Wednesday, 9 July 2014

German Success...?

A big week for Germany in the news. And no, I'm not talking about 7 - 1!

New rules for hydraulic fracturing have been announced in Germany. This has been widely reported as "Germany bans fracking", but the devil may be in the detail - indeed some groups opposed to fracking have referred to it as a "fracking enabling law". This is because it appears that fracking will be allowed at depths below 3,000m, and "where drinking water is not in danger". It is not clear whether this means in areas where no potable groundwater is present, and/or "if the liquid being used cannot contaminate water".

The laws are due to be further discussed in the Autumn, where hopefully some of these ambiguities will be addressed.

Fracking is not new to Germany. Most of Germany's existing natural gas production, from Lower Saxony in the north of the country, requires hydraulic stimulation to be economic. These are not shale rocks, but "tight sandstones", with low permeability requiring fracturing to improve flow rates. The figure below shows the number of frack-jobs performed in Germany over the last few decades.

It's not clear whether the proposed ban would include these existing reservoirs.

There's a wider point to be addressed here. I'm often told that we should follow Germany's example in terms of energy policy. Germany's "energiewende" policy has promoted renewable energy sources extensively, resulting in something of a boom for this technology. Indeed, in recent weeks breathless reports announced that Germany had produced 50% of it's electricity needs from solar.

These headlines need some context - this was 50% of electricity over a short period on a summer day that, being a public holiday, saw particularly low demand. Also, electricity only represents part of our total energy consumption profile - we also use energy for transport, domestic heating and cooking, and in industry. In my opinion, the efforts made by Germany in this regard are deserving of praise. However, the additional costs have had an impact on domestic energy prices:

As always, we must keep the bigger picture in mind. The BP Statistical Review of World Energy provides a more sober analysis. Considering total energy consumption, renewable energy sources only provided 10% of Germany's total energy consumption in 2013. That still compares very favourably with the 3.9% we managed in the UK last year.

Ultimately, the reason we develop renewable energy sources is to reduce our CO2 emissions. How do Germany and the UK compare in terms of CO2 emissions? In 2012, Germany produced 810,000kT of CO2, while the UK produced only 490,000kT. Of course, this isn't a fair comparison, because there are more Germans than British. However, even when you take per capita emissions, in 2012 Germany produced 9.7 tonnes per person, while the UK produced 7.7 tonnes per person. It still might be an unfair comparison, because the German economy is generally considered to be stronger than ours. However, even when you consider emissions per unit GDP, the Germans were only able to produce $3,621 of GDP for each tonne of CO2 emitted, while the UK managed to produce $4,284 of GDP for each tonne of CO2.

Given that we in the UK get our energy cheaper than in Germany, and yet produce fewer CO2 emissions, I really don't know why it is that we are so keen to emulate the Germans (their football team excepted, of course).

How can it be that Germany produces more than double the amount of electricity from renewables than we do, and yet have higher CO2 emissions. The clue is in how energy is generated when the sun isn't shining. The picture below gives a clue.

This is an open cast lignite mine. They are big enough to spot easily on google maps, and the machines used in the mining are some of the largest vehicles ever made. Whole villages are being forcibly moved to allow the mines to expand. What is more, the fuel they produce, lignite, is one of the dirtiest burning fuels available. So why does the UK have lower CO2 emissions? Because we burn more natural gas in our mix compared to the Germans, and the CO2 reduction provided by a significant switch from coal to gas exceeds that provided by a small increase in renewable energy.

In conclusion, I find the current situation in Germany to be a little crazy. You can strip-mine your way across the country-side, forcibly moving whole villages, to produce the most CO2-intensive fuel possible. Yet if you want to drill a 6-inch hole in the ground to a depth of 2km, using about a football-pitch-worth of land, and pump some water down said hole for a few hours, to produce a fuel that is the least CO2-intensive of all the fossil fuels? A technique that has been used in some form in Germany for decades? Well, that is not allowed. The mind boggles, as my father would say.

I'd still trade it all for their football team though...


  1. Per capita emissions are higher in Germany than in the UK, but still half of what they are in the US, which is over 17 tonnes per person.


    1. This is true. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the average American uses a lot more energy than a European. This demonstrates the importance of energy-efficiency, often the elephant in the room when everyone is debating energy policy, because in theory it is the easiest way to rminimise the various negative impacts of energy production/generation.

      However, it is proving a difficult elephant to shift. There is already have a financial incentive to use less energy. Yet most people aren't making significant cuts to our energy use. I'm not sure what policies we can use to reduce consumption.

      The second factor is that, despite the inroads made by shale gas, a significant portion of electricity generation in the USA is still from coal.

  2. In the UK more electricity is still generated by coal than natural gas (2013 35% coal v 27% gas). Share of coal is higher in Germany, at 45% of generation last year, but in 1990s was as high as 57% (and by 2010 had dropped to 41%). Overall, coal consumption in Germany is lower than than what it was over a decade ago. Also, electricity generation is not the only source of emissions. To compare emissions performance between countries you need to take into account emissions generated by all sectors, including transport and industry.

    1. Agreed that it is good that the amount of coal generation has come down since the 1990s, but it's still far too high. And it's also still far too high in the UK as well. I accept that the above is an overly simplistic picture of a more complex situation. I'm just a little tired of being told we need to follow Germany's example (except when it comes to football…).

      Yet there has to be something very broken with German policy-making if drilling a 6-inch hole into the ground and pumping water down it for 2 hours, to produce the lowest CO2-intensity fossil fuel, is banned, but strip-mining your way across miles of countryside, displacing whole villages from your path, to produce the highest CO2-intensity fuel, is allowed.

      I'm aware that "Green" groups are opposed to coal. However, they seem to be putting a lot more energy and effort into opposing natural gas than they are coal, which seems incongruous to me.

  3. It doesn't add up...10 July 2014 at 16:35

    The German Energiewende is in trouble in many different ways. Solar power is produced when it is unwanted - and much of it is actually dumped on neighbouring countries (you can't turn off solar panels unless you want large scale fires) at knock-down (sometimes even negative) prices. Some of them find the power surges so disruptive to their own grids that they've threatened to cut the Germans off from being able to export at all. Similar things happen with the wind power, which is exported to the Nordic countries at times of surplus, and used to pump water back into hydro reservoirs. The national grid remains inadequate to transport wind power from the North to the industrial South. There's a €37bn project to improve it - only needed because of the wind farms. Overall net power exports are about equivalent to solar output. The consequences on other plants are that they must operate inefficiently, because renewables output has grid priority. Some of the utilities are close to bankruptcy because it is their power that is being deemed as dumped abroad, along with the inefficiencies of ramping up and down as wind and solar output varies. The high proportion of renewables also causes considerable problems with maintaining grid stability. Windmills are a reactive load as seen by a regular power station. This causes problems maintaining grid frequency and phase. The resulting blips can be very damaging for industrial processes. Industry has stayed so far because their power is subsidised - but the EU is questioning those subsidies.

    Der Spiegel did a nice exposé of the issues in this article (in English)

    (read all three pages)

    €100bn in solar subsidies and counting...

  4. Granted Germany played very well against a poor Brazil side, but one result does not make a brilliant team. Although we did not get good results the English team are not far behind and could achieve better results with a few changes and a bit of good luck. As far as energy is concerned I agree, we should not in any way try and emulate Germany. Their decision to close down their nuclear plants was very unsound. They seem to be all over the place. The fracking ban is very silly. Let's be honest we simply don't know if increasing CO2 is a problem, so the whole futile attempt to replace fossil fuels is madness. We all need plentiful cheap energy and a good mix of coal, gas and nuclear is the best answer.

  5. It doesn't add up...16 July 2014 at 08:17

    The BBC has an anti-fracking propaganda page here:

    Vivienne Westwood is deemed to be a suitable expert.

  6. It just goes to show that the hash tag I use on twitter is very true - #GreeniesAreStupid