‘Decarbonization must be hastened via energy transition’

By Joel Lee

“The energy transition should be looked at not only from an economic standpoint, but also a technological standpoint, because some 40 to 50 percent of decarbonization can be achieved by increasing energy efficiency.”

  • Published : Oct 15, 2018 - 17:00
  • Updated : Oct 15, 2018 - 17:07

The world must hasten its economic decarbonization via energy transition to prevent the worst of global environmental catastrophes, said Germany’s leading climate experts, adding nuclear energy will be driven out by market forces.

With the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report urging the global community to take drastic measures to limit the increase in the Earth’s temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius, moving away from fossil fuels is “inevitable,” stressed scientists Peter Hennicke and Detlef Stolten.

They also emphasized that all countries must speed up their energy transitions to effectively implement the Paris climate agreement.

German scientists and climate experts Peter Hennicke (right) and Detlef Stolten speak to The Korea Herald at the Korea Energy Transition Conference at Coex in Seoul on Oct. 5. (Joel Lee/The Korea Herald)

“Time is running out, but it’s never too late. We are fast approaching the tipping point even with the internationally agreed 2-degree target,” Hennicke told The Korea Herald alongside Stolten at the Korea Energy Transition Conference at Coex in Seoul on Oct. 5.

“The business-as-usual approach will push the earth to 4 or 5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, with consequences that will destroy all forms of living systems. This will be a catastrophe for mankind and wildlife, with rising seas, heatwaves, hurricanes, flooding et cetera. The sooner we come to the 1.5-degree target, the more damage we can avoid.”

Hennicke is the former president of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, a representative of the European Parliament in the European Environment Agency, and co-chair of the German-Japanese Energy Transition Council, which he launched. He is one of the architects of Germany’s “Energiewende,” or energy transition policy, and an internationally recognized expert in energy efficiency and policies.

“My main message is that we need good storage capacity for electricity, particularly its long-term storage. But it’s largely out of sight and consideration these days,” said Stolten. “The energy transition should be looked at not only from an economic standpoint, but also a technological standpoint, because some 40 to 50 percent of decarbonization can be achieved by increasing energy efficiency. If you just calculate the costs and benefits using existing technologies, nothing new will happen.”

Stolten is the director of the Institute of Electrochemical Process Engineering at the Juelich Research Center in Germany and a chair for fuel cells at RWTH Aachen University.

“While some people say ‘America First,’ we say ‘Climate Mitigation First.’ It is a global challenge we must solve together to speed up the process of energy transition,” Hennicke said.

In Germany, he added, 36 percent of electricity is derived from renewables, and the national goal is to increase the share of renewables to 80 percent by 2050.

Stolten said that developing long-term storage capacity for electricity is increasingly important, as renewable energies experience “peak demand” or “peak load” times at which electricity is produced at surplus. Peak demand fluctuations may occur on daily, monthly, seasonal and yearly cycles. Through a process of electrolysis, the surplus electricity can be converted to hydrogen, which can be fed into homes, cars or chemical plants, or be traded in an international marketplace.

In Germany, Stolten explained, some 30 percent of power produced with renewables last year was surplus power. It was either used or converted into hydrogen and sold to the transport sector at competitive prices.

He added that the technologies needed for energy transition already exist, but each country needs to develop its own “technology set” appropriate for its own circumstances. “We need to develop the weakest links of the existing technologies and implement them over the next 10 years in the market. Everything needs to be done as quickly as possible, because market penetration of these technologies will take longer.”

Following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, Hennicke said, a national consensus has been reached in Germany on completely eliminating nuclear power from the energy mix by 2022.

“After a long and fierce struggle against the nuclear energy industry through a highly pluralistic societal debate, scientific research and deliberation, we finally reached a national consensus. The risks and costs of nuclear energy are colossal,” he said, referring to the incalculable danger and costs of maintaining radioactive waste storage facilities that must last hundreds of thousands of years. “This process is very expensive, societally conflictual and simply dangerous. The real cost of maintaining a radioactive waste storage site is shouldered by taxpayers.”

Stolten said the Fukushima disaster showed that safety standards of the nuclear industry must be upgraded, which inevitably lead to increased operating costs, while renewables increasingly become price-competitive.

“No company in the world will insure a nuclear power plant. Market forces drive nuclear power out of the economy. Even some of the largest nuclear power plant producers nowadays incorporate hydrogen and renewable sources like wind,” he said.

Hennicke pointed out that in Germany since the phasing out of nuclear power, a very dynamic process of research, technological innovation and corporate investment in renewable and alternative sources, such as hydrogen, has occurred. “It marked the start of a scientific, evidence-based strategy for energy transition,” he added.

By Joel Lee (