“No Alternative” to Germany Breaking Dependence on Russian Gas, Fossil Fuels
Germany’s transition to a clean energy future has picked up additional momentum after the Russian attack on Ukraine. Thomas Grigoleit, Germany Trade & Invest Director of Energy, Construction and Environmental Technologies discusses what the short- and medium-term future will hold.
How much has Russia’s attack on Ukraine changed Germany’s energy strategy? And how much of the reorientation is an intensification of existing policies?
There haven’t been any new decisions per se since the Russian assault on the Ukraine. The German government is commencing a massive expansion not only of renewable power sources but also of the infrastructure for hydrogen as an energy carrier. These are policies decided upon and enshrined in the government’s coalition agreement. The goals that were set out in that document are now more clearly defined. It’s evident that these measures are important not only to combat climate change but also politically, so that we’re more independent and better able to resists crises.
I think that the tragic recent developments – and they are indeed tragic – have underscored the fact that these policies are the correct ones. Those developments mean that, without any doubt, the tempo of the transition to sustainable energy sources will increase. There is a lot greater urgency now, and that’s going to affect the market. We have no alternative but to break our dependency on fossil fuels. And I think it would encourage the cause of peace as well.
One thing that is new is the drive to build liquid natural gas (LNG) terminals as a short-term alternative. LNG isn’t renewable or green. What role can it play?
It’s a short-term measure to diversify our current gas supply. It’s no doubt politically sensible to build LNG terminals as soon as possible to reduce our dependency on Russia. On the other hand, the idea is also to make them compatible with processing hydrogen. To kill two birds with one stone, if you will. But projects like the prospective terminal in Brunsbüttel are more infrastructure endeavors than business expansion opportunities, so thus far we haven’t had a chance to study LNG in detail. That notwithstanding, this is of course a tremendously important issue, particularly in terms of the political signal it sends.
What can we reasonably expect from solar and wind energy in the short to medium term?
Expand, expand, expand, that’s what I’d say. There is tremendous installation potential and tremendous need, since we have just started to use these also for our heating and mobility needs. Renewables, together with saving energy, are the crucial elements. Both solar and wind can be expanded very quickly, and in fact we’ve shown in the past that we can do this. Of course, it’s easier to install solar panels on your roof than to build an off-shore wind farm, but it’s a question of scale. We need to get back to completing such projects quickly. We need to accelerated approval procedures. In the past, legal challenges – for instance from property owners who have objected to installations being located near their homes – have delayed renewables projects. That’s political and social challenge we have to solve. If we can do that, the technological and technical challenge won’t be all that great.
What else is Germany doing to address its dependency on Russian natural gas?
It’s not enough to expand renewables. The infrastructure needs to grow along, meaning the electrical grid and energy storage options such as batteries, hydrogen and e-gas. That new grid must be smart and resilient in order to balance our energy needs also in terms of e-mobility and heating.
We also need to look at how we can cut down our energy use by efficiency measures. There’s a lot we can do particularly in the realm of home and business heating. This includes the increased use of electrical heat pumps, heat storage, higher energy efficiency standards, better building insulation and renovations of older buildings. That’s very important. Our dependency on Russian gas is especially high in the area of heat for buildings and not so much for electricity.
What’s a realistic time table to correct the situation?
Germany Trade & Invest is the German government’s agency for promoting international trade, not a scientific organization, so we’re cautious about making predictions. But of course, we keep close tabs on the science. Some commentators for example one of Germany’s leading experts in the field, Claudia Kemfert, believes it’s possible for Germany to convert to one hundred percent renewables by 2038. I personally think she’s right. Definitely in terms of electricity. We might hit the targeting that area by 2035. If we’re talking about energy in general, it’s more difficult to say. That depends on factors like how much energy we can save and how much green hydrogen we can import from partner countries and at what cost.
But I remain totally optimistic that we can do this. What we lack in the past was the level of commitment, also from industry, we’re seeing now. Not so long ago, some people said if we have ten percent renewables in the mix, the whole system will break down. Now we have 50 percent, and on sunny and windy days in summer, renewables will soon cover all of our energy needs. At present, that’s an ideal scenario of course. But we have no alternative to making it an everyday reality.