Much money, little future

The Energy and Climate Weekly: Environmental groups and the solar industry are disappointed with the stimulus package, but there’s little in it for mass transit either

So now it’s out, the Economic Stimulus Program II. The coalition committee has passed the bill, which is expected to pass the cabinet early next week, after which the Bundestag and Bundesrat will have to approve it.

Many who had hoped that the grand coalition might use the economic crisis to make a rough draft on climate protection and the energy transition will be disappointed. Just 14 billion euros are to be invested in the so-called future, i.e. in schools, universities, kindergartens, hospitals, urban development, traffic and transport. Somewhere in between, everything is supposed to be a bit climate protection oriented. This is not only very little for climate protection; the education sector alone urgently needs a multiple of these 14 billion euros. A rough throw really looks different. The party of the Danish minority in Schleswig-Holstein, the SSW, spoke of economic stimulus demands with a shotgun. Whereby, so it is to be noted, the individual small balls come plentifully dwindling along.

Not even the restructuring of the energy networks is addressed. In his function as SPD candidate for chancellor, Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier had last week put the formation of a Netz AG in the context of the economic stimulus package (see: SPD wants Netz AGl). "We are all not very content with the economic stimulus package II", said then also Gerd Rosenkranz of the German environmental assistance (DUH) on Tuesday in Berlin. Together with the photovoltaic manufacturer SolarWorld, the alternative electricity and gas supplier LichtBlick, and the Bundesverband Kraft-Warme-Kopplung (B.KWK), he had invited to a press conference in the capital city. Actually, the focus for the invitees was more on the upcoming election campaign, or rather the directional decision that they expect in terms of energy supply, power plant park and energy networks. But a look at the economic stimulus program presented at the same time was practically unavoidable.

Exchange

"We had hoped for a clear sign of structural change", according to Rosenkranz. Klaus Traube, a veteran of the anti-nuclear movement and currently vice president of the B.KWK, for example, had hoped for a boost in energy efficiency. The share of combined heat and power, which utilizes the fuel much better than conventional power plants – the most modern coal-fired power plants achieve a maximum efficiency of 47 percent – can only be expanded if the district and local heating networks are extended. As in the past, a corresponding program must be launched as a matter of urgency.

Milan Nitzschke from SolarWorld said that all investments of the economic stimulus package were based on what he called their, "Future viability" had to be measured. If aid was given to municipalities, then it had to benefit climate protection. If, for example, subsidies were paid for modernized school heating systems, then it must be ensured that renewable energy sources are used.

Otherwise, the conversion of the grids was very close to his heart. In the end, says Nitzschke, underground cables, for example, may be somewhat more expensive than overhead lines, but they can be laid more quickly. But it is high time to adapt the power grid to renewable energy sources. They already accounted for 16 percent of net electricity consumption, and by 2020, he predicted, they will already account for "well over 35 percent" from wind turbines, hydroelectric power plants, biogas plants and solar panels.

Who owns the grid?

A sore point in the further expansion of renewables is their access to the grid. "Sometimes one has the impression", reports Gero Lucking from LichtBlick, "that at the grid operators the employees sit on their hands during the work, if it is about the grid connection of a biogas plant." Although it was technically a relatively simple task, it could take up to two years. The neutrality of the grids is therefore an important prerequisite for the further expansion of renewable energy sources.

That is also the view of DUH Managing Director Rainer Baake. There is a huge problem with the infrastructure, and the independence of a future network company is very important for this. Steinmeier’s target of 25.1 percent state ownership "make little sense, because they are only enough to prevent". To create it had to be already 50.1 percent. Nitzschke also thinks Steinmeier’s proposal is basically good, but only if it does not "the rough four" remain at the helm, with which the power companies E.on, RWE, EnBW, and Vattenfall were meant. Thinking about total nationalization would be worthwhile. Or by participation: "We want to be there", says Nitzschke. "We can imagine the participation in a corresponding fund", who acquires shares in Netz AG.

Another major concern of environmentalists and representatives of new industries is the composition of the power plant fleet. With the increasing expansion of windCo. coexistence with the coarse power plants is becoming increasingly difficult. The wind and solar plants throw off unsteady and uncontrollable electrical energy, combined heat and power plants are operated depending on the heat demand. This is not compatible with large power plants that have to run around the clock, but requires storage technology, intelligent management and rapidly deployable control power plants.

The burden with the nuclear power plants

"We do not need new base load power plants", says Lucking. "In the future we will need flexibly controllable regulating power plants. Gas-fired power plants, for example." Coal-fired power plants, as they are planned by the large energy companies, and nuclear power plants, which run longer than planned, are in direct contradiction to the renewables. The grid is getting tight.

"We are heading for a massive conflict", says Baake. Already, wind turbines combined with the other renewables were meeting so much of the demand on some days that the crude power companies were using their electric power for the "negative price" offer abroad. So instead of shutting down nuclear and coal-fired power plants, their electricity is being squandered. At the same time, they are increasingly competing with clean energy suppliers.

Baake therefore agreed with the representatives of the other associations that Germany is heading for a directional decision. In the election year 2009, it will become clear whether the expansion momentum of renewables will be maintained, or whether a new federal government will ensure the phase-out, i.e. an extension of nuclear power plant lifetimes. Environmentalists and industry representatives attribute a similar role to coal-fired power plants and the so-called CCS technology, i.e. the plans to capture CO2 in power plants and store it in an as yet unknown location. According to Nitzschke, this will only make old, problematic technology even more expensive. It would be cheaper to rely on renewable energy sources. Apart from the fact that still nobody can say whether the technology works satisfactorily at all.

VW ticks differently

While the whole world is moaning about the difficulties of the German automotive industry, the VW Group reports record sales. While most European, U.S. and Japanese companies sold fewer cars last year than in 2007, Wolfsburg managed a slight increase of 0.6 percent.

Maybe someone should tell that to the likeable SPD-Champian Steinmeier. Last week, in his paper on the second economic stimulus package, Steinmeier declared the auto industry to be the centerpiece of social democratic industrial policy and promised it a 500-million-euro package for research and development in addition to a sales-boosting scrappage scheme. SPD and CDU/CSU have meanwhile launched Steinmeier’s idea as part of the new economic stimulus package.

"Mobility of tomorrow" Steinmeier called his gift package for corporations like Porsche AG, which made about seven billion euros in profits last year – most of it from stock speculation. The Steinmeier paper, on the other hand, makes no mention of the really forward-looking transport sector, local public transport (oPNV). Therefore also the alliance speaks "Pro-Rail Alliance", which is committed to opposing the privatization of the Bahn AG, of a misalignment of the economic stimulus program. "Hectically approved subsidies for the automotive industry will not help the economy or the environment in the long term," complains Dirk Flege, managing director of Allianz.

More oPNV

The times are favorable for a change of direction. In many metropolitan areas, the number of passengers on public transport and regional rail services has risen sharply in recent years. In many cities, the service is being expanded; in some places, such as Kiel or Hamburg, people are thinking about reintroducing the streetcar in a modernized form as a light rail system that could also run on the tracks of the train service.

Hamburg’s Hochbahn, which also operates buses, had about two percent more passengers in 2008, for example, the company’s boss, Gunther Elste, told the taz. Now old plans are being brought out of the drawer, which had been gathering dust since the unspeakable CDU-Schill coalition took office in 2001. For the first time since 1978, the Hanseatic city is to get a streetcar again, in the form of a modern low-floor streetcar. Elste hopes that construction work will start before the next city elections. That would be in 2012, if the CDU and the Grun-Alternative List – as the Hamburg Grune actually still call themselves – could hold out against each other for so long.

From Munich, the head of the local public transport company (MVG), Herbert Konig, reports a record year in 2008. Ridership had grown for the fifth year in a row, most recently due to high fuel prices that had caused commuters to switch to MVG buses and trains. The number of passengers has probably passed the 482 million mark. Bremen is similarly euphoric. At just under 100 million passengers, the number of passengers is higher than ever before. The tram network will therefore be expanded in 2009.

No current figures are yet available for Berlin, but various press reports in recent months suggest that the trend there is also upward again. At the moment, however, the S-Bahn is trying hard to scare away customers with cancellations and delays. In 2007, there was a slight drop of 1.53 percent from 914 million to 900.4 million passengers on the subways, buses and streetcars of the Berlin public transportation company (BVG). In 1998, however, the figure was 771 million, and in 2000 796 million. According to the Berliner Zeitung, the number of passengers on the S-Bahn increased from 269 million in 1998 to 288 million in 2000.

So, despite the massive preference for road transport, the trend seems to be towards public transport, which relieves overcrowded cities and protects the climate because its energy requirements are lower. A targeted federal demand policy could accelerate this development and at the same time do something for the economy, because public transport employs hundreds of thousands of people. Many of them, by the way, are underpaid and completely overworked, as was made clear, among other things, by the locomotive drivers’ strike last winter, which also affected commuter trains. New hires and wage increases – at BVG, employees were forced to forego six to twelve percent of their wages – were certainly beneficial not only to the health of those affected, but also to the domestic economy.

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