Energiewende: Germany’s quest to achieve a 100% renewable energy future

European powerhouse Germany has ambitious and far-reaching plans to transform its energy system over the next 30 years. Integrating ever greater levels of solar and wind power onto the grid poses considerable challenges. Wärtsilä has a key role to play in enabling Germany to build a low carbon, sustainable and reliable energy supply.

The effects of climate change are clear to see, and nations across the world are taking steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to limit global temperature rises.

Germany’s Energiewende (the energy transition) is an ambitious programme of change to a low carbon, sustainable, reliable and affordable energy supply, one that has been in the works since the year 2000. The country is targeting an 80–95% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 relative to 1990 levels. It also wants to produce 60% of its energy from renewables like wind and solar power by mid-century.

In fact, Germany intends to phase out all coal-fired power generation by 2038, and nuclear power by 2023, drastically changing the energy market in the country. According to Berlin-based policy institute Agora Energiewende, the speed and scope of the Energiewende are exceptional.

Taking the lead with renewables

How does the country plan on doing this? Germany has invested heavily in wind and solar power generation over the years. First, it created a market for renewables and then lowered the cost of renewable technologies. Allowing co-operatives, local initiatives and other business models to be part of the transition led to a situation where 31% of renewable energy production is owned by Germany’s citizens.

“There has been consistent support for wind and solar power from the beginning and that is now seen in the ambitious Energiewende targets for phasing out nuclear power, and then coal,” says Melle Kruisdijk, Vice President, Europe, Wärtsilä Energy Business explaining the country’s success with renewable power. “Politically, Germany took a lead with renewables and that strategy is now paying off.”

The share of renewables in the country’s gross power consumption climbed to 38.2% in 2018. At its current rate of growth, Germany’s target of 40 to 45% renewable energy by 2025 is within reach. This is especially significant since the plan is to do this without relying too heavily on hydropower, as most countries with high shares of renewable power generation generally do.

On the flipside

An ambitious energy transition does have its challenges. According to J.P Morgan’s Annual Energy paper from March 2019, grid imbalances are a problem for Germany and are putting pressure on Eastern European grids with unwanted power surges and blockages. To reduce curtailed renewable generation and re-dispatch costs, Germany will need to upgrade its transmission infrastructure. However, out of a projected need for 4,650 kilometres of transmission lines by 2025, the paper claims only 900 kilometres have been built so far. Renewable energy is intermittent by nature, potentially causing interruptions in supply.

All this brings into question Germany’s goal of cutting emissions in half by 2040. ‘Highly unlikely’ is the verdict from J.P Morgan whose report credited this to ‘the very slow pace of de-carbonisation apart from the electricity grid, and the extent to which greater demand for energy offsets improvements in energy intensity, improved gas mileage in cars/planes, and more energy efficient devices/machinery/buildings.

Additionally, approximately 40% of the country’s energy is still generated from coal. While Germany’s goals to phase out fossil-fuels is admirable, it still needs flexible, smart solutions to ensure that it can do this without interrupting energy supply. Engines and energy storage will provide the needed flexibility to integrate renewables, secure reliability and ensure affordable cost of power systems.

Smart technologies to the rescue

The question that has now seized the country’s policymakers is how to maintain its renewable energy momentum and handle problems of intermittent supply.

Wärtsilä believes that the void caused by the nuclear and coal phase outs in the German energy market should be filled with renewables and flexible engine-based power plants. As an energy system integrator, Wärtsilä has the capability to design, build and serve optimal power systems. Additionally, Wärtsilä envisions a 100% renewable energy future, a goal that perfectly complements Germany’s own energy ambitions. Examples where the two can partner already exist. Take for instance smart power generation technologies like Wärtsilä’s Combined Heat and Power (CHP) engine power plants and flexible, reliable and efficient gas engines that can help by generating power to plug the gap and balance energy supply with demand during periods when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining.

These engine-based power plants run on natural gas – a relatively clean fuel – to generate electricity and heat. They can start up quickly and efficiently when needed and can also supply hot water for homes and businesses. CHP engine power plants also add comfort and improve the quality of life in cities as boilers will not be needed in apartments.

Wärtsilä has made inroads into the German market by supplying a 100 MW CHP plant to Kraftwerke Mainz-Wiesbaden (KMW) and a 90 MW CHP plant to supply electricity and district heating for Dresden, Germany – a deal announced in January 2019.

Germany’s ultimate vision – to be a country in which renewable energy meets all energy requirements – is absolutely achievable, say experts – and that’s a goal that’s supported by Wärtsilä too.

“To be 100% green will take many years, but the commitment is there on the political side. You can see how ambitious Germany is when it comes to its targets for phasing out coal-fired generation, for example,” says Jan Andersson, Market Analyst at Wärtsilä Energy Business.

Wärtsilä as an energy systems integrator

“Wärtsilä can help Germany along its transition as an energy systems integrator, enabling integration and optimisation of various generation assets including renewables, energy storage and engine power plants, to power the energy grid of the future. It is not just CHP that will play an important role in the Energiewende. Battery storage of electricity generated when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining is also critical,” explains Kruisdijk.

CHP will continue to play a long-term role even as renewable energy comes online at greater levels than today in Germany. Ultimately, CHP plants could be fuelled by hydrogen or synthetic gases such as synthetic methane, making them carbon neutral. Kruisdijk envisages a future where synthetic liquid and gaseous fuels generated through ‘power-to-x’ technology are used to power CHP plants, developing a zero emission future power system.

“Synthetic methane uses CO2 from the atmosphere in its production and is therefore carbon neutral across its lifecycle,” explains Andersson.

As the Energiewende project gathers pace, it is the flexibility provided by smart power plants and advanced energy storage technologies that will play a key role in increasing the share of renewables in the country’s energy grid. Germany has taken a leading stance – and perhaps other European countries will follow its path to a renewable energy future in the years to come.

Written by
Ben Hargreaves