Sunday, July 10, 2022

The unravelling of Germany’s green agenda

Germany is going backwards. Last month, Robert Habeck – German vice-chancellor and co-leader of the Green Party – announced that Germany will significantly increase its use of coal power, in order to wean itself off Russian gas. The energy situation is critical, says Habeck – not least as Russia has cut the amount of gas it supplies to Germany via the Nord Stream 1 pipeline by 60 per cent.

So much for Germany’s much-vaunted Energiewende, or clean-energy transition. For years, the transition to renewable energy has been sold as an expression of modernity – of a new technologically advanced and environmentally sustainable Germany. It is one of the few policies that politicians have shown any enthusiasm for in recent years. Now that the Energiewende is going into reverse – with a Green Party minister leading the charge back to one of the most polluting forms of energy – its shortcomings are impossible to ignore.

Of course, the plan to fire up the coal-fired power plants has been presented as an ‘emergency’ measure, in response to the war in Ukraine. As recently as December, the German government was promising to accelerate the phase-out of coal power. Instead of eliminating coal by 2038, as Angela Merkel had planned, the new government aims to end the use of coal by 2030. On the world stage, the German government has lobbied heavily for a global phasing-out of coal to fight climate change. Back in November, the government signed a new climate declaration – the ‘Global Coal to Clean Power’ Transition Statement’.

But in the wake of the Ukraine emergency, Germany’s chronic dependence on Russian gas has made its energy supplies vulnerable. Until just a few weeks ago, Russian gas imports accounted for more than 50 per cent of German gas use.

Though the need to wean Germany off Russian gas is understandable, the government’s energy strategy is still baffling. While the government is willing to reopen coal power plants, it is doggedly sticking to its plan to phase out carbon-free nuclear power by the end of the year. It has also tried to swat aside any debate about keeping these plants open. Chancellor Olaf Scholz claims (without justification) that expert opinion is unanimously behind the government’s phase-out of nuclear, as the fuel rods powering Germany’s remaining three nuclear reactors will not last beyond the year.

It is now common practice to stifle debates by deferring to ‘the experts’, but it is hard to see the government getting away with it this time. Opposition politician Markus Söder has branded Scholz’s claim ‘technical nonsense’. And Germany’s Nuclear Power Association has also disagreed publicly with Scholz, arguing that the nuclear plants can be saved, but that the longer Scholz waits to extend their lifespan, the more difficult it will be.

Public opinion is also against Scholz and the scrapping of nuclear. Most Germans recognise that nuclear power is safe, carbon-neutral and efficient. Seven out of 10 Germans are in favour of keeping the existing nuclear plants running. Only among Green voters is there a majority (56 per cent) in favour of shutting down Germany’s nuclear plants. Yet these are the voters the government feels the need to pander to.

The war in Ukraine has brought the contradictions and inconsistencies of the German Greens and their policies to the fore. On top of reopening coal plants, Habeck was forced to visit Qatar earlier this year, in order to secure new supplies of liquefied natural gas. Photos of Habeck bowing to the Qatari energy minister were met with widespread derision on social media. This was widely seen as a betrayal not only of Habeck’s green principles, but also of the ‘moral foreign policy’ that the Green Party had promised. Only a year ago, before they entered government, the Greens were monstering Qatar for its human-rights violations (Green co-leader Annalena Baerbock, now foreign minister, even called for this winter’s football World Cup to be cancelled).

The Energiewende is also unravelling. Many Germans are starting to recognise that it is ultimately what has led to Germany’s dependence on Russian gas. The end of nuclear power, alongside the switch to expensive and intermittent renewables (which depend on the sun shining and the wind blowing), created a gap that was then filled by Russian gas. As a result, even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Germany had some of the highest electricity prices in Europe – and now its energy supplies are under even greater threat.

The green ideology that brought us here has long dominated German politics, even though the Green Party has never been especially popular. In the last federal election, though the media were excited about the prospect of a Green chancellor, the party won just 14.8 per cent of the vote.

While enthusiasm for the green agenda has always been largely confined to the middle classes, as long as the economy was running reasonably well, most Germans were happy to put up with it. But this is surely not tenable for much longer. The price of electricity has already reached a record high and gas prices are set to triple in the coming months.

Faced with this disaster, as well as announcing the revival of coal power, Habeck has appealed to German citizens to save as much energy as possible. He has even threatened to introduce energy rationing by law. Under discussion are plans to scrap or reduce the obligations on landlords for homes to be heated to a minimum room temperature (or ‘legally mandated freezing’, as one minister put it). While this is presented as yet another emergency measure, such rationing is the logical conclusion of the green ideology, which views saving energy as an end in itself.

Yet however much hardship and resentment the green transition creates, and however irrational it is exposed to be, there is unlikely to be a major rethink. Policies that might actually bring down the price of energy – and provide enough energy for citizens’ needs – are incompatible with the green ideology.

Germany’s irrational green politics should be a warning to the world


Shareholders back away from climate petitions as US Republicans wage war against 'woke capitalism'

The reluctance of some investors to back prescriptive climate resolutions comes as Republican politicians are waging war against what they call “woke capitalism”.

A record-breaking US proxy season for shareholder proposals brought disappointment to environmental activists, as some investors shied away from backing climate proposals they saw as too prescriptive.

Buoyed by a victory last year at ExxonMobil and rules that made it easier to put public policy-related questions on proxy ballots, activists filed 389 environmental and social proposals with member companies of the Russell 3000 index, according to an analysis by The Conference Board of data supplied by Esgauge.

Yet the share of support for environmental proposals dropped from 37 per cent in 2021 to 33 per cent this year.

Some of this was due to the fact that 30 of the least controversial proposals were withdrawn after companies agreed to activists’ requests. Those that went to a vote tended to be further reaching or were at companies where management has strongly resisted environmentalist demands, the research shows.

The results reflected growing squeamishness among asset managers about tying managers’ hands on climate-related issues. This has been exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which forced investors and companies to think more about energy security.

BlackRock set the tone earlier this year when the world’s largest money manager warned that it would be voting against shareholder resolutions on climate that it considered to be too extreme or prescriptive. The Conference Board analysis shows that other large investors are making similar distinctions in the name of long-term returns.

“It’s the board’s role to oversee and direct corporate strategy,” said Ben Colton, who heads stewardship at State Street Global Advisors. “As long- term shareholders, we need to be as pragmatic and consistent as possible.”

Proposals asking management to report on several environment-related options drew significantly higher backing than those that sought to restrict management behaviour. Seven resolutions asking for reports on plastic pollution garnered an average of 45 per cent support. However, 10 demands that banks and insurers stop financing new fossil fuel development received average support of just 10 per cent.

“Overall numbers don’t lie, but they don’t tell the whole story for this proxy season,” said Merel Spierings, The Conference Board researcher who analysed the numbers. She said that when the most prescriptive proposals are excluded, support for climate-related resolutions was largely unchanged from 2021.

The voting patterns at ExxonMobil make clear how these concerns are playing out this year. Last year, investors unexpectedly supported board candidates proposed by an activist hedge fund that wanted the oil major to do more on climate change. This year, several new climate-related proposals of different types were on the proxy ballot.

BlackRock voted against a proposal that would have required the US oil major to set specific targets to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. It voted in favour of asking the company to do scenario planning for a range of energy transition pathways. State Street abstained on both.

The emissions limit proposal received just 27 per cent support, but the scenario planning item that BlackRock favoured ended up passing with 51 per cent of the vote. BlackRock owns about 9 per cent of ExxonMobil shares.

The reluctance of some investors to back prescriptive climate resolutions comes as Republican politicians are waging war against what they call “woke capitalism”. State governments in Texas and West Virginia are moving to boycott financial services groups that “discriminate” against fossil fuels.

But backers of the more specific climate proposals argued that they were necessary to move companies beyond vague promises to keep global warming to a minimum. All of the fossil fuel financing proposals met the 5 per cent threshold that allows investors to put them forward again next year.

“The resolutions were a critical step forward and helped move the conversation between investors and banks from long-term targets and disclosure to ‘What is your plan?’” said Ben Cushing, who runs the Sierra Club’s Fossil-Free Finance campaign. “It is really disappointing that these proposals were [considered] so prescriptive . . . they will be coming back.”


EPA Targets Permian Basin, Widening Biden’s War On Oil And Gas

During an interview with Brazil’s Agencia Estadio news service this week, I told the reporter that one of the reasons why I characterized the Biden energy policies as “confused” in a recent story is because we so often see the President saying one thing in public as his appointees in the federal bureaucracy are doing the opposite. We have seen this phenomenon take place repeatedly this year, as Mr. Biden has frequently called for the domestic industry to produce more oil and gas, refine more gasoline and ramp up exports of liquefied natural gas to Europe, while his agencies continue to hold up permitting, issue restrictive new regulations, and issue rulings that directly inhibit companies’ ability to get their business done.

It happened again this week, when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced it may soon issue a ruling declaring that vast parts of the Permian Basin are in “non-attainment” status under the agency’s ozone regulations. If such a declaration is made, it will constitute a direct governmental assault on what is by far America’s most active and productive oil-producing region and its second most-productive natural gas area. The Permian currently accounts for fully 43% of total U.S. daily oil production and is home to almost 40% of the nation’s active drilling rigs according to the Enverus daily rig count.

Thursday’s decision by the Supreme Court of the United States in the West Virginia v. EPA case is not expected to impact the agency’s ability to set standards on ozone levels and enforce them. If anything, it seems likely the agency, at least under a Biden presidency, will seek to become more aggressive in this realm as a backdoor means of continuing to force coal-fired power plants out of business and, as in this case, hamper the domestic oil and gas industry.

Placing the Permian Basin in non-attainment status would force a significant reduction in the region’s rig count, severely limiting the domestic industry’s efforts to increase U.S. oil production at a time when the global oil market is already severely under-supplied. Thus, while the President claims to want to “work like the devil” to lower gasoline prices and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm claims Mr. Biden is “using every tool” at his disposal to do so, the EPA is working to create the exact opposite impact.

The EPA’s announcement comes just a week after Secretary Granholm summoned a group of refining company CEOs to Washington, D.C. where she urged them to somehow increase their refining efforts, despite the fact that her own Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports that the industry is already running at a historically high 95% capacity. It also comes after both Granholm and the President himself have repeatedly called for the domestic industry to increase production levels of oil and gas to try to mitigate high prices for gasoline and diesel at the pump.


Limitations of "Green" energy becoming incresingly obvious

It's the prophecies of skeptics that are coming true

With the energy crisis prompting governments everywhere to turn coal plants back on, wiping out many years of hard won emission reductions in advanced economies, the major limitations of renewable energy have now, at last, been acknowledged by all.

Well, almost all, with Victorian government energy minister Lily D’Ambrosio in late June ruling out paying coal and gas companies to keep them operating as part of a proposed national capacity market, saying that the state’s new offshore wind projects will ‘blow any shortfall out of the water’.

Never mind that the bulk of the advanced economies, many with far higher dependence on renewables than Victoria, have such capacity markets – ideological demands must trump operational experience.

Chief among the lessons about those limitations is the phenomena now known as ‘wind droughts’. Late in 2021 as delegates in the annual climate summit, held in Glasgow that year were noisily demanding more renewable energy, the UK had to turn on mothballed coal-power plants because of a shortage of gas and a wind drought.

In an article on the Australian edition of the academic site the Conversation published in October 2021 a researcher in climate risk analytics at the University of Bristol in the UK, Hannah Bloomfield, says that the period of still weather around the time of the Glasgow conference resulted in the power company SSE reporting that its renewable assets produced 32 per cent less power than expected.

In the article Dr Bloomfield says these ‘wind droughts’ can be classified as an extreme weather event, like floods and hurricanes. Researchers in the UK have shown that that periods of stagnant high atmospheric pressure over central Europe, lead to prolonged low wind conditions over a wide area and those conditions may be ‘difficult’ for power systems in future. Further, Dr Bloomfield notes, it is important to understand just how such events occur, as that means they can be forecast and the grids prepared for them. There is no discussion about just how the grids might be prepared for such droughts and, in any case, scientists have enough problems forecasting the frequency and severity of cyclones during cyclones seasons, and are continually taken by surprise by floods, despite studying those extreme events for decades.

But it is known that just like rain droughts, wind droughts can persist for a long time.

During a wind drought in the UK in 2018, wind made no contribution to the UK grid at all for nine days and only slight contributions for another two weeks. In the wind drought of late 2021 noted earlier, there were days when wind made no contribution at all.

Then there are the much shorter periods, perhaps ranging from an hour or so up to a day that can also be found by anyone who examines wind’s contribution to total energy supply to the UK grid over time. However, the short and long-term wind drought phenomena has received some academic attention in the UK, it is difficult to point to any systematic study of the problem in Australia.

A few concerned citizens have looked at the easily accessible figures for wind production on the National Energy Market, the grid for Australia’s east coast, to find a number of periods where the whole of the NEM was in wind drought for periods ranging from a few hours up to 33 hours. But that study was for just one year, 2020. More extensive research could well find wind droughts of much longer periods.

Activists may sneeringly dismiss all of this as having not been done by properly qualified scientists. Very well, where is the independent analysis done by academics with qualifications of any kind? While they are on the job those same academics can work out just how much storage capacity would be required to tide the national market over for a day and a half. The NEM has north of 50,000 MWs (50 GW) of generating capacity. If for the sake of argument, we assume that an average of half that is used (more during demand peaks and less during troughs) in any given period, then the market may need around 900,000 megawatt hours to get through a 36-hour drought without fossil fuel plants.

The giant water battery known as Snowy Mountain 2.0 should store about 350,000 MWh, when it is finished and assuming that it can find enough fresh water, which means the NEM might need three or four Snowy 2.0s at a bare minimum, although only one is being built.

Batteries don’t count. The Hornsdale Power Reserve Battery built in South Australia in 2017 with considerable fanfare, for example, cost $90 million but stores just 125 MWh. The photovoltaic panels now on suburban roofs all over Australia are not subject to wind droughts, but they are at their peak around the middle of day, do not work well on cloudy days or at all at night, and the excess energy still has to be stored.

To make matters worse, grids have to be designed to cope with worse case scenarios such as a very hot day, which also happens to be a calm, cloudy day. Perhaps enough power might be stored to see the grid through one such event, but then when the Snowy projects have expended one load of fresh water through turbines to generate power, it may take days to completely recharge, so to speak, by having the water pumped back into it. What happens if another extreme event occurs soon after the first?Activists insist that all these problems can be overcome simply be building more wind turbines, particularly offshore turbines as planned by Minister D’Ambrosio. In the days of sail, ships might be becalmed for days, but the trade winds which blow down Bass Strait are thought to be different. Well, are they? King Island, well out in Bass Strait, has the King Island Renewable Energy Integration Project, part of which is a wind farm, plus solar power as a supplement to the island’s long-standing diesel generators. Material produced by the owner Tasmanian Hydro estimates that renewable energy now accounts for 65 per cent of the island’s power demand.

That’s fine but what about the other 35 per cent supplied by diesel? Why couldn’t the wind farm supply all of the island’s needs, and was the outcome worth the $18 million spent on the project, all to service the island’s 1,600 residents? The Victorian government could at least produce some material apart from activist assurances that its projected reliance on offshore wind farms will be anything but a disaster.




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