Carbon Footprints and Carbon Intensity: a Summary

Last week I strayed a bit from my series about the markers of our global energy transition, in which I have examined 15 populous countries in three income groups. When possible, I have used data from the World Bank. This particular dataset spans from the year 2000 to 2014, the last year for which I was able to find all the required data for all 15 countries.

Today, I am returning to my original format to examine carbon footprints over the same period and summarize what we found in the last few blogs. Again, the data are from the World Bank and are shown in Figures 1-4. All four graphs present the data in terms of the ratio between carbon footprints (in kg of carbon dioxide) and primary energy (in kg of oil equivalent). I labeled this ratio carbon intensity.

Figure 1 shows global carbon intensity. It rises through 2011, with a dip between 2008 and 2010, and falls again starting in 2012. The overall rise is a modest 6%, as compared to a global GDP growth of 40% in constant US$ (2010 value) over the same period of time.

Figure 1

This last decline in global carbon intensity coincided with a 6% rise in global GDP in constant US$ from 2012 to 2014. In short: less CO2 output along with higher GDP. That means that globally we are making progress.

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 4

To summarize the last few blogs (from October 15th), two main indicators for the energy transition have emerged: electricity intensity (kWh/kg oil equivalent) and primary energy use. Both have major impacts on the carbon footprints of the three income groups that we see here.

Electricity intensity (October 15th blog) in the high-income category, grew by about 15% while the primary energy use (October 22nd blog) declined over this period. In the United Kingdom, it declined by 25%; in Japan and the US, it was by 15%.

In the middle-income category, we saw a sharp rise in electricity intensity in China (64%) and a smaller rise in Turkey (29%). The other three countries in this category showed approximately flat trends. However, these countries showed major increases in the use of primary energy, with China at the top (+150%) and the four other countries in the category increasing by lesser amounts.

We saw a sharp rise (67%) in the electricity intensity of low-income countries India, Bangladesh, and Indonesia, while Nigeria and Pakistan show a flat trend. In terms of primary energy use, India and Bangladesh showed increases of up to 50%. Meanwhile, Indonesia has risen by around 20%. Nigeria and Pakistan have also risen, albeit by considerably smaller numbers.

Electricity access in the low-income group of countries is far from universal; most of the changes in electricity use in these countries has very little to do with environmental considerations. Instead, it reflects an increase in GDP, which gives them the resources to extend electrical access. I’ll talk about this issue separately next week.

In the meantime, last Monday the US gave a formal notice to the UN of its intention to withdraw from the 2015 Paris agreement. The withdrawal will be finalized a year after this notification, on November 4, 2020—one day after the 2020 presidential election. By that time, the US will be the only country in the world not to participate. Under the agreement, the US had committed to reduce its carbon footprint by 26-28% by 2025, compared to its 2005 output. In 2014, the US had already reduced its carbon footprint by 16%, using the same metrics. The US also promised in the agreement that it would contribute 3 billion US$ to the Green Climate Fund (see the June 20, 2017 blog), an entity that was designed to facilitate climate mitigation and adaptation in developing countries. Two days before President Obama left office, he was able to transfer $500 million as the second installment of the contribution, leaving the US 2 billion US$ short of its commitment. Meanwhile, in addition to quitting the agreement, President Trump is trying to get that one billion US$ back.

Stay tuned!

Posted in Climate Change, Energy, Sustainability, US | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Renewable Energy Use – Is Zero Carbon Achievable by 2050?

If you’ve been following my latest series detailing the indicators for the global energy transition (starting October 15th), you’ll agree that it’s time to ask the most important question: how are we doing? We can estimate the answer by examining how well our society has embraced renewable, non-carbon-based energy. One of the main challenges that I want to address today is whether, based on current trends, we can actually achieve zero carbon energy input by 2050. As I have mentioned repeatedly, this is the most optimistic and ambitious goal among scientists.

Renewable Energy

I was trying to continue my methodology from the last three blogs, using the same 15 countries that I selected to represent low-, medium-, and high-income countries around the world. But looking at the data from the World Bank database depressed me, which I hate because depression can leave us paralyzed and unwilling to go forward in a productive way.

One thing that got me down was that the World Bank includes nuclear energy in the renewable category since it is a non-carbon-based energy source. But nuclear energy has had a mixed past and different countries have had varied reactions. Japan’s 2011 Fukushima disaster motivated some countries, headed by Germany, to remove nuclear plants from their energy mix. France, meanwhile, decided quite a while ago to use nuclear power to drive most of its electricity output but the system is now running into some serious difficulties. The other reason for my pessimism has to do with progress in renewable energy contributions to the global energy transition. Excluding nuclear energy, most of the 15 countries we are studying contribute very little in terms of renewable energy. This made me especially depressed.

So I shifted gears and looked instead at the BP site. I found the two graphs below and the following list of renewable energy sources:

Hydroelectricity, wind and wave power, solar and geothermal energy and combustible renewables and renewable waste (landfill gas, waste incineration, solid biomass and liquid biofuels).

First, we need to clarify some issues. The two graphs below use different sets of energy units: Figure 1 is given in million tons of oil equivalent, a metric that is principally used to describe energy as it relates to heat (creating heat, using it as a primary energy source for electricity production, and other applications). Figure 2 is given in terawatt-hours, a standard measurement of electricity consumption. One terawatt is equal to a trillion watts (10 billion 100 watt light bulbs). The two units relate to each other as follows:

1 million tons of oil equivalent = 4.4 terawatt-hours.

You can verify this relation by multiplying the scale in Figure 1 by 4.4; your answers will be approximately the same as that in Figure 2.

Figure 1 – Renewable energy consumption by region from 1998-2018 (in million tons of oil equivalent)

Figure 2 – Renewable energy consumption by source from 1998-2018 (in terawatt-hours)

The rapid growth of renewable power generation continued in 2018, with an increase of 14%. In volume terms, the largest increase was in China, accounting by almost 50% of the total increase at a global level.

Renewable power consumption grew by 14% in 2018, providing 9% of the world’s electricity.

The rapid growth of non-hydro renewable power generation continued in 2018. Global growth was 14%, the 15th successive year of double-digit growth. Renewables accounted for around a third of the growth in global power generation and contributed for one fifth of world primary energy growth.

The OECD remains the main source of renewable power generation (59% of world total) in 2018. Nevertheless, non-OECD growth is larger and accounts for almost 2/3 of the total increase in renewable energy.

The share of renewable power in global power generation reached nearly 8.4% in 2017, almost doubling in five years from 4.6% in 2012. Renewables accounted for 12% of OECD power generation in 2017, compared to 6% in the non-OECD. While the aggregate shares remain low, for some individual countries renewables now contribute a significant share of power. Countries where renewables contribute more than 20% of the power generated include: Germany, Spain, UK, Italy, Portugal, Denmark, Finland, Ireland and New Zealand.

 So why am I using two different scales? The reason is that if we produce our electricity with thermal sources, such as burning fossil fuel or using nuclear energy, we cannot do so with 100% efficiency (see the October 22nd blog). I usually count the “typical” efficiency at 33%. The BP site uses 38% for a modern power plant. The maximum efficiency of such conversions directly relates to the temperature of the heat that is produced by the primary energy source.

Almost none of the alternative energies that are shown in Figures 1 and 2 go through a heat stage. The exceptions are combustible renewables and renewable waste, which I will discuss in the future; they are especially important for low-income countries. In Figures 1 and 2, these energy sources are minor components as compared to solar and wind, which are powered either directly (solar) or indirectly (wind). Most of the “other” in Figure 2 is hydroelectric (waterfalls), powered by gravity.

We should pay special attention to the first paragraph in the cited BP section above. It states that the rapid growth in the use of renewables in 2018 is continuing and now amounts to 14%. The largest increase is attributed to China, which now accounts for about 50% of the global growth in the use of renewals. To put this into context, we should remember from last week that China also accounts for 50% of global coal use.

Zero Carbon

Let me now try to evaluate the feasibility of the world reaching zero carbon by 2050. If we continue, globally, to increase our use of renewables at the same rate as we did in 2018 (14%) the doubling time for the availability of renewables will be 5 years. To find this number, we use something called the Rule of 70 for calculating exponential growth.

The Rule of 70 gives quick estimates of the doubling time of an exponentially growing quantity. If R% is the annual growth rate of the quantity, then the Rule of 70 says that:

Doubling time in years =(aprox) 70/R

For example, at a 10% annual growth rate, doubling time is 70/10 = 7 years.

In our case, R=14% so 70/14 = 5 years

From Figure 1, we see that in 2018 we had used approximately 550 million tons of oil equivalent of renewable energy globally to power our electrical grid. If we were to replace the new renewable energy sources with thermal energy derived from burning fossil fuels, we would have to use three times more or 1,650 million more tons of oil equivalent (or gas or coal). The total primary energy that we used globally in 2018 was 13,865 tons of oil equivalent. The ratio between the thermal replacement rate of fossil fuels by renewable energy and the total primary energy comes out to 0.1 or 10%.

From the October 22nd blog we see that primary energy use in the high-income countries is actually decreasing. In the medium-income countries it is approximately flat (again, except for China). Globally over this period of time, the use of primary energy has remained approximately constant. With this information we can construct a small table that will show us when, assuming the same replacement rate of fossil fuels by renewables, we can get to a zero carbon world.

Ratio of renewable to primary energy, globally (%)

Time (years from now)


Now (2018)








20 (2040)

In other words, the answer to the big question above is yes, if we continue at the same replacement rate, we can easily meet the goal of zero carbon by 2050.

Meanwhile, in the news:

The good news: As I finished writing this blog, new information came out about our use of wind energy: current US wind capacity is now 500 GW.

The bad news: “The Trump administration formally notified the United Nations on Monday that it would withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement on climate change.”

Posted in administration, Anthropocene, Climate Change, Energy, Sustainability | 1 Comment

Coal Intensity & Coal Consumption

Today I am continuing my series (which started October 15th) examining the early signs of the global energy transition. In the previous two blogs my emphasis was on use of primary energy and electricity. This week, I’m looking at coal use. I am still using the same 15 countries, which represent three income levels and together comprise 75% of the global population.

I was utilizing data from the World Bank but this week I have shifted to the British Petroleum (BP) database because the World Bank doesn’t list coal as a separate indicator. As with the previous blogs, I am focusing on changes in coal use from the year 2000 through the most recent data available. In the World Bank database that was for 2014; BP had data through 2018. For the primary energy I used the same World Bank numbers as before, supplementing them with more recent data from BP.

Here I am using the concept of coal intensity, which is defined as the ratio of energy derived from burning coal to the total use of primary energy.

Coal use has become a key issue among those advocating the urgency of an energy transition from fossil fuels to sustainable, zero emissions energy sources.

My October 8th blog covered Germany’s declaration that it will shut down all of its coal power plants within 19 years (by 2038). I mentioned that in almost all cases of commitment to net carbon zero by 2050, the first hurdle is removing coal as an energy source in electrical power delivery. Among the 15 countries that I am analyzing in this series of blogs, only the UK and France belong to the group that has made this commitment. The issue is under discussion in both the European Union in general and Germany in particular.

Most of the countries that have already announced commitments to end their use of coal don’t really rely on it for their electricity production. France is a good example (more than 70% of its electricity comes from nuclear energy). Germany is certainly a large exception to this trend and the October 8th blog summarizes the steps that the country is taking to follow up on its decision.

If one country can claim the “throne” for coal use in its energy policy, it’s China. It now claims more than half of the coal used globally for that purpose. Figure 1 illustrates this trend. The graph shows China’s use of coal as slightly shy of that used by the rest of the world but it ends in 2017. Slightly more updated data from BP shows the country passing the 50% mark.

coal, production, China, global

Figure 1 World coal production

Figures 2-4 show the trend in coal intensity of the three income groups as normalized to global coal intensity.

coal intensity, low income, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan

Figure 2 – Coal intensity in low-income countries

coal intensity, Brazil, China, Mexico, Russia, Turkey, medium income

Figure 3 – Coal intensity in middle-income countries

coal intensity, France, Germany, Japan, UK, US

Figure 4 – Coal intensity in high-income countries

Figure 5 shows the changes in world coal intensity over that period.

world coal intensity, primary energy

Figure 5 – World coal intensity

Figure 5 demonstrates that the global coal intensity remains approximately constant at around 25% over this period. One can also see that four of the five rich countries, with the exception of Japan, are reducing their coal use (as a fraction of their energy use). Meanwhile, India and China in the other income groups clearly exceed the average global use.

In the next few blogs I will focus on the use of renewable energy and carbon footprints in the same time period and group of countries.

Posted in Climate Change, Energy, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Primary Energy: What Fraction Do We Use for Electricity Production?

Last week I looked at changes in electricity use (from 2000-2014), as a fraction of primary energy use, specifically as an early indicator of the energy transition to a more sustainable mix. I paid special attention to a group of 15 highly populous countries that fell into in three different wealth groups. Together, they comprise about 75% of the world’s population.

Here is a good explanation of the distinction between primary and secondary energy:

Primary energy consists of unconverted or original fuels. Secondary energy includes resources that have been converted or stored. For example, primary energy sources include petroleum, natural gas, coal, biomass, flowing water, wind, and solar radiation. Those are the fuels that can be mined, reaped, extracted, harvested, or harnessed directly. Secondary energy cannot be harnessed directly from nature; rather, secondary energy is energy that has already been converted. For example, electricity cannot be mined or harvested, though it is available in quick bursts on occasion from lightning. It is generated as a secondary form from primary fuels, like natural gas.

Figure 1, taken from the same source, shows the distinction in pictorial form.

primary energy, secondary energy, oil, coal, natural gas, nuclear, electricity, heat, wind, solar, renewable

Figure 1

We found that in almost all cases over this period, electricity became a much larger application of energy use. One of the questions that immediately came to mind was how the total primary energy use has changed, over the same period of time, in these countries. This blog addresses both situations. The three graphs below use data from the World Bank to summarize changes in primary energy use over this time period, while the corresponding tables show the ratio of electricity/energy use as well as the primary energy use.

Burning primary energies such as oil, coal or natural gas, produces heat. We use this heat to drive turbines that produce electricity (secondary energy source). The 2nd law of thermodynamics in Physics prohibits this conversion process from running at 100% efficiency. The maximum efficiency of this process depends on the temperature of the heat. A commonly cited number is about 33%. (You can look at the different prices you pay for heating a room with electricity or natural gas, using the same amount of energy).

As a result, in order to calculate how much of our primary energy we use to produce electricity, we have to multiply the numbers in the second column of the three tables by a factor of 3. This is the main reason that, in most cases, the amount of primary energy that we use to produce our electricity by far outpaces our other uses. If, as in many cases, fossil fuels make up the majority of our primary energy sources, most of our greenhouse gas emissions (mainly carbon dioxide) originate in our electricity usage.

primary energy, low income, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Nigeria, PakistanFigure 2 – Use of primary energy in low-income countries, as % of year 2000 value

Table 1 – Fraction of primary energy used to produce electricity in low-income countries vs. increase in total primary energy

Country Change in use of electricity/energy in 2014 (in % relative to year 2000) Change in use of primary energy in 2014 for production of electricity (in % relative to year 2000)
India 34 53
Bangladesh 92 60
Indonesia 74 20
Nigeria 73 8
Pakistan 20 2


primary energy, middle income, Brazil, China, Mexico, Russia, TurkeyFigure 3 – Use of primary energy in middle-income countries, as % of year 2000 value

Table 2 – Fraction of primary energy used to produce electricity in middle-income countries vs. change in total primary energy

Country Change in use of electricity/energy in 2014 (in % relative to year 2000) Change in use of primary energy in 2014 for production of electricity (in % relative to year 2000)
Brazil 1 40
China 60 149
Mexico 51 3
Russia 9 17
Turkey 31 31


high income, primary energy, France, Germany, US, UK, JapanFigure 4 – Use of primary energy in high-income countries, as % of year 2000 value

Table 3 – Fraction of primary energy used to produce electricity in high-income countries vs. change in total primary energy

Country Change in use of electricity/energy in 2014 (in % relative to year 2000) Change in use of primary energy for production of electricity in 2014 (in % relative to year 2000)
France 9 -13
Germany 15 -8
Japan 11 -15
UK 14 -27
USA 10 -17

In the next few blogs I will provide similar analyses regarding the use of coal and renewable energy sources. I will end this series by identifying the consequence of this transition, in terms of changes to the countries’ carbon footprints.

Posted in Climate Change, Energy, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Shift to Electricity: Mitigation and Adaptation on a Country Level

My last series of blogs concentrated on Germany’s energy transition. Since the country’s reunification in 1990, there has been a major increase in electricity and decrease in primary energy use, which paralleled a similar growth in sustainable energy sources such as wind and solar (photovoltaic). Additionally, Germany decided to stop using nuclear energy following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. More recently, the country also decided to stop the use of coal. All these steps are contributing to a major reduction in Germany’s carbon footprint. As always, there are winners and losers in this transition. As we have seen in France, if the losers are not compensated, they may cause trouble (see my blogs on the Gilets Jaunes).

This week I will start to expand this kind of analysis globally.

There are 193 sovereign countries in the world that are members of the United Nations, as well as two observer states (the Holy See and Palestine). These include countries of all sizes and economic statuses. Some choose their governments through general election processes; others are ruled by autocratic leaders. To make analysis feasible I will focus this series on 15 countries, divided into three groups based on the World Bank’s low-, median-, and high-income classifications. In each group, I have selected the five most populous countries. Together, these 15 countries constitute 75% of the world’s population.

When I discussed the German situation in previous blogs, I based the analysis on German reporting. My global analysis will use World Bank data, as I have done here repeatedly. The World Bank gets its data from individual countries, and then subjects them to intense scrutiny. This takes a long time. As a result, its data are often less up-to-date than the countries’ original reporting. Therefore, the latest data available for all 15 countries is from 2000-2014.

These are the important indicators in this study:

  • Electricity intensity = Electricity use/Primary energy

  • Coal intensity (part of the IPAT relation): Ratio of coal to full mix of primary energy sources

  • Renewal intensity: Ratio of renewable or sustainable sources in primary energy and in electricity production

  • Carbon production

  • Energy intensity = Ratio of energy/GDP

  • Carbon intensity = ratio of Carbon/GDP and ratio of Carbon/Primary energy

I have discussed some of these indicators in earlier blogs in somewhat different contexts and will surely return to them later. Other indicators are new here.

Unfortunately, the data for most of these indicators are not directly available for these countries within the given time frame. I cannot just cut and paste them. I would have to calculate them directly from the World Bank database.

Let’s start with electric power consumption.

Here, I’m following the electricity intensity indicator, which is defined as the ratio of electricity use/primary energy use. I have discussed similar indicators here before, such as carbon intensity and energy intensity. When we associate an indicator with the word intensity, it can indicate different things. For instance, carbon intensity can be used in either the context of carbon dioxide emissions divided by GDP or those same emissions divided by energy use. I have previously taken a closer look at the version of carbon intensity that relates to GDP.

Electricity intensity can signify electricity use per employeeper GDP, per volume of data transmission, the ratio of retail electricity sales to commercial sector income or, probably the oldest definition, from physics:

Electric intensity is the strength of electric field at a point. Electric intensity at a point is defined as the force experienced per unit positive charge at a point placed in the electric field”.

Going back to our definition of electricity intensity, it invokes electricity use per unit of primary energy use. Both functions in the definition are extensive and depend on population, so their ratio becomes an intensive function, independent of population. This means we can directly compare countries of different sizes.

Figures 1 – 3 show the changes in electricity intensity for the three groups of countries.

  Figure 1 – Low-income countries
               Figure 2 – Medium-income countries

Figure 3 – High-income countries

The units in the three graphs are kwh/kg oil equivalent, which is standard in the World Bank database. Conversion to more common units will not change the trends.

In almost all cases we see consistent increase in the electricity intensity, matching the trends we saw in the blogs regarding Germany. Figure 3 shows Germany’s changes are roughly equivalent to those of the other large rich countries; Japan is the only outlier, with a higher baseline but a similar growth pattern.

We need to remember, however, that a consistent increase in electricity intensity does not necessarily mean a lower carbon footprint. In Germany, we saw that the increase in electricity intensity came with decreased use of primary energy and more sustainable energy sources such as wind and solar that replenish the electrical grid. While this is a positive incidence, it is not necessarily the norm. The most recent data from the World Bank show that access to electricity in low-income countries stands around 70% for urban settings and 28% for rural settings. Any wealth increase will be reflected in changes to electricity intensity and low-income countries tend to want low cost energy sources—for now, those are still fossil fuels. I will, of course, cover these issues in future blogs.

Posted in Climate Change, Electricity, Energy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Wisdom from Germany: How to Transition Away From Coal

This is the end of my series about my summer trip and the lessons I learned when I visited Germany. In last week’s blog, I promised to finish up my examination by comparing Germany’s energy transition efforts with those of the rest of the world. I am fulfilling this promise here by focusing on the country’s efforts to remove coal from its energy mixture, as part of its ultimate goal to convert its economy to carbon neutral.

Figure 1 shows a global map highlighting specific regions, countries, and cities that have committed to net zero carbon by 2050 or before. Germany is not part of this esteemed group. However, it is marked—as part of the European Union and on its own—as exploring the resolution.

net zero, global energy transition, legislation, Germany, Netherlands, Ireland, US, NYC, New York City, legislation, target, goalFigure 1

In almost all cases of commitment to net carbon zero by 2050, the first hurdle is removing coal as an energy source in electrical power delivery. Figure 2 demonstrates the state of this decision among European countries. Again Germany is one of those that are discussing such a phase-out (as opposed to Spain, Poland, and many other countries that are not).

Europe, coal, net zero, electricity mix, energy mix

Figure 2

Figure 3 (reposted from last week’s blog) shows the detailed evolution of the spectrum of energy sources powering the German electrical grid from 2002 to 2018.

Germany, power, electricity, generation, capacity, coal, biomass, winnd, solar, mineral oil, natural gas, coal, lignite, nuclear powerFigure 3

Table 1 shows the quantitative evolution of the various energy sources from 2002 to the present. As can we see in Figure 3, the capacity of electric power in Germany over this period expanded by 79%. Figure 3 and Table 1 give the power capacity in gigawatts (billion watts).

Table 1 – Comparison of Germany’s energy sources powering its electrical grid in 2002 and 2018 (GW)

Table 2 shows that almost all of the increase in the use of electricity came from the newly installed sustainable energy in solar and wind (wind also falls within the category of solar). Germany’s energy transition began with a massive shift to electricity use powered by sustainable wind and solar sources, rather than leading with an end to coal use.

Table 2 – Data from Table 1, translated into broader categories

Over this period, the German population stood around 81 million people and didn’t increase (partially due to a relatively low fertility rate). The real GDP/person in chained euros stood at 600 million in 2002 and increased to 747 million in 2018. The chained euros method (or chained volume series) is a relatively new approach to illustrating the “real” value of a currency. It involves adjusting the value of the currency to reflect inflation over time, making it easier to compare figures from different years.

By this account, the real GDP value increased by less than 25% over this period. So the shift to electrical power is an energy transition driven by neither population nor changes to the GDP.

After the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 in Japan, Germany announced that it would stop using nuclear energy. However, Tables 1 and 2 both show that nuclear energy already constituted a relatively small percentage of Germany’s power sources, and the change didn’t have a particularly large impact on the country’s electricity production. Meanwhile, Figure 3 shows the sharp change in nuclear energy use in 2011, from 20.4-17.1GM.

That brings me to coal.

Germany is using two main kinds of coal: lignite (brown coal) and hard coal. Lignite is the lowest-quality coal, usually formed from compressed peat (60-70% carbon content and 10-20 million Joules/kg of heat content). It is also the lowest-cost coal, often found in shallow deposits close to power sources. Hard coal, such as anthracite (92-98% carbon content and 26-33 million Joules/kg of heat content), comes exclusively from deep mines in just a few countries in the world, which makes it significantly more expensive. We can see from Table 2 that as of 2018, the installed capacities—that is, the maximum output of electricity that a generator can produce under ideal conditions—of lignite and hard coal in Germany’s power generation were similar. However, an announcement came from Berlin earlier this year that:

Germany, one of the world’s biggest consumers of coal, will shut down all 84 of its coal-fired power plants over the next 19 years to meet its international commitments in the fight against climate change, a government commission said Saturday.

Shortly after this announcement, Chancellor Angela Merkel made a follow-up statement about the timeline for this undertaking:

TOKYO (Reuters) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Tuesday that her country would withdraw from coal-fired power production by 2038, showing her support for the deadline recommended by a government-appointed commission.

The so-called coal commission said last month that Germany should shut down all of its coal-fired power plants by 2038 at the latest and proposed at least 40 billion euros ($45.7 billion) in aid to coal-mining states affected by the phase-out.

Chancellor Merkel was voicing the decisions of a power commission that reflected the transition’s various stakeholders. Below are some of the details of this commission:

4.2 June 2018: the Coal Commission is set up

In June 2018, the federal government moved to set up the Commission for Growth, Structural Change and Employment (Kommission Wachstum, Strukturwandel und Beschäftigung, KWSB). In principle, this is the round table with representatives of environmental associations, trade unions, business and energy associations, the affected regions and scientists that Agora Energiewende had advocated two and a half years earlier.

The Coal Commission was given a mandate to develop a plan to gradually reduce and shut down coal-fired power generation, including a completion date and the necessary accompanying legal, economic, social, renaturalization and structural measures. The plan was to be completed prior to the UN climate conference in Katowice in early December 2018. This timing was intentional: Federal Environment Minister Svenja Schulze was to take the international stage to announce that Germany, the world champion lignite user, is setting a rational course to address climate change. Everyone knows that Germany has been diligently expanding renewable energies and shutting down dangerous nuclear energy. However, everyone also knows that coal is largely responsible for Germany’s failure to meet its climate targets and the stagnation of its transition to renewable energy.

1.2 Funding for coal mining regions

The Coal Commission made recommendations on how to organize structural change in the coal mining regions in terms of industrial and employment policy. The central theme of the Coal Commission on the policy side was to cushion the impact of structural change.

The prime ministers of the coal states have demanded billions of euros for the structural change and will probably get them. The Coal Commission proposes a law to secure €1.3 billion annually over 20 years, distributed to all four coal mining regions. In addition, €0.7 billion per year are to be made available by the federal government independently of the budget. Together, this amounts to the €40 billion over 20 years that are currently being cited again and again in the media. It is not yet clear which region will get how much. An allocation formula still has to be found. A colorful bouquet of proposals for structural development in the coal mining regions – around 180 pages – was appended to the report. The projects can be broadly categorized in five main areas of action:

  • Promotion of infrastructure expansion and acceleration (e.g. research on the supply of liquefied gas)

  • Promotion of public service measures (e.g. provision of a railway link from the rural district of Helmstedt to the regional center of Wolfsburg)

  • Economic promotion and development (e.g. Green Battery Park Euskirchen)

  • Promotion of R&D, science and innovation (e.g. establishment of a mobility research center at the Kerpen autobahn intersection)

  • Labor market policy, development of skilled workers (e.g. postgraduate studies in Intelligent Manufacturing at the Bautzen University of Cooperative Education)

As it turns out, while coal removal was not Germany’s first step, it remains a very important component in the energy transition. As I have mentioned several times on this blog, every step in the energy transition, no matter where or when it takes place, involves winners and losers. If the “losers” of such a transition are not consulted and compensated, they will do everything in their power to block any progress (see the Yellow Vest demonstrations in France (December 18 and 26, 2018 blogs). I will continue to follow up on how Germany contends with these issues.

Posted in Climate Change, Energy, law, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Renewable Energy in Germany: Windmills

One of the main stops on my extensive summer trip (September 4th blog) was Germany. I have talked about that throughout September (with the exception of my September 10th blog, when I focused on Dubai). This blog will be the last in the series. Specifically, I want to look at why Germany is (or is portrayed as) failing in its attempts to combat climate change via an energy transition away from fossil fuels (September 17th). My wife and I were fortunate enough to have friends drive us through Germany from Holland. We first visited the Magdeburg area, the place where the American army liberated me, my family and 2,500 other prisoners of the Nazis. I am part of a group that includes a local school, trying to erect a monument near the liberation site to celebrate survivors and liberators and memorialize the event. Following an event co-organized by that school, a local family drove us to Berlin.

We drove through about 60% of Germany, seeing the vast mid-country landscape (the shortest distance between Berlin and the Polish border is 247 miles or 398 km); from the Netherlands to the Polish border is 590 miles (950km). Windmills dominated our view as we drove (and this isn’t even the densest area of windmills in Germany; that’s farther north, toward Denmark and the Atlantic Ocean). We took photographs wherever we could. I am including two of them below as Figures 1 and 2. They demonstrate the two main arrangements: one is a densely packed windmill farm owned by a utility company that also oversees power distribution; the other is a more limited number of windmills on the field of a local farm.

windmills, Germany, farm, renewable, energy transition

Figure 1 – Windmill farm

windmill, Germany, farm, renewable, energy transition

Figure 2 – Farm with windmills

I asked around about how much farmers can get for agreeing to host windmills on their land. The response I heard was roughly 200,000 Euros/year. For that kind of money it is no wonder that the landscape is full of these devices. Once I started to investigate the issue in Germany as a whole, I found that the numbers overall look a bit different. There is a great, detailed paper about this, published in Energies (2019, 12, 1587): “Wind Turbines on German Farms—An Economic Analysis.”

Figures 3 and 4 show the full picture in terms of Germany’s use of renewable energy, using data from the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Energy.

The start of the timeline in Figure 3 coincides with the unification of Germany (1990). The inverse trend between GDP and carbon emissions is impressive and certainly worth emulating.

Germany, GDP, economy, energy consumption, emissions, GHGFigure 3

Figure 4 starts 12 years later and looks at the growth in generation capacity among clean energy sources.

Figure 4

Figure 5 shows the ambitious commitments that Germany made in 2010. 2020 will be the first milestone when the country’s progress in the energy transition (see the December 9, 2014 blog for more details) will be evaluated.

power consumption, energy consumption, power, energy, energy transition, greenhouse gases, GHG, renewables, Germany, target, climateFigure 5 Government-approved objectives of the German energy transition (2010)

Chancellor Angela Merkel commented about the present status of the German energy transition. She did not sound particularly optimistic:

ANGELA MERKEL has admitted the dire state of Germany’s automotive industry means the country will fail to achieve it previously set goals. The Chancellor said achieving the goal of 65 percent green electricity by 2023 is “questionable” in light of the industry’s decline. Merkel made the comments during a speech at the International Motor Show in Frankfurt this week where the number of participating companies fell by a quarter from last year, in a sign of the industry’s failings. Some large manufacturers such as Toyota or Fiat did not attend.

Indeed, more recently, after some haggling, Germany decided to spend some 60 billion Euros to get back on track. For many in Germany it was too little, for others it was too much. In any case, it all reflects the country’s efforts to satisfy commitments that the German government made in 2010, under different economic conditions.

In the next blog I will try to compare Germany’s efforts with those of the rest of the world.

Posted in Climate Change, Economics, Electricity, Energy, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Holocaust and Climate Change – Past Meets Future in Hillersleben

I have often reflected here upon my past experiences as a Holocaust survivor and have likened climate change to a self-inflicted genocide. One of my main objectives in this summer’s globetrotting trip was to look at the intersection between my family’s Holocaust history and new efforts to make the future a bit safer from the coming horrors of anthropogenic climate change. Unsurprisingly, this involved visiting key sites in Germany, including Hillersleben.

This week, I am showing some photos, both old and new, of changes within these areas. While I didn’t plan it as such, I am writing this blog on the weekend when millions of young people, inspired by the 16-year-old Greta Thunberg (see August 6th blog), have skipped school to participate in some of the largest global demonstrations in our memory. Their message is clear: they are concerned about climate change and are demanding that adults (especially policymakers) do something about it.

Figure 1, repeated from August 6th, begins my tour of Germany with a section of the Berlin Wall. The rest of the photographs show the evolution of the site of my displaced persons camp— Hillersleben, a town not far from the city of Magdeburg, which was part of East Germany before unification in the 1990s.

Figure 1 – Portion of the Berlin Wall with graffiti that says, “save our planet”

This segment of the Berlin Wall is part of the Topography of Terror museum, built on the site of buildings which during the Nazi regime held the headquarters of the SD, Einsatzgruppen, and Gestapo.

     Hillersleben, Magdeburg, cemetery, Jewish, Holocaust Figure 2 – The edge of the Jewish cemetery in Hillersleben and the house behind it in 2008

Hillersleben, Magdeburg, cemetery, Jewish, Holocaust

Figure 3 – Interior of the house shown in Figure 2

Hillersleben, Magdeburg, cemetery, Jewish, Holocaust, solar power

Figure 4 – August 2019 photograph of the same Jewish cemetery in Hillersleben. A group of solar cells has replaced the house.

 Hillersleben, Magdeburg, cemetery, Jewish, Holocaust, solar power

Figure 5 – 1945 photograph of the cemetery, on display in the Magdeburg museum

Hillersleben, Magdeburg, cemetery, Jewish, Holocaust, solar power

Figure 6 – 2008 photograph of the names that were on the gravestones before they were removed from the cemetery

Hillersleben, Magdeburg, cemetery, Jewish, HolocaustFigure 7 – 2019 photograph of an engraved stone memorial to the graves that were removed. It lists no names.

Hillersleben, Magdeburg, cemetery, Jewish, Holocaust, solar powerFigure 8 – Extent of the solar cells around Hillersleben, 2019

Hillersleben, Magdeburg, cemetery, Jewish, Holocaust, solar power, windmill

Figure 9 – Solar cells, windmills, cows, and corn for biogas around Hillersleben

Hillersleben, Magdeburg, water, wastewater

Figure 10 – Part of the town’s wastewater disposal system

Hillersleben will be the territorial meeting of my own past and my grandchildren’s future (should they accept it as such). It seems to be actively working toward sustainability, so hopefully its legacy will continue to be one of mitigating the forces of genocide—both Nazi-led and self-inflicted.

Posted in Energy, Holocaust, Sustainability, Water | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Cherry-Picking Data in an Energy Transition: Renewables & Polar Bears

My original plan was to continue writing about what I learned during my summer-long trip. Last week I focused on Dubai and I thought to focus this week’s blog on the greenhouses in the Netherlands. However, as usual in this business, reality has a way of disrupting our plans. In this case, it was an article in Forbes that caught my attention: “Why Renewables Can’t Save the Climate.” Below are some excerpts from the piece:

But the centerpiece of all the Democratic candidates is renewables, upon which the candidates propose spending trillions.

Doing so, they all claim, will be good for the economy and the natural environment, including by preventing climate change. But around the world, renewables are in crisis because they are making electricity more expensive, subsidies are expiring, and projects are being blocked by wildlife conservationists and local communities.

In Germany, the world leader in renewables, just 35 wind turbines were installed this year. The country needs to install 1,400 per year to meet its climate change targets.

“While climate activist Greta Thunberg is sailing with wind power to the Sustainability Summit in New York,” wrote Die Welt, “the German wind power industry is sailing into the doldrums.”

The halting of wind deployment in Germany has resulted in the industry shedding 25,000 jobs over the last year.

It’s not clear Germany can handle much more wind. Its electricity grid operator increasingly has to cut off electricity from industrial wind farms on windy, low-demand days, to avoid blow-outs.

The same is happening in California. The grid operator increasingly must pay neighboring states to take the state’s excess solar electricity, and cut off power coming from solar farms, on sunny, low-demand days.

The article focuses on criticism of the global energy shift from fossil to sustainable solar sources such as wind, photovoltaics, and biogas. It pays special attention to the negative consequences of these new systems in Germany and California. There are other articles that address similar complaints within Germany. I just came home from a trip that involved driving across Germany and seeing the changing landscape with my own eyes, but I’ll delay that discussion for later.

Meanwhile, I started to think about both the physics of energy transitions and, separately, about polar bears.

Figure 1 shows a picture taken from the internet of a polar bear with her two cubs on an isolated piece of ice surrounded by water. The polar bears look real and feel different from the fake polar bear shown in Al Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” which drew strong objections from many of my students when I screened the film as an introduction to the topic of climate change.

polar bears, renewables, Arctic, sea ice, climate change

Figure 1

I followed my thinking about these polar bears on their small piece of ice in the middle of a vast span of blue water by zooming out to show the context of the larger area in Figure 2, a satellite picture of ice melting in the Arctic.

Arctic, sea ice, climate change, meltFigure 2

I imagined the mother bear “explaining” what is happening in their environment to her two cubs. She obviously doesn’t have any thermometers to measure the temperature of the water and didn’t attend classes that would enable her to explain the phase transitions between water and ice. However, the sheer scale of the satellite picture shown in Figure 2 is so massive that it would likely be beyond the bears’ comprehension. More likely, the mother bear would simply teach her cubs that water extends a very, very far way. An earlier blog (April 16, 2019) showed us that before the beginning of the 18th century, humans were not much better educated on this issue than the mother bear. We had no thermometers until 1709, and no satellites or any other useful technological gadgets to help us with context. In other words, the mother bear’s best advice for her cubs: stick around and hope for the best—is not far from our own past strategy.

Phase transformations are generally the transitions from one phase or state of matter to another one by heat transfer. The term is most commonly used to describe transitions between solid, liquid, and gaseous states of matter. Freezing and boiling water are probably the simplest examples but there are many possibilities for this kind of transition. It is not surprising that a global energy transition is rich with options for such transitions.

People experiment with almost everything. If the experiment succeeds, they have a chance to harvest big awards; if it fails they—or their investors—will lose money. Since the transition is global, countries tend to experiment with various forms of subsidies that spur international competition. If these subsidies are time-limited, however, we get strong fluctuations in the profitability of the initiative.

With the modern technology and communication modes available to almost everybody, it is easy to cherry-pick successes and failures that back up our various agendas. This is exactly what seems to be happening right now.

A recent (2019) report, “Global Wind Turbine Order Capacity Increased 111% In Q2’19” provides a somewhat different picture of current affairs than the above articles portray:

Global wind turbine order intake increased by an impressive 111% in the second quarter of 2019, according to new figures published by renewable energy research firm Wood Mackenzie Power & Renewables, overtaking the previous record set in the fourth quarter of 2018

Wood Mackenzie published its Global Wind Turbine Order Analysis: Q3 2019 report last week, showing that wind energy developers around the world ordered a record 31 gigawatts (GW) of wind turbine capacity in the second quarter of 2019 — a 111% year-over-year increase and a new record.

Year-to-date demand amounted to 79 GW thanks in large part to increased demand in China and the United States and despite a decrease of 41% YoY in Europe during this year’s second quarter. China and the US enjoyed impressive quarters for capacity ordered as developers made a beeline to procure turbines with sufficient time to commission projects before 2020 subsidy deadlines in both countries ran out.

Unsurprisingly, Germany and the rest of the EU have flagged somewhat in their pursuit of these efforts due to the European economy’s slowing over this period.

In June, one of the most respected scientific publications, Applied Physics Reviews, published a detailed, peer reviewed, technical report about the status of wind power, with an emphasis on European and German efforts. The report, in Volume 6, Issue 3, is called, “Powering the 21st century by wind energy—Options, facts, figures.” All the authors of this report work at the Fraunhofer Institutes.

Cherry-picking convenient small instances (even if they’re true) from within the complex global energy transition is not much different from picking a weather trend that lasts a few days anywhere in the world and using it to make a statement about the global climate. It is also not too far from a person shouting in the middle of the night somewhere, that, “It’s dark, therefore there is no sun,” as I showed in a caricature in February 12, 2019.

Since I have already published a few blogs detailing the German energy transition (December 9 30, 2014), I will update the country’s situation next week.

Posted in Anthropocene, Anthropogenic, Climate Change, Energy, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Dubai: City of Contradictions

Dubai, UAE, United Arab Emirates, proposal, dome, development, sustainable, mall of the worldFigure 1 – The proposed “Mall of the World” in Dubai

Last week, I posted some outlines of the trip that my wife and I took over the summer. The trip anchored on three family weddings that took place in Brisbane, Australia; Paris; and Krakow, Poland, as well as a commitment in Germany. The latter was an event near Magdeburg, Germany, where a school is leading an effort to erect a monument to both the American army and those that they liberated, including me, my mother, my uncle, and 2,500 other survivors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp (see the June 11th blog from this year).

As I mentioned last week, this was a very long trip and we needed some breaks, especially on the way from Australia to Europe. We decided that Dubai would be a good place to stop: we had never visited but many of our friends had recommended that we do so. We were a bit hesitant because we knew what to expect there at the height of the summer. Figure 2 shows the temperature and precipitation by month. We visited in the beginning of August. It was obvious to us that we would end up jumping from one air-conditioned place to another, with very little time spent outdoors. However, one of the aspects that interested me most (and fortunately interested my wife as well), was that it might give us a “realistic” picture of what we might expect the world to look like by the end of the century in a business as usual scenario (barring us fleeing to Mars).

weather, celsius, temperature, rainfall, precipitation weather, fahrenheit, temperature, rainfall, precipitationFigure 2 – The difference in precipitation between the driest month and the wettest month is 28 mm. The average temperatures throughout the year vary by 15.6 °C (Δ 28°F).

I found the opening picture (Figure 1) on the site ZME Science. It shows one of the solutions that was—and perhaps is still—being seriously considered. The site explains it this way:

Appropriately called Mall of the World, the city will cover an area of 48 million square feet and will set new records for various large behemoth structures: the largest indoor theme park in the world (the one actually covered by the dome), the largest mall (8 million sq. ft.), along with 20,000 hotel rooms catering to all types of tourists, and a cultural district with theaters built around New York’s Broadway, Ramblas Street in Barcelona, and London’s Oxford Street. If you ever had any doubt the Saudis have a thing for the ‘big’, here you go…

Aside from the obvious mistake in this paragraph that we are not talking about Saudi Arabia but rather about the United Arab Emirates (Dubai is the largest city in the UAE and the home of about half the country’s population), the description is more or less accurate.

Can we expand the concept globally? Many countries are trying on a local scale (see the October 24, 2017 blog) but none have attempted the scale shown in Figure 1. Maybe Dubai is the right place to start.

Of course, Dubai has a somewhat dubious recent history and there are some possible dark sides to these proposed developments:

Three decades ago, Dubai was little more than desert.

The city exploded in prosperity after the United Arab Emirates discovered oil in 1966, leading to a development boom that has resulted in the world’s tallest building, the second-biggest mall, one of the most luxurious hotels, and more skyscrapers than any city besides New York and Hong Kong.

Oil and gas now accounts for less than 1% of Dubai’s economy, down from 50% at one point, according to Bloomberg.

But for those looking at Dubai and wishing their country or city would use it as a model, Dubai may be more of a cautionary tale. The shiny, glass towers hide the trampling of the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers that built them. They hide the often opaque and arbitrary legal system, and the fear over what happens to the economy when the cranes stop building and the flow of foreign investment dries up, as happened in 2009.

Publications such as the UK’s Independent have further amplified the more nefarious aspects of the country and the project: “This is a city built from nothing in just a few wild decades on credit and ecocide, suppression and slavery.”

I am including some of the pictures I took during my visit: Dubai, UAE, United Arab Emirates, development, sustainable, Burj Khalifa, tower, mall

Figure 3 – The Dubai Mall and Burj Khalifa tower

Dubai, UAE, United Arab Emirates, development, sustainable, Burj Khalifa, tower, mall

Figure 4 – Near the Dubai Mall

Once you enter the Dubai Mall, the heat is no problem. Nor is the income distribution (for you!). This is one of the biggest malls in the world, with luxury stores from all over the planet, American-sized prices, and as many restaurants as you care to count. The entertainment includes a great aquarium, on-site scuba diving, and the world’s largest fountain. You can also climb the world’s tallest building (so far), the Burj Khalifa (this comes with a US $200 price tag that we skipped), and so on.

Dubai, UAE, United Arab Emirates, development, construction, Expo 2020Figure 5 – Major construction in preparation for Expo 2020 in Dubai

Construction activity is everywhere—as shown in Figure 5—mainly in anticipation of Expo 2020. However, a recent Reuters poll predicts a sharp decline in house prices.

Figure 6 shows a different picture of Dubai: that of the old city, still critically dependent on window air conditioners.

Dubai, UAE, United Arab Emirates, air conditioning, air conditioner, old, A/CFigure 6 – Old Dubai

Sustainable City

However, the most striking example of a direction that Dubai might be taking came during our first day there, when we visited its “Sustainable City.” According to Wikipedia:

The Sustainable City is a 46 hectare property development in DubaiUnited Arab Emirates. Situated on the Al Qudra road, it is the first net zero energy development in the Emirate of Dubai. The development includes 500 villas, 89 apartments and a mixed use area consisting of offices, retail, healthcare facilities, a nursery and food and beverage outlets. Phase 2 of the development will include a hotel, school and innovation centre.

The City was developed by Dubai-based Diamond Developers, whose Chief Executive Officer, Faris Saeed, has stated that much of his inspiration for the development came from UC Davis West Village.

Key elements of the City include:

  • a residential area of 500 townhouses and courtyard villas inspired by Dubai’s old Bastakiyadistrict
  • 11 natural ‘biodome’ greenhouses, organic farm and individual garden farms for local food production that use a passive cooling method with fans and pads.
  • 10 MW peak solar production
  • waste water recycling, with segregated drainage for greywater andblackwater using papyrus as a biofilter
  • biking and shaded jogging trails
  • charging stations for electric cars
  • an equestrian center

Apart from periphery roads and car parking areas, the development is a car-free site.

The parking areas are topped by solar shading featuring solar panels that are connected to an electrical grid to supply energy into different sections of the city.

Panels are also placed on the roofs of all of the houses.

The construction waste is reused to furniture the public spaces.

The townhouses have UV reflective paint to reduce the thermal heat gain inside the houses.

Here are some pictures from inside the Sustainable City:

Dubai, UAE, United Arab Emirates, development, sustainable, sustainable cityFigure 7 – A model of the full Sustainable City

Dubai, UAE, United Arab Emirates, development, sustainable, sustainable city, greenhouse, plants, growthFigure 8 – A greenhouse

Dubai, UAE, United Arab Emirates, development, sustainable, sustainable city, solar, solar power, renewable energy, renewable, humidity, dehumidifier, water, heatFigure 9 – Solar-powered dehumidifier and water heater

Dubai, UAE, United Arab Emirates, development, sustainable, sustainable city, solar, solar power, renewable energy, renewable, ozone, ozonator, technology, water, sterilization, Figure 10 – Solar-powered ozonator for cleaning

The United Arab Emirate’s officials have collected articles about its efforts to make the country and the city of Dubai sustainable on a site called The Sustainabilist.

Energy storage, so essential in any setting that relies on sustainable solar energy, was not mentioned. Nor was doing so necessary on the part of the Sustainable City’s tour guides. The city has an agreement with the emirate that all renewable energy is routed through (and stored by) the emirate’s mostly fossil-fueled power company. They buy it at the same price as traditional fuels, and those who produce it can then drawn upon it when needed for the same price. This process of selling excess solar power to a utility and then using it later is called load leveling. In Germany, the price that you get from the utility for the access energy that you deliver is only 10% of what you have to pay when you draw upon it later. That the UAE is offering equal prices for both directions constitutes a great subsidy. Not only that, UAE’s utility companies signed long, 25-year or more contracts to buy electricity from these solar power plants, which gives the solar developers more time to pay off the initial investment, making for cheaper solar power overall.

Next week I will start to explore other stops from this trip.

Posted in Climate Change, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments