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Let’s think ahead

To limit the extent of climate change, ­Germany has decided to phase out coal-fired power generation by 2038 at the latest. So what will our energy system look like then? Christoph Bals, Political Director of the environmental organisation Germanwatch, and Gerald Kaendler, Head of Asset Management at Amprion, discuss the dynamics of the climate debate, the change in awareness and attitudes in the chemical industry and people’s expectations of politicians.

Mr Bals, Mr Kaendler, our energy system is changing dramatically and rapidly. Would you have predicted just five years ago that Germany would abandon not only nuclear energy but also coal-fired power generation?

Gerald Kaendler I did not expect this. The climate debate in Germany has always had its ups and downs: picking up speed, only to recede into the background again. The direction in which we were heading was foreseeable, but the dynamics of today were impossible to predict; just like no-one could have predicted that in 2019 the EU Commission would initiate a “Green Deal” for Europe, setting it on course to become carbon-neutral by 2050.

Christoph Bals The end of coal was already in the offing at that time. At the G7 summit in Elmau in 2015, the seven most influential industrialised nations announced for the first time that they would be phasing out coal, oil and gas in the long run. This kicked off a serious political debate in Germany, which was also driven by the Paris Agreement reached in the same year. The goal of limiting global warming resulting from human activities to well below two degrees Celsius, if possible even below 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to the pre-industrial era, means we have to phase out coal by around 2030.

Why is this goal so ­important?

Bals The more fossil fuels that are burned, the more greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere – and the more global temperatures rise. We have now exited the temperature range of the last 11,000 years since the last ice age. All advanced human civilisations and our ecological environment were adapted to it. Whatever follows with every additional tenth of a degree rise in global temperature is a dangerous worldwide experiment with mankind and nature. The dramatically accelerated melting processes in Greenland and West Antarctica are just one example.

Kaendler  I share this assessment. Climate awareness is now growing everywhere – and this is also clearly evident in industry. For example, in 2019 chemicals companies asked us whether we could help them switch to carbon-neutral production methods by significantly increasing our grid connection capacity, so that they can procure more green electricity in the long term. Companies in the steel industry want to use more green hydrogen. These trends were apparent, but the degree of parallelism and dynamics were surprising. And I believe we are still at the beginning of this development. So far, it has not yet been adequately reflected in the scenarios for long-term grid planning. There is a need for action here.

Let’s think ahead – to the time after coal has finally been phased out. What will our energy system look like then?
After all, coal still currently plays an important role in power generation.

Kaendler Germany will bank on a new generation mix comprised primarily of wind power, solar energy and decarbonised gas. I expect offshore wind energy to take off, and we will also have more photo­voltaics – embedded in decentralised concepts with local battery storage facilities.

Bals I totally agree. I think the gathering momentum in photovoltaics will surprise us all. Solar power is becoming more and more affordable all around the world and in many cases is already cheaper than coal.

Gerald KaendlerHead of Asset Management at Amprion

How do you see electricity consumption levels developing?

Kaendler  We expect a significant increase in electricity demand in the long term. Electromobility will have its share in this, while heat pumps for heating need electricity, and industry will electrify production processes. The sectors of the energy industry will converge. In addition, power-to-gas technology will become established on an industrial scale in the long term. With this technology, plants convert green electricity that cannot be integrated into the system into hydrogen, which can be stored in the gas network. Industrial enterprises will use it as a fuel and raw material to decarbonise their production process. As a transmission system operator, we are adapting to these developments and planning our system accordingly. After all, we are committed to supporting decarbonisation and to ensuring that the electricity grid continues to operate stably and reliably.

Bals  I’m not so sure if the demand for electricity will grow so fast. One question I have not yet heard asked relates to what measures we are taking in the transport sector to, for example, reduce the number and size of cars. Trains, trams and bicycles are eco-friendlier than any electric car. It would be wrong to simply extrapolate needs without working to bring about a mobility revolution.

Will Germany still be importing electricity in 2038?

Kaendler Even if, in the long term, we are able to store and use large amounts of energy in the form of green hydrogen thanks to power-to-gas, we will still be dependent on imports of decarbonised primary energy to cover our electricity needs. Because more renewable energy will be generated and energy will be used more efficiently overall, the level of imports should, however, be lower than today.

Bals Here, too, it begs the question as to how can these imports be reduced and organised on fair terms? Since the dawn of industrialisation, our economy, and later our democracy, has thrived off exploiting other regions and the environment. Before we decide to import hydrogen, we first need to know how the exporting countries are actually going to generate renewable energies. If we are thinking about importing large volumes of hydrogen from Africa in future, this can only be possible with new business models based on partnership and a level playing field. There’s still a huge amount of work to be done before we get that far.

Christoph BalsGermanwatch

As a TSO, Amprion will hardly be in a position to influence things …

Kaendler Decisions regarding energy imports will impact the power system in Germany, for which we feel jointly responsible. That is why it is important that we follow these debates and social trends. In addition, I think it is important to talk to many people from different industries in order to learn from each another. Just like Amprion is talking to the gas industry in order to make progress on power-to-gas. By 2038, we will see new technological solutions in all areas. We are in no position right now to foresee what technological possibilities will be found to facilitate decarbonisation. But one thing is clear: elec­tric­ity will play an important role and we must all learn from each other in order to recognise the potentials. Perhaps solutions will emerge that we cannot en­visage today.

Bals Such innovation processes could lead to a new spirit of optimism. We currently find ourselves in a phase of the energy transformation filled with uncertainties. To respond with fear would be wrong.

The energy industry plans for the long term. 2030 feels like tomorrow, 2050 the day after. What measures should poli­ tics introduce today for the time after the coal phase­out?

Bals The government must do everything it can to ensure that we in Germany have sufficient renew- able sources of energy available to us. What’s more, in this current “systemic” phase of the energy trans- formation, it will be important to combine the ex- pansion of renewables with grid expansion, sector coupling and new opportunities for controlling consumption, and to optimise all of this. So, my dear Federal Government, what does a sustainable road map for energy efficiency and for power-to-gas look like in concrete terms – and for hydrogen? What can we achieve of this here at home and what do we need to import, under fair terms?

Kaendler For Amprion, it is first of all important that grid expansion makes progress and that we have more instruments at our disposal to ensure system security in 2038 and beyond. There is currently a lack of opportunities to conduct large-scale trials with new technologies – even if this is a risk that they may fall short of expectations. But I’m confident that one or two of these innovations will be a winner and help us all. After all, we all need to finally start thinking and planning across the sectors. I believe that Amprion, as a transmission system operator, could develop into a kind of platform that brings together the various currents.

Text  Volker Göttsche
Photo  Germanwatch (Christoph Bals)