In 2017, German energy consumption increased by one per cent, but on balance CO2 emissions fell slightly – thanks to the energy sector. As the future is electric, grids in particular will face new demands.
The German Association of Energy and Water Industries (BDEW) crunched the numbers and found that an enormous 654.2 billion kilowatt hours of electricity was generated in Germany last year. At 22 per cent, the largest share of this was produced using lignite, followed by onshore and offshore wind at 16.8 per cent and hard coal at 13.6 per cent. Natural gas was the source of 13.5 per cent of generation. Along with nuclear energy, biomass, photovoltaic and hydroelectric power, these were the sources of electricity that kept the lights on, ran the machines and powered the trains throughout the Federal Republic.
As the economy was humming along in 2017 again and the country’s population grew as well, energy consumption increased by one per cent. Generally speaking, consumption has not fallen significantly since the early 1990s. “More and more energy is being used efficiently and conserved, but economic growth and increases in consumption are preventing a significant decline in demand,” according to Germany’s Federal Environment Agency (UBA).
What was surprising last year was that CO2 emissions did not rise, despite the small increase in energy consumption. On the contrary: emissions amounted to 904.7 tonnes and were thus almost five million metric tons lower than the figure for 2016. This was mainly due to electricity production. Although emissions in the energy sector fell sharply, increases were registered in transportation (+2.3 per cent) and industry (+2.5 per cent).
The wind was the biggest factor behind the improvement in Germany’s climate balance. Thanks to intensive investment, feed-ins from wind farms rose by a hefty one third. In turn, less hard coal was used to generate electricity. Additionally, hard coal-fired power plants with a total capacity of more than three gigawatts were shut down or transferred to stand-by operation last year. As a result, emissions from the energy industry declined by just over four per cent on balance. In 2017, renewables accounted for a 13.1 per cent share of total energy production. And if one looks only at electricity generation, their share already amounts to 36.4 per cent.
Right now, Germany’s power grid is still able to handle the massive shift in electricity generation away from fossil fuels towards renewables without any major problems. It continues to operate very reliably. This was reflected by the low annual outage time of just 11.5 minutes per electricity customer. The figure for 2016 was the lowest one recorded in the last ten years (newer data are not yet available).
A lot of hard work goes into this. Grid usage is becoming increasingly dynamic, due to the volatility of wind and solar power generation. Conventional power plants and ever larger energy storage installations have to even out these fluctuations to keep the network frequency stable.
At the same time, however, expansion of the network is proceeding slowly, which leads to bottlenecks. Furthermore, expenses have also risen enormously in recent years. In 2016, the volume of energy used to maintain network and system stability totalled over 15,000 gigawatt hours, equivalent to three per cent of gross annual electricity consumption, at a cost of almost 600 million euros.
Electricity consumption will continue to rise. Nowadays, this trend is being driven by mobile phones, tablet computers and laptops. In a couple of decades, it will be electric vehicles and heat pumps. In its publication ‘World Energy Outlook’, the International Energy Agency (IEA) once again stressed that electricity demand will grow faster than demand for other sources of energy in the future.
Technical developments and digitisation are constantly opening up new fields of application, ranging from new devices and consumer electronics to electric bikes for long-distance riders and mini-helicopters. The possibilities are limitless. More and more electricity generated from wind, water and sunshine will be used to power these applications, while conventional generation capacities will continue to be the backbone of the energy transition.
Photo credits: Filip Bjorkman, shutterstock.com, Peshkova, shutterstock.com