The luxury bench-warmer
Back in October 2022, I talked to Dr. Harald Schwarz, a professor of engineering at Brandenburg Technical University who has dedicated his career to researching Germany’s electricity grid.
He told me that current German energy policies were making the country ever more vulnerable to a weather phenomenon called a Dunkelflaute, a period in winter when it is both overcast and there is no wind.
Basically, the more that an electricity grid relies on renewables, the more important this weather phenomenon becomes. If you have a period of high demand for electricity but the wind isn’t blowing and it’s dark, you need a backup power system that can jump in to keep the grid stable.
That system needs to be able to supply power on demand and in the right place. In other words it needs to be based on a storable fuel such as coal, gas or (more recently) hydrogen.
With the German government targeting 2030 as the year in which renewables make up 80 percent of the power mix - and also the year in which lumps of coal are thrown into the furnace of a power station for the last time - the race is on to build a back-up supply more or less from scratch.
Depending on who you listen to, Germany needs to build power plants with a total capacity of between 25GW and 40GW. That is the equivalent of 25 to 40 nuclear reactors. Put another way, it’s a monumental undertaking.
The problem is that energy companies are reluctant to build these power stations, since they say they can’t make their money back on infrastructure that will only be needed when there is an undersupply of wind.
Energy suppliers are refusing to build unless the government gives them Planungssicherheit - i.e. funds them with massive subsidies.
Economy minister Robert Habeck (Greens) has been promising for close to a year that the ink is almost dry on his masterplan: the Kraftwerkstrategie. First it was supposed to arrive in the summer… then in the autumn… then in January.
But, still we are waiting…