Energy Watch Group – Newsletter 3 – 2024

German municipal utilities are key to the success of climate action. They often operate the local natural gas network, power grid and district heating – all of which need to be transformed and adjusted significantly to achieve CO2-free electricity, heat and mobility.

If municipal utilities push ahead with this transformation and adjustment, climate action is accelerated. If municipal utilities slow walk these changes – as is still the case too often – climate action is slowed down as well. This is not just due to inertia. There are some real obstacles for municipal utilities and municipal governments that need to be resolved: lack of investment capital, vanishing natural gas profits and new business models for which these utilities are not yet sufficiently equipped.

Regarding the lack of capital for investment: municipal utilities need to

  • hook up PV and wind plants to the grid and simultaneously adapt the network to increased electricity consumption by heat pumps, electric cars and process heat in industry.
  • decarbonize district heating and expand the capacity and length of its network in implementation of municipal heat plans due to be completed by 2026 or 2028.

There are varying estimates, how much investment that will require in total. But GEODE, a EU-wide federation of local heat and electricity network operators, estimates that district heating alone will require some 400 billion € investment by German municipal utilities. Due to their overall high debt level, many utilities will have difficulties securing loans for that much investment.

Regarding vanishing natural gas profits: the natural gas service is the main profit pool for many municipal utilities, often providing a significant part of the municipal subsidies for a city’s public transport and swimming pools. As the German Secretary of Commerce and Prof. Dr. Claudia Kemfert, the chair of the EWG scientific board,  say: it will hardly be replaced by green hydrogen. As no other similar profit pool is in sight as of yet, municipal utilities show some reluctance to aggressively reduce natural gas consumption by pushing district heating or heat pumps for building heating.

Regarding new business models, there is a broad spectrum of options available to municipal utilities (some of these can at least partially replace the current natural gas profits). Examples are: generate low cost renewable electricity for local resale, provide joint electricity storage for roof-top-PV owners, and leasing heat pumps. But municipal utilities largely lack the coherent strategy, know-how and entrepreneurial culture necessary to implement these new options profitably and at scale.

A national discussion has begun on how to overcome these obstacles, so that municipal utilities can and will make faster and stronger contributions to climate action in their communities. At the Handelsblatt Jahrestagung „Stadtwerke“ on April 9th and 10th in Berlin, many of the solutions that are currently being developed and tested throughout Germany will be presented and discussed. The Energy Watch Group will contribute solutions to this discussion.

Reality check for global hydrogen hype

The great attraction of green hydrogen has been and is that it can be used to gene­rate CO2-free electricity when needed to compensate for variation in wind and solar power generation – and that it can be used to maintain combustion as a source for industrial heat, building heat and vehicle propulsion. That is why green hydrogen has been seen as a key part of the renewable energy future for the past 30 years and subsidized to the tune of hundreds of billions USD.

But so far, green hydrogen has not delivered on the hype. The recent Global Hydro­gen Review 2023 of the International Energy Agency shows that demand for green hydrogen still hovers at less than 1% of total hydrogen demand and 0,004% of global energy use. Wind power alone generated more than 800 times that much energy.

The main reason is that so far and for the foreseeable future there is no business case for green hydrogen, where electric or biogas alternatives exist. The World Energy Council currently sees the levelized cost of producing renewable hydrogen at an average of 3,50 USD per kg or 0,35 USD/kWh (hydrogen-derived efuels will necessarily be even more expensive). That is some 10x more than the current cost of wind and solar power of 0,03-0,04 USD/kWh. In addition to this gap in energy costs, most vehicle and other technology for hydrogen use is significantly more expensive to buy and operate than equipment for using electricity or biogas.

This lack of good business cases is illustrated by some snap shots of the industry:

In other words, it is time to scale the scenarios down to where green hydrogen is and could remain without alternatives as governments are beginning to realize:

  • contribution to longer term storage of wind and solar power
  • selected industrial processes and perhaps – as efuel – in aviation

This reduces the amount of pipelines and other infrastructure needed for green hydrogen and allows both private investors and governments to focus on competitive applications instead of generating expensive stranded assets.

This first news­letter in 2024 summarizes our view on the global and German path­ways to achieve zero greenhouse gas emissions (“zero emissions”) and cool the planet back down – and where we intend to focus our work in 2024. The Energy Watch Group (EWG) has now expanded its capabilities and independence by evolving into its own non-profit legal entity.

The EWG is a non-profit climate change think tank and network: we accelerate action by

  • developing suitable goals, effective options and prag­matic policy recom­mendations at the global, national and local level and
  • engaging in dialog with decision-makers and the media on that basis.

Global news

The word is speeding towards the 1.5 oC threshold on a so far unchecked path: 2023 was the hottest year on record: 1.48 oC  warmer than the pre-industrial average. Even the five year average – which levels out the current El Niño effect – puts us at 1.25 oC above the pre-industrial average. Further warming is being fueled by GHG emis­sions that are at a historic high. The lukewarm COP 28 commitment to “transi­tion away” from fossil fuels have not raised the chances of a significant decline.

The good news is that renewables are now broadly recognized to not only be climate friend­ly but also the cheapest energy available to mankind (in transportation combined with electric vehicles and in building heating combined with heat pumps). That has great­­­ly expanded the demand for and supply of renewable energies. Their growth is expo­­­nential and has con­sistently outpaced pro­jec­t­­ions. Wind and PV each added some 50% more capacity in 2023 than 2022: if this exponential growth rate is maintained, sta­ying within 2.0 oC global warming may yet be in reach. And contrary to expectations, pro­duction capacities for renewable energy technologies do not appear to be a limiting factor for the foreseeable future.

Now, the urgent course of action is to maintain this exponential growth rate until “zero” CO2 emissions have been achieved. The robust, feasible and macro­econo­mically pro­fi­ta­ble paths to get there are already availa­ble. Prof. Dr. Mark Z. Jacobson, member auf die EWG Scientist Network, shows that impressively in his new book “No Miracles Needed”.

The key challenges to main­tai­n this exponential growth rate are:

  • make the feasibility and profitability of the net zero path common knowledge that politics und media disseminate and affirm in their communication,
  • trans­la­te more of net zero’s financial advantages to society into financial advantages for citizens and businesses making the key investment and purchasing deci­sions – so as to turbocharge the market “pull” towards net zero,
  • avoid social unrest with the transformation, by compensating any relevant addi­­tio­nal costs to the comparatively poor and by offsetting job losses in one sector with job creation in other sectors within each country,
  • maintain and build a strong domestic industrial base in renewable energy technolo­gies while utilizing the significant Chinese production capacity in these sectors,
  • remove a myriad of regulations designed to keep the national energy systems locked into fossil fuels and utilities with large central power plants,
  • and, last not least, stop subsidies for fossil fuels (another 1-7 trillion USD or 1-7 US-cents/kWh in 2022) as well as investment in fossil fuels (1 trillion USD in 2023).

Achieving “zero emissions” prevents further heating of the earth but does not cool it down for centuries. Since global warming will exceed 1,5 oC and beyond, significant and long-term damages to nature, human health, economic welfare and national secu­rity will result.  So, the other urgent course of action is to remove CO2 from the atmos­phere and cool the earth back down.  The CCS technologies currently under discussion are ex­pensive and unpro­ven at the necessary scale of capturing hundreds of giga-tons of CO2. We need more robust and affordable solutions to drive down CO2. Prof. Dr. Christian Bre­yer, Chair of the EWG Scientific Board, has championed research in this field.
Once these have been identified, deployment will require a robust funding mecha­nism, most likely within a framework of international agreements similar to the Paris treaty.

German news

In Germany, the wind- and PV capacity added in 2023 was 75% (!) more than in 2022. and 50% of the electricity generated in 2023 was renewable. To a significant degree, this development is thanks to the actions taken by the governing coalition (greens/social demo­crats/liberals) – and in spite of the broader criticism it is encountering.

Now, the most urgent course of action in Germany is also to maintain an annual growth of installed capacity by more than 50% and therefore reach zero emis­sions well before the mid-2030s. The key challenges to maintaining this exponential growth in Germany are similar to those on the global level, e.g.  

  • the political and media narratives hardly reflect how feasible and economical the path to zero emissions can be made. Once claims have been broadly accepted, they are rarely questioned, even if they no longer hold true (e.g. that green hydrogen and e-fuels predominantly need to be imported), limiting the range and effectiveness of options considered. And, measures are often discussed emotionally but with incom­plete or incorrect facts. For the building energy law passed in 2023, that significantly eroded both its CO2-impact and the broader social consensus on climate action.
  • the German government subsidizes oil, gas and coal with at least 30 billion Euro per year.  The government’s 2023 revenues from emissions trading (ETS and BEHG ) were a good 15 billion Euro. In other words, the government’s fossil subsidies provide twice as much incentive to consume fossil fuels as emissions trading incentivizes reducing fossil fuel consumption.
  • neither federal and state governments nor the main political parties have a cli­mate action plan to reach zero emissions that is fully calculated and validated in its techni­cal, emissions and financial effects (investments and annual costs/revenues of citi­zens, businesses and government). That kind of plan is necessary for broad support of climate action. Its measures should be designed to generate strong financial incen­­tives to act, be socially fair, fiscally responsible, easy to understand and streng­then both economy and international competitiveness.

Items on the 2024 agenda of the federal government and parliament currently include:

  • Power plant strategy („Kraftwerksstrategie“) – It will be important not to achieve a flexible response to fluctuating wind and PV generation solely by building expensive centralized natural gas or green hydrogen power plants but to draw from the most cost effective mix of sources for balancing electric demand and supply („tech­no­lo­gie­­offen“), incl. other energy sources such as water and local biogas, energy sto­rage and demand side management step by step. The power plant strategy should include the necessary changes in electricity market design, to generate the incentives and supply for this best mix of flexibility sources.
  • Solar package („Solarpaket“) – further simplification of planning and permitting of wind and PV generation
  • Resilience – develop and enact mechanisms to maintain and build sufficient natio­nal and EU production capacity for renewable energy technologies such as wind mills, PV panels, energy storage, electric vehicles and heat etc. for a good degree of independence from China and other suppliers.

Since we will already are heading towards a world that is 2.0 oC above preindustrial levels, it is important to stop engaging in bridging technologies („Brückentechnologien“) – such as replacing coal with natural gas – but invest our time, money and political capital to directly go into CO2-frei solutions. Prof. Dr. Claudia Kemfert, Chair of the EWG Scientific Board, has shown that building stationary LNG-Terminals would lock Germany into an expensive LNG-supply above and beyond likely demand for 1-2 decades.

There are further challenges on the local level: federal and state government create a framework with regulations and financial support. However, implementation of „zero emissions“ largely happens at the municipal and county level and is often held up by a variety of factors. These range from limited staff and know-how in local government for planning and permitting renewable energy solutions to imminent losses municipal utilities and budgets will encounter with the historically profitable but now strongly shrinking gas consumption. To achieve exponential growth of CO2-free electricity, heat and mobility in and with municipalities, solutions to these challenges need to be developed and disseminated now.

Energy Watch Group

Based on this global and national outlook on climate action, we expect to focus our work in 2024 on:

Zero Emission

  • Develop „zero emission“ roadmaps for countries, states and cities that are economi­cally attractive, socially just and fiscally responsible as well as easy enough to under­stand and implement.
  • Engage in the political and media narrative on climate action with intuitive and well researched material, that shows how economic and feasible exponential growth of renewable electricity, heat and mobility and reaching “zero emissions” is. This inclu­des key data, that is currently not reported or misreported.
  • Support implementation of „zero emissions“ at the city and county level
  • Develop and disseminate other solutions to obstacles on the „zero emissions“ path (e.g. resilient supply chains) and items on the political and government agenda (e.g. power plant strategy)

Cooling the earth back down

  • Develop technically and economically feasible and scalable solutions for cooling the earth back down and achieving the historic CO2-concentration of 350 pm or less.
  • Derive meaningful zero emission and carbon capturing targets.

Our organizational set up
While continuing our work as the think tank and network “Energy Watch Group” in 2023, we made an organizational adjustment by creating our own non-profit legal entity and transitioned our work into this new framework. This makes EWG more effective by increasing control over reve­nues and expenses. The name of the legal entity is „EWG Energy Watch gUG” (due to German law on legal entity names we could not call it „Energy Watch Group gUG”). This name will only appear when acting as legal entity (e.g. contracts, bank account, receipts for donations). Hans-Josef Fell is and remains presi­dent of the Energy Watch Group. Dr. Hartmut Fischer is managing director of the EWG Energy Watch gUG. Felix Rodenjohann is the other shareholder.

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