Wednesday, March 7, 2012

An environmental minister that makes sense

Germany is attempting the nearly impossible.  She believes that she can shut down nuclear power and replace it with renewables.  I'll bet I am not the only one who wants them to pull this off.  I admire them for their sheer audacity to even attempt this conversion because it is a highly complex problem.  And since we here in USA have seemingly lost our desire and ability to deal with problems so complex, I am reduced to the role of cheerleader to those who are willing to try.

I am including excerpts from an interview in Der Spiegel of German Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen.  If you read the whole thing, you will note that there are tough questions being asked.  I like that because it means that folks are actually trying to get at the facts necessary to make informed public policy choices.  Sometimes the interviewers wander off-topic such as when Röttgen is asked whether it is appropriate for a poor welfare recipient to pay more for renewable energy.  Röttgen reminds the interviewers that he doesn't make social policy.  But mostly the interview highlights the very real problems encountered whenever you must change fuels.

SPIEGEL Interview with German Environment Minister
'Germans Are Willing to Pay' for Renewable Energies

In a SPIEGEL interview, German Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen, 46, discusses the nuclear phase-out, controversial solar power subsidies and why he believes Chancellor Angela Merkel's energy revolution -- which will see the country move to clean energies -- is still on track.

SPIEGEL: Minister Röttgen, it's been a year since the nuclear accident at Fukushima. Do you still want to phase out nuclear energy?

Röttgen: More than 90 percent of Germans want that, and they're right, because there's a better alternative.

SPIEGEL: Then why are you doing so little to ensure that the phase-out is a success?

Röttgen: Why little? In 2011, renewable energy was, for the first time, in second place after nuclear energy. Since last summer, we have been working continuously, one step at a time, to make the energy revolution a success.

SPIEGEL: But things aren't progressing. Neither new power grids nor replacement power plants or electricity storage facilities have been built yet. European Union Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger accuses you of lacking a plan. He says: "Does a German energy policy exist? Not really!"

Röttgen: Then he should take a closer look. We have approved an enormous legislative package, which we are now working on, which ranges from expanding the grid to upgrading buildings, and from promoting offshore wind energy to promoting combined heat and power generation. The energy revolution is in full swing, and it's moving along successfully.

SPIEGEL: How great is the risk that the power will go out?

Röttgen: The recent cold temperatures have highlighted how well our energy supply works. The power supply was secure at all times. We had the lowest market electricity prices in Europe and exported massive amounts of electricity. When we did approach critical situations recently, it wasn't the fault of renewable energy, but of electricity speculators.

SPIEGEL: The grid operators say that they now have to intervene again and again to prevent blackouts, and that this never happened in the past.

Röttgen: It's true that expansion of the power grid is critical. We are behind in this respect, but it's a sin of the past. For years, the major electric utilities had no real interest in investing in the grids, because grids mean competition. This is now changing, but it takes years, not months. New grids will be built bit by bit.

SPIEGEL: The Federal Network Agency warns that the system is at the limits of its capacity.

Röttgen: The Federal Network Agency has stated several times that it has been necessary to intervene more frequently than in the past, but we have the situation under control.

SPIEGEL: The expansion of offshore wind farms is stalling, partly because there aren't enough power lines. The grid operators, for their part, are waiting for lawmakers to iron out the underlying conditions. Is it your fault that things aren't moving forward with wind power?

Röttgen: No one can seriously believe that the energy turnaround can be completed within a few months. It's a matter of years and decades. And as far as the wind farms are concerned, we meet regularly with all the companies involved, and I'm sure that we will be able to propose a solution to the most important problems by Easter.


SPIEGEL: Economics Minister Philipp Rösler is responsible for the grids, while you are responsible for renewable energy. Do we need a separate ministry to tackle the nuclear phase-out?

Röttgen: It might make sense to consider combining forces for the future, but that isn't an issue at this point. Philipp Rösler and I work together closely and well.

SPIEGEL: At least you're significantly ahead of schedule in one area: the expansion of solar energy. Another 7.5 gigawatts were added last year, or twice as much as you had expected. Is this a curse or a blessing?

Röttgen: Both. The good thing is that the costs of solar electricity have fallen considerably. This year, for the first time, solar electricity will be cheaper than the electricity consumers obtain from the grid. The bad thing is that too many solar systems create a burden on the grids. The system can't handle the addition of 7 gigawatts a year. That's why we will now change our subsidization policy to limit expansion to a reasonable level.

SPIEGEL: Jürgen Grossmann, the head of (electric utility) RWE, says that the expansion of solar energy in a country with as little sunshine as Germany makes about as much sense as growing pineapples in Alaska.

Röttgen: Yes, it's one of the same old clichés.

SPIEGEL: Anchorage has more hours of sunshine than Berlin, so in that respect Grossmann is right.

Röttgen: But it's an oversimplification. Solar energy already makes a relevant contribution to the power supply in Germany. Besides, it's an export technology. The fact that Germany doesn't just invent this technology but also uses it, and that added value and jobs are created in the process, is a success story. There are about 100,000 jobs in the solar-panel industry in Germany. We are a technology leader. We have an export quotient of between 50 and 80 percent. In other words, we're not just talking about national energy issues here, but also about technologies and industrial policy.


SPIEGEL: The panel of experts on environmental issues, which reports to you in order to advise the government on the issue, also advocates strictly limiting subsidies for inefficient photovoltaic systems.

Röttgen: I'm more than happy to listen to the panel's suggestions, but in the end the responsibility lies with politicians like me, not the professors. We cannot destroy solar energy in Germany. Then it would have all been a waste of time. There would be massive economic losses and layoffs.

SPIEGEL: How expensive will the energy revolution be for normal people?

Röttgen: An average household pays a little more than €10 (about $13) a month to promote renewable energy. It shouldn't be much more than that, which is why we have to take advantage of all conservation options at this point.

SPIEGEL: Do you think it's fair that an average family living in a rented home has to pay more than €120 a year to finance the solar panels of homeowners?

Röttgen: All surveys show that Germans are willing to do this, because it's an investment in the future of our energy supply.

SPIEGEL: You believe that a family living on the Hartz IV welfare program (a reduction in welfare benefits for the long-term unemployed introduced by the government of former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder that provides around €374 euros a month to single, unemployed people) is happy to invest €120 a year to expand our country's energy supply?

Röttgen: I don't know. But the cost of electricity for Hartz IV recipients is a completely different issue that has nothing to do with what we're discussing. The German Renewable Energy Act is not an instrument of social policy. 
SPIEGEL: Only the environment minister is keeping a cool head.

Röttgen: First they were saying that electricity prices were going to explode. That didn't happen. Then we were warned that the grids would collapse -- wrong again. And there is also no indication that the alarmist reports about rising subsidy costs are true. Besides, we would make adjustments if this sort of development became apparent. Our proposal gives the federal government the ability to intervene quickly.

SPIEGEL: Why haven't Poland, the Czech Republic, France, the United States, Brazil, Russia and China recognized the signs of the times, choosing to stick with nuclear power instead?

Röttgen: Every country has to make its own decisions. But based on many conversations I've had, I know that the world is paying very close attention to the energy turnaround in Germany. There is enormous interest, and if an industrialized country like Germany manages the turnaround, it will rub off. I'm convinced of that.

SPIEGEL: Minister Röttgen, we thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Alexander Neubacher and Konstantin von Hammerstein. Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.

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