is required!