Saturday, November 29, 2014

Germany leading the way for energy "self-sufficiency"?

We all know that the ready availability of fossil fuel, particularly oil, will someday soon be in decline and eventually run out; even delusional right-wingers know that, except that some of them are salivating at the prospect of taking to their guns in some future Apocalyptic adventure,  or they believe that they will be transported to some mythical higher place and be “renewed”—hopefully in the manner of Logan’s Run.  Oil to run our vehicles, power our industry and heat our homes is no longer cheap, but still available in sufficient quantities for now, so while people are aware that there is finite supply left, it is not something for them to worry about, at least not right now.

Some countries, of course, are aware of that they must begin some movement toward so-called “renewable” energy sources that doesn’t necessarily include nuclear energy and limited opportunities for dam construction. Fusion power has proved to be beyond the capacities of human ingenuity, and solar power requires excessively expensive hardware (and besides, Ronald Reagan thought it was a waste of time). Wind power generation seems to be a popular choice, and the U.S. and others have begun a crash programming to at least try it out. 

Harnessing this potential on a national scale does seem daunting however, since in the U.S. it would require hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of such units to meet most of the energy needs of this country, and that doesn’t even address the issue of transportation power mechanisms.

One country, Denmark, has gone far in employing renewable energy to serve its needs; but it is a small country with a modest population. One of its neighbors with a far larger population and economy seems to believe it can also deploy renewable sources to meet most of its energy needs, within the next few decades. This country is Germany, which for the past several years has been in the midst of a massive infrastructure project, of the scale not seen in the country since the construction of the Autobahn system. The goal of this project is nothing less than near complete independence from fossil fuels in the generation of electrical power by 2050. This includes the construction of power generation plants connected to off-shore and on-shore wind farms, and electrical lines that will carry this power into the industrial heartland of southern Germany. 

All of this is just the beginning of an extremely expensive operation that many believe will hurt the German economy at a time when the EU is experiencing slow or negative economic growth. German business have been particularly skeptical—in large part because much of the cost of overruns is being placed on them, in the form of tariffs that are being paid to companies involved in renewable energy sources to maintain their commercial viability until the project is completed—still many decades away. Consumers have also been “hit” with surcharges on their energy bill to help fund the project. And, naturally, fossil fuel interests have also weighed with their “concerns.”

Still, those who are supporters of the scheme point to the mythical German “ingenuity” and the “successes” like Feldheim, a farming village of about 150 people, which is being touted as an example of how this is all supposed to work. 43 wind turbines, a biogas plant (using ground-up corn stocks and a slurry made from livestock dung) and a back-up woodchip burning facility all pitch-in to serve the community’s electrical and heating needs.  On a national scale, that would suggest that the country would require upwards of 6 million wind turbines. 

Some of the more “practical” of mind call the project a “pipe dream,” claiming that future energy policy is better served by the use of “hybrid” technologies and power generation, providing the example of “flex fuel” vehicles that can use multiple fuel sources, like gasoline, ethanol and electricity—anything to decrease dependency on foreign oil. This is fine for the short-term, but again it is only a delaying action for long-term solutions.

If Germany is in fact successful in weaning even half its energy needs away from fossil fuels in the coming decades despite its cost, the project should be viewed as a remarkable and farsighted success, and a model for what—and what not—to do. But by then, will it be too late for some countries, like the U.S. and China, to “jump start” their own “solutions” that will be at an even more prohibitive cost?

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