A chilly reception

It’s late April 2023 and I’m shivering slightly as I sit in my sister’s house in northwestern Germany, while she laments the very rainy and unseasonably cold spring. My reception on this first visit since early 2019 is chilly, if only literally. My sister’s longing for warmer temperatures after a long winter is understandable, but the delayed arrival of warm weather has also significantly affected her home comfort. That’s because her furnace broke during the winter.

Photo by Ankhesenamun on Unsplash

Now, you might ask, why didn’t she just get her furnace fixed? As it happens, her furnace broke while Germany is having an energy crisis. On April 15, just over a week before my arrival, Germany had shut down the last three of its nuclear reactors, following a decision taken in 2011 to phase out nuclear power by 2022 (there was an extension to April 15 of this year). For decades, nuclear power provided about 20% or more of Germany’s energy; in 2022, this had fallen to just over 3%. Before its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Russia had provided just over half of Germany’s natural gas, which constitutes about a quarter of Germany’s energy consumption. After the invasion, Germany reduced its imports from Russia to 25% of the total, obtaining dry natural gas from Norway and the Netherlands, and importing liquified natural gas (LNG) from the US and Qatar.

On top of these upheavals, Germany is aiming to be carbon neutral by 2045 and is ramping up the production of electricity from wind, solar and biomass. By 2030, it hopes to have 80% of its electricity supplied by renewable energy, up from under 50% today. This in itself will be a challenge, but only about 40% of Germany’s primary energy is used for electricity. For carbon neutrality, it will have to electrify other sectors, such as heating and transportation, that still rely heavily on fossil fuels and doing so will also have environmental impacts in addition to being very expensive.

Germany’s energy plans have led to higher energy prices, uncertainty and anxiety among consumers, a tripling in the price of construction materials, and turmoil in parliament.

Energy security and carbon targets

Germany relies heavily on imports to meet its energy needs. In 2021, coal (~17.1%), dry natural gas (~26.5%), and petroleum and other liquids (~34.8), constituted 78.4% of total energy consumption. For these three categories, the percentage that was imported was 47%, >95%, and >98%, respectively. While “nuclear, renewable, & other” constituted just 21.6% of energy consumed, it was only in this category (essentially for the generation of electricity) that Germany was able to supply all of the energy it consumed. Overall, 67% of the energy consumed by Germany in 2021 was imported.

If you do an online search for what percentage of Germany’s energy consumption is from renewables, most of the articles that pop up near the top will tell you that about half of Germany’s power is supplied by renewables. But power is not the same as energy. Power refers to the use of electricity. And electricity is generated by sources of energy, be they renewables such as wind, solar, and hydro, or fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas, and coal. In Germany (and elsewhere), fossil fuels remain the primary source of energy for heating, transportation, and agriculture.

The following graphic of Germany’s energy mix in 2022 shows that getting 80% of its electricity from renewables by 2030 and becoming carbon neutral by 2045 will be no mean feat, if it is even possible. If use of electricity were to remain at current levels, it would have to increase the production of energy from renewables by about 60%. (Since over half of electricity is now generated from fossil fuels, the additional 30% needed to go from renewables supplying ~50% of electricity to 80% would require renewables replacing fossil fuels for 30% of electricity use). However, going carbon neutral by 2045 would mean that many sectors which are now primarily dependent on fossil fuels would have to become powered by electricity. These sectors include heating homes, transportation, and agriculture.

What policies will be implemented as Germany strives to meet those lofty targets and how will they impact German citizens and residents?

Source: Clean Energy Wire,18 April 2023

How much will that cost, again?

Which brings us back to my sister in her chilly house with the broken gas furnace. Until recently, she had been paying 310 euros per month for gas, water, and electricity combined. At the end of the year, there would be an adjustment where she would pay for consumption in excess of what had been calculated or receive a refund if she had consumed less. Now, she was told, it would cost her 500 euros per month just for gas. One euro is about 1.45 Canadian dollars, so 500 euros comes to about $725 CAD. That is a pretty hefty sum to pay each month, and there would be electricity and water bills on top of that. So, seeing springtime on the horizon (little knowing how recalcitrant the weather would be), my sister decided to tough it out for the rest of the winter, heating local rooms where she slept and worked with space heaters, but leaving most of the house in a sweater-worthy state.

Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich

The combination of precarious energy supplies and Germany’s hardcore attitude about reaching net zero has resulted in skyrocketing gas prices. About half of Germany’s 41 million households use natural gas to heat their homes, and almost a quarter use oil. But Germany plans to ban the installation of most oil and gas heating as of 2024 (i.e., almost immediately) and require all newly installed heating systems to run on 65% renewable energy in new as well as old buildings, where defunct models would need to be replaced. Homeowners would be encouraged to install heat pumps to run on renewable sources of energy.

There will be challenges in making renewable energy sources more available and finding the workers to implement them. Heat pumps are unsuitable for many older types of homes. The scheme is expected to cost German taxpayers about 9.16 billion euros a year until 2028, decreasing to 5 billion euros in 2029 as costs become offset by renewable energy expansion and a reduction in the cost of heat pumps with mass production. The Association of Local Utilities which governs municipal infrastructure is urging the government to extend the transition period. A poll by the Forsa Institute showed that 78% of Germans were against the plan and 62% expected their heating bills to increase.

The bill to implement this energy policy was to come before parliament in June. It is championed by economics minister Robert Habeck of the Greens and various environmental groups, but critics call it unworkable and discriminatory. It is opposed by the FDP (Free Democratic Party) and the CDU (Christian Democratic Union) parties. The FDP has insisted on delaying a parliamentary discussion and the legislation will not be adopted before the July-August recess as planned.

The fate of my sister’s furnace remains in limbo. Will older but still functional gas furnaces like hers be allowed to continue to operate, or will the German government phase them out with more stringent measures as Net Zero Day approaches? No point fixing something that will soon be on the chopping block. On the bright side, the warm weather has arrived, and she can enjoy working in her garden as she awaits the government’s decision.

Did I just experience an omen of collapse?

It occurred to me, as I sat in my sister’s cold house, that collapse probably won’t happen all at once. It could be more like a long-drawn-out whimper than a bang. Myriad crises, conflicts, hardships and annoyances will present themselves at different times with varying degrees of severity in different parts of the world. I’m among those who think that we’re at some stage of collapse right now. Things could progress slowly until some tipping point is reached, which might only be identified in hindsight. Compared to what the future could bring, a chilly house might hardly be worth mentioning. An annoyance – perhaps a major one – but not a crisis. At least not yet.

How realistic is the idea that our heavily fossil fuel-dependent techno-industrial society can be carbon-neutral in 22 years? And will the “cure” of getting there be worse than the “disease” of emissions? The energy mix chart above shows that in 2022 Germany got 79% of its energy from fossil fuels (oil 35.2%, natural gas 23.8%, hard coal 9.8%, lignite 10.0%) and an additional 3% from now-terminated nuclear power. Germany’s haste to abandon fossil fuels seems a bit like a slow-motion version of Sri Lanka’s ban of nitrogen fertilizer a few years ago. That didn’t go well.

Photo by Timusic Photographs on Unsplash

Wind and solar, allegedly green energy sources, require environmentally disruptive mining and processing of components and the manufacturing of the final product, all of which require fossil fuels. Solar panels take up a lot of space and wind turbines kill birds, bats and insects. Constructing the foundations for turbines in the ocean endangers whales and other marine life and the impact of turbines on seabirds will be difficult to assess. And to date, these renewable energy sources don’t come close to meeting energy requirements.

Does anyone actually have a coherent strategy?

Gerrit Niehaus, the official in charge of nuclear safety at the German Environment Ministry, was asked by a reporter to sum up in one sentence what lessons could be learned from the country’s atomic era. “You need to think things through to the end,” he replied.

Such excellent advice and so rarely followed!

As working people (not just in Germany) are being hammered by rising energy prices, as well as rising prices of everything else (because everything depends on energy), growth is still the paradigm under which economic decisions are made in the industrialized world.

In 2021, Canada committed to net-zero emissions by 2050, even as it ramped up an already high level of immigration to stratospheric levels, such that one million people arrived in 2022. Canada’s growth rate is unmatched by any developed country, and it has even overtaken Africa’s rate of population growth.

Thanks to this immigration policy, Canada passed the population milestone of 40 million people on June 16. But every one of the newcomers to Canada, like every person already residing in the country, is a greenhouse gas emitter. Most new Canadians arrive from warmer climates and on average increase their greenhouse gas emissions by a factor of four by coming here.

The federal decision-makers developing carbon neutrality policies seem incapable of understanding that rapidly increasing the population through immigration while waging war on carbon emissions is self-contradictory. (Which should raise the question of who is profiting from this policy.) Municipalities are embracing 15-minute cities and zoning that allows for much denser housing with much less parking. All for the good of the planet of course. But has anyone asked how all this growth is good for the people that politicians allegedly serve?

As long as politicians make their decisions under the paradigm of forever-growth, the resulting policies will often be arbitrary and unrealistic. But the consequences of those policies will deeply affect the quality of life of the people they allegedly represent. Fortunately for our decision-makers, they are protected through their income, guaranteed indexed pension, and often a cushion of wealth from the consequences of their own decisions.

It seems that absolutely no one in charge of anything is heeding Gerrit Niehaus’ advice: “You need to think things through to the end.”

Photo by cottonbro studio

Madeline Weld, Ph.D.
President, Population Institute Canada
Tel: (613) 833-3668
Email: [email protected]

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