Why we need to focus more on efficiency and sufficiency
Prof. Irrek, the prices for electricity and gas are going through the roof. Are we also to blame for the current misery due to our greed for cheap energy and failures to expand renewables?
I would be careful about assigning blame. However, certain omissions were already evident in the context of the coal phase-out. People were happy to be able to get out of coal as soon as possible and thus protect the climate. This step will indeed result in a large reduction in CO2 emissions. In this respect, it was and is important and right. It should only have been accompanied by stronger guard rails in terms of changes to the market regime. Such measures were not taken.
What measures would that have been?
The situation is a complex one. So of course I don't have any patent solutions at the ready. Together with my colleague Prof. Michael Römmich, I raised various questions in the final report of the Coal Commission that have not yet been answered. For example: Does the future electricity market regime even have sufficient incentives to expand renewable energies? This is of immense importance, because if we talk about an energy-only market, where only the work prices count and these approach zero for many hours of the year with 100% renewables, the financing remains open. Or should the prices then be based on the biomass power plants? Or on the flexibility options? This brings us to a second point.
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How can it be ensured that we have sufficient long-term storage, etc.? After all, only a small percentage of the nominal power is available during a dark period. How is the storage infrastructure built? How is it financed? What is the role of the transmission system operators? And what role does electricity exchange with other countries play? All of this was predictable even years ago. What was undoubtedly not foreseeable, on the other hand, was the dramatic price development for natural gas as a result of the Russian war of aggression.
Is the open storage issue the biggest hurdle for the energy transition?
I would say so, yes. During a so-called dark lull, less than one percent of the nominal capacity is available. We would need 70 GW as a flexibility option. Important: We should not stumble from one dependency to the next. For example, we must not make ourselves dependent on certain raw materials and materials, such as lithium, etc. Here, I still see a lot of need for research and development - for which, in turn, the market framework conditions are lacking.
What do you think of the calls for a price cap on wholesale electricity, oil, coal and gas?
As an economist, I tend to be skeptical when it comes to intervening in the mechanisms of the market. It would be better to leave it alone, because the consequences can often not be seriously assessed. Instead, flat-rate contributions should be made available to those in need of special financial support. This is certainly the better approach.
The Corona crisis was described as a turbo for digitization. Can anything similar be said for the current crisis in relation to the energy transition?
Here my answer is twofold: yes and no. On the one hand, you have to disagree because we are now experiencing an enormous financial burden on the national economy. This also means that we have fewer opportunities to invest in the expansion of renewable energies. Now the focus is clearly on crisis management. There doesn't seem to be time for groundbreaking decisions with a long-term impact at the moment. On the other hand, the famous phrase "crisis as opportunity" is true. We are all suddenly realizing the potential for savings. The potential is enormous: If I turn the heating down just one degree, I can save several percent. This opportunity is now being seen and put into practice.
What contribution can circular value creation make?
Its contribution cannot be overestimated. It is absolutely essential to use materials for longer and keep them in a cycle. Just take magnesium, which is used in alloys in the automotive industry or in packaging, among other things. We are talking here about a tenfold increase in production over the last 20 years. The production of the raw material requires many times more energy than recycling solutions. Up to 95% could be saved by using secondary materials. But this makes sense not only for energy reasons - I am only referring to the current material and supply bottlenecks.
What role can e-mobility play in circular value creation?
In any case, it's good that the raw material issue is now always taken into account in battery concepts - also in the stationary sector, by the way. It should be part of the focus. In this respect, e-mobility can make a contribution. However, the problem of green electricity remains.
What do you mean by that?
E-mobility only makes sense if it is powered by renewable energy sources. But that requires a lot of land. A competitive situation arises with nature conservation or ecological agriculture.
Your solution to the land problem?
We need to focus more on efficiency and sufficiency: Does everyone really need an e-mobile? If all adults in Germany wanted to travel individually in this way, we would have a huge energy and space problem. In many neighborhoods, cars are already parked in no-parking zones. Where would the charging stations go? With intelligent solutions, giving up one's own car would not be negatively felt. Car sharing, for example, can provide the freedom to access mobility anytime and anywhere without having to worry about repairs, insurance, and so on. These advantages need to be highlighted much more strongly and alternatives, including public transport, massively promoted.
As we know, we are currently miles away from energy sovereignty. In what timeframe can we regain it, at least to some extent?
As far as the acute crisis is concerned, I'm quite confident that we won't have too many problems until the beginning of next year. But what happens after that? What comes after crisis management without nuclear power and coal? I don't see any conclusive concepts there at the moment.
Would you advocate extending the use of nuclear power?
Probably not. Even in normal operation, nuclear power plants entail enormous risks. And what can happen if you rely too much on nuclear power is shown by the French example in the immediate vicinity.
Thank you very much for the interview.
Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Irrek
has been Professor of Energy Management and Energy Services at the Institute of Energy Systems and Energy Economics at Ruhr West University of Applied Sciences in Mülheim an der Ruhr and Bottrop (www.energy-campus.de) since August 2010. Previously, he was deputy head of the Energy, Transport and Climate Policy Research Group at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy. His work at the Ruhr West University of Applied Sciences focuses on teaching and contributing to the further development of the university. In addition, he conducts research on national and international framework conditions, strategies and control instruments in the energy industry and energy policy in the area of tension between liberalization and sustainability. A special focus is on the field of energy efficiency and energy efficiency services. Wolfgang Irrek heads the Bachelor's and Master's degree programs in "Industrial Engineering and Energy Systems" and is a member of the advisory board of the German Business Initiative for Energy Efficiency (DENEFF).