Thursday, September 19, 2013

The environmental and economic costs of a big renewable energy push

It is an audacious undertaking with wide and deep support in Germany: shut down the nation’s nuclear power plants, wean the country from coal and promote a wholesale shift to renewable energy sources.

But the plan, backed by Chancellor Angela Merkel and opposition parties alike, is running into problems in execution that are forcing Germans to come face to face with the costs and complexities of sticking to their principles.

German families are being hit by rapidly increasing electricity rates, to the point where growing numbers of them can no longer afford to pay the bill. Businesses are more and more worried that their energy costs will put them at a disadvantage to competitors in nations with lower energy costs, and some energy-intensive industries have begun to shun the country because they fear steeper costs ahead.

Newly constructed offshore wind farms churn unconnected to an energy grid still in need of expansion. And despite all the costs, carbon emissions actually rose last year as reserve coal-burning plants were fired up to close gaps in energy supplies. ...

The cost of the plan is expected to be about $735 billion, according to government estimates, and may eventually surpass even that of the euro zone bailouts that have received far more attention during Ms. Merkel’s tenure. ...

One of the first obstacles encountered involves the vagaries of electrical power generation that is dependent on sources as inconsistent and unpredictable as the wind and the sun.

And no one has invented a means of storing that energy for very long, which means overwhelming gluts on some days and crippling shortages on others that require firing up old oil- and coal-burning power plants. That, in turn, undercuts the goal of reducing fossil-fuel emissions that have been linked to climate change.
--Melissa Eddy and Stanley Reed, NYT, on the problems with renewal energy