With the economic development of Asia and the Pacific, the region is seeing an increase in energy and resource consumption, and attention is being drawn to the future course of energy policies. This month, we ask Dr. Miranda Schreurs of the Freie Universität Berlin for details of the situation in Germany, where power generation from renewable energy is at an all-time high, and consider sustainable energy sources for the Asia Pacific region.
Current State of Green Energy in Germany
---In Germany, it was two years ago that people made the decision to abolish nuclear energy by 2022. Has there been any change in the choice of energy in your country since then?
Germany’s Energiewende (Energy Transition) has been at the centre of global attention. In October 2010, the German parliament passed a new Energy Concept for the Future. The plan reaffirmed an earlier goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2020 and included a series of targets for the coming decades: 55% reduction by 2030, 70% by 2040, and 80-95% by 2050. Renewable energy is to account for 80% of electricity by 2050. Energy efficiency is also to be pushed forward by cutting primary energy use by 50% by 2050 relative to 2008 levels. These goals are basically calling for an energy revolution. Critics charge that the goals are unrealistic, will harm the German economy, and are too expensive. Supporters suggest the goals are necessary, will help stimulate new innovation, and will reduce overall energy costs in the long run.
The new coalition government between the Christian Democratic Union and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) that formed after the September 2013 federal election has basically agreed to continue with the Energiewende. One major change compared with the past is that they will try to bring more planning and coordination to the process. There will also be a yearly monitoring system to assess progress, examine problem areas, and make recommendations for policy changes.
The new coalition has set goals for the pace for at which renewables should be developed: a 40-45% share of renewables in the electricity sector by 2025 and 55-60% by 2035. The Association for Renewable Energy criticises these goals as being too limited. In addition, more emphasis is to be placed on energy efficiency in the building and transportation sectors, electricity storage systems, electricity grid infrastructure development, and off-shore wind development. The development of renewables is also to be pursued in a more efficient way to help reduce overall costs. This will require more coordination among different sectors and actors.
The Energiewende has made considerable progress in the period since Fukushima. Germany is now producing about one-quarter of its electricity from renewables. Between wind and solar power, Germany now has a capacity of 62 GW. On windy days like those around the Christmas holidays, Germany gets about 35-40% of its electricity just from the wind alone! The same is the case on a sunny summer’s day. During peak hours, half of electricity production is covered by solar power. That is quite an achievement.
But there are also many bumps in the road that are now the focus of the new government’s attention. One is the rising cost of supporting the development of renewable energy. This cost is born by households as well as small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the form of a feed-in-tariff (FIT) surcharge. Large, energy-intensive industries have been exempted from paying this surcharge. Five years ago the surcharge amounted to only 1 or 2 Euro cents per kilowatt hour. In 2013 it was 5.3 Euro cents per kilowatt hour and in 2014 it will again rise to 6.2 Euro cents per hour. Basically, what this means is that the FIT system will need to be reformed, which is also part of the new coalition’s plans. Now that renewable energy is more established in the market, the FIT levels will be gradually reduced and new design elements will be introduced (e.g. a market premium system). Eventually the FIT will be phased out as well. Note that this is a big difference from simply stopping the FIT overnight. Renewable energy technologies are being given additional time to become more market competitive. The coalition government has promised to put a plan on the table by April 2014.
A second issue is the development of new electricity grid infrastructure. The new government has made grid infrastructure development a major goal.
A third issue that will get more attention is energy efficiency, as this can help reduce overall costs of the energy transition. There is a need to almost double the rate of energy efficiency compared with the rate over the past two decades. This will be a major challenge and is one reason why the new coalition government is making the Environment Ministry responsible for building. Improvements in building energy efficiency will be crucial to the energy transition. The Ministry’s new name will thus be the Ministry for Environment, Nature Conservation, Building, and Reactor Safety (Barbara Hendricks assumed office as the new minister in December 2013).
Another significant change that will weaken the Environment Ministry but is aimed at improving the coordination between the development of renewables and other energy interests (such as the coal and gas plants that will continue to supply base load for some time to come) is the move of the renewable energy division out of the Environment Ministry to the Economics Ministry. The new ministry will be the Ministry of Economics and Energy and is to be headed by the powerful SPD politician, Sigmund Gabriel (formerly, the Environment Minister). This new ministry will be at the centre of energy transition.
With its Energiewende, Germany has embarked on a modern-day experiment of major proportions. In the next several decades, Germany is to shift from an energy structure that remains heavily dependent on fossil fuels to one that is primarily based on renewable energy. In 1990, only 3 percent of electricity was derived from renewable energy sources. In 2012, at least 22 percent came from wind, solar, hydro, geothermal and biomass sources. Far more progress will have to be made, however, if the Energiewende is to succeed.
Growth in capacity has been strong for biomass, wind and solar photovoltaic. This has led to the creation of an estimated 400,000 jobs. Approximately half of the renewable facilities are privately owned suggesting a strong grassroots interest in renewables. There are, additionally, over 140 communities that have established their own plans for becoming 100% renewable electricity regions. Already some smaller villages have achieved 100% renewable energy supplies, such as Feldheim, near Berlin; Effelter in northern Bavaria; or Kronprinzkoog, near the North Sea. A growing number of villages, cities and regions are joining the push to become energy self-sufficient.
An energy transformation will bring about many benefits in terms of reduced health costs and environmental damage as well as in terms of creating new markets and jobs. Still, there will be many public acceptance issues that need to be addressed. The expansion of wind parks, large solar installations, biomass facilities and electricity storage systems will affect many communities. A key issue will be obtaining acceptance for the high voltage electricity grid system that will be needed for transmitting electricity generated from renewables over long distances. Local opposition will have to be overcome to make such a grid system and related storage capacity realisable.
Movements opposing renewable energy infrastructure have at times blocked the development of wind parks, solar parks and biomass facilities. Many of these groups are not against renewable energy per se, but are opposed to large-scale infrastructure development in their backyards (NIMBY(*1)). Participatory decision-making processes will be central to any movements towards wider expansion of renewables. When communities benefit economically from the new investments and can have a say in where facilities are located, they are often more supportive of their development.
An energy transformation can only occur with broad public participation. There is much that communities, organisations and individuals can do to support the energy transition. Simple changes to our lifestyles can make a difference.
A deep energy transition also means thinking more seriously about what and how much we consume. Purchasing more energy efficient appliances and considering the energy and resource balance of products consumed makes sense. Buying foods and goods that are produced close to home may be less energy intensive than importing foods and goods from distant places.
Finally, it will be necessary to reexamine consumption-intensive lifestyles. At the bottom of our energy and resource-intensive societies is the issue of consumption. While there has been considerable progress in recycling, especially of paper, glass and metals, more needs to be done to recycle materials used in producing electronic goods (such as computers, cell phones, televisions), automobiles and buildings. More can be done to recycle kitchen waste for composting or for biogas production.
Beyond this, as societies we need to think more about where we invest. By investing more in education, health and environment we do more to improve the quality of people’s lives for this and future generations than by many other forms of investment.
Perspectives on Renewable Energy in the Asia Pacific Region
---What are your views on sustainable energy policy in the Asia Pacific Region?
In almost twenty years of researching and teaching about environmental policy and sustainable development, I have had the opportunity to see many parts of Asia. I have lived in Japan and had study and research visits to Australia, China, India, Republic of Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Viet Nam. The Asia Pacific is a region rich in culture and tradition and with tremendous biological diversity.
Yet it is a region that is also suffering from environmental degradation and pollution. Asia and the Pacific is confronted by many challenges that stem from the global and regional reliance on fossil fuels and nuclear energy. With its large number of island nations and countries with long coastlines and urban populations that are centered around coastal areas, the Asia Pacific region will be heavily impacted by climate change. While no single storm can be linked to climate change, the warning signs of what could lay ahead are all around. Low-lying Pacific Island states, like Tuvalu, and coastal states, like Bangladesh, are threatened by rising sea levels. Typhoon Haiyan, the largest storm in recorded history, destroyed large swaths of the Philippines. Heavy rains have caused mud slides that have buried homes and villages in China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Viet Nam, and many other nations.
While it is true that countries that industrialised earlier—in Europe, North America, as well as Japan—are responsible for the bulk of historical greenhouse gases, the reality is that it is the Asia Pacific region that will, in large part, determine whether a more sustainable global economic and energy structure can be achieved or not. While population trends are negative in Japan and the Republic of Korea and they are expected to peak in China around 2025 and in Thailand around 2035, population growth will continue for decades in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippines and Viet Nam. Demands for resources in the region will rise as population pressures increase.
The region also continues to experience rapid growth. While growth rates may have temporarily taken a bit of a downturn during the global economic recession, many countries in the Pacific Asia region are still growing despite the global economic downturn (India, Viet Nam, Malaysia and Indonesia all experienced growth rates in the 5% or 6% range and China close to 8% in 2012).
Because of Asia’s large population size, its rapid economic development, and its growing consumption of energy and other resources, the energy and resource policy choices that Asia makes now will have global ramifications. As consumption levels increase in Asia, resource demands will grow and waste problems will intensify.
While rapid economic development has greatly improved the living standards of millions in the Pacific Asian region, it has also brought with it many problems. Many of Asia’s cities and industrial areas are suffering from a heavy reliance on coal for cooking, heating and industrial activities.
Traffic congestion is exacerbating the problem of urban air pollution. For those with weak lungs—children, the elderly and the sick—Asia’s cities are becoming dangerous places to live. In Europe, young people are no longer so eager to get their own cars. Life style changes may be necessary in Asia as well.
I was recently in Calcutta, India. It’s a city with a long history and traditions, and we had the pleasure of visiting the Dakshiniswar Kali temple. The city is however struggling to address its huge population and pollution problems. Water and air pollution are severe, and waste accumulates everywhere. New paths to development must be found if the people of Asia’s many megacities are to lead decent lives.
Nuclear energy has been pursued as a cleaner and cheaper form of energy in many parts of Asia. Yet, there are still no good solutions to medium and high-level radioactive nuclear waste management in Asia. Thus, nuclear waste remains in temporary storage facilities. The Fukushima nuclear accident has also shown the high costs that can result when an accident occurs. There are over 100,000 evacuees from the Fukushima region who question whether they will ever be able to return to normal lives in their former villages. Nuclear energy is moreover too expensive to be a realistic option for the region.
It is becoming increasingly hard for policy makers to ignore the environmental and health damages of the energy paths taken by countries in the Asia Pacific. The costs of not doing more to develop sustainable energy alternatives is coming at a high cost to Asian Pacific populations.
The Pacific Asian region has good reasons to work to become a global leader in the development of sustainable energy structures. Fortunately, there are many signs of growing interest in developing more sustainable energy futures. As a result of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japan has become a world leader in energy-saving measures. Many SMEs, like Teisuke Suzuki’s Suzuhiro Kamaboko Co., found ways to produce their goods more efficiently, cutting down on energy needs and resource inputs.
China is also taking major steps to enhance energy efficiency and reduce pollution. Some of the worst polluting factories have simply been shut down. Others have been relocated. Yet others are being modernised—re-equipped with pollution control devices. Significantly, China is also investing heavily in renewable energy (along with just about every other kind of energy). China and Japan have been two of the top five investors in renewable energy capacity since the Fukushima nuclear accident.
What I find particularly exciting are all of the efforts that are visible at the local and urban levels. There are small biomass generators in rural communities in India, electric bicycles are taking over the streets in China, solar photovoltaics are now visible on houses all across Japan, and in the Kampungs of Indonesia, women are recycling household garbage to reduce waste and are upcycling to produce products out of that waste for sale. For Asia, there really is no other reasonable choice than to pursue green economic development and more sustainable energy paths.
---Thank you very much.
- *1: NIMBY: Not In My Back Yard
- *** Pictures taken by Lutz Mez
About "Monthly Asian Focus: Observations on Sustainability"
Until 2010, IGES released "Top News on the Environment in Asia" on a yearly basis. For over 12 years since its establishment of IGES in 1998, "Top News" collected and organised information about environmental issues and policy trends in the region.
In January 2011, IGES launched the new web-based series "Monthly Asian Focus: Observations on Sustainability" in which leading environmental experts deliver their take on latest trends of sustainable Asia.