Kassel. The energy transition is making only sluggish progress. The return of coal-based power generation and the resultant shutdown of low-CO2 gas-fired power plants are setting back the climate targets of the German federal government. So how can the energy transition be brought back on track? The political measures needed and the contribution that natural gas can make are described by Dr. Felix Christian Matthes, Research Coordinator for Energy & Climate Policy at the Öko-Institut (Institute for Applied Ecology), in an interview with WINGAS.
Mr. Matthes, the energy transition has attracted public criticism. What is the present situation with regard to the energy transition and can the ambitious climate goals of the German federal government even be achieved given the current status quo?
Felix Christian Matthes: Various aspects of the energy transition are coming in for criticism by different parties with varying degrees of justification. In view of the (electricity) price debate, it is clear that massive investment needs to be made in the energy system in the next few years and more money must therefore be forthcoming in the system. That costs are currently distributed unequally to the detriment of small-scale consumers and to the benefit of energy-intensive industries is simply industrial policy and has little to do with the energy transition. What's more serious is the foreseeable failure to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets, at least when looking at the period up to 2020.
Which incentives must politics offer to enable the energy transition to succeed?
Matthes: The energy transition calls for great efforts in many areas. Central to such efforts are firstly and primarily an increase in the efficiency of buildings and vehicles, the introduction of emission-free energy sources such as regenerative energies, electricity or hydrogen in the heat and mobility markets. But above all, it's also a question of increasing the use of renewable energies in power generation while, at the same time, reducing the share of coal in the fossil resources used to provide power. And finally, an increasingly important challenge is to set up new and adapt the existing network and storage infrastructures required by the energy transition.
The energy transition is still, above all, an electricity transition. Coal-based electricity is enjoying a renaissance, and gas-fired power plants can now no longer be operated economically. How can this trend be halted?
Matthes: A key initial strategy is to revive the European emissions trading system. Whether, to what extent and, more importantly, how quickly this could be done, is still open to question. Consideration must therefore also be given to temporary amendments or even alternatives, to CO2 minimum prices and regulatory provisions. However, what is important is to ensure that, in future, urgently needed low-emission and flexible power plants do not fall victim to the upcoming reduction of surpluses. It will not be possible to ignore the question of suitability for a future low-CO2 and ultimately regenerative power system when markets are inevitably created to provide guaranteed power station capacity.
Natural gas is the cleanest of all fossil energy carriers. What role can natural gas play in the energy transition?
Matthes: Natural gas is a low-CO2 bridging energy source. In the heat market, it can make a short-term contribution to help replace remaining oil-heating systems but will become less important in terms of quantity. In the electricity sector, natural gas will have to play a key role primarily in combined heat and power generation. Furthermore, we will need substantial additional gas power station capacity that will be little utilized and therefore consume only limited amounts of natural gas. In my view, it is still unclear as to what extent natural gas can and will play a significant role in the transport sector.
Which challenges does this present for the heat sector?
Matthes: In the heat sector, there must and will be a considerable increase in energy efficiency. This means that, in the long term, there will also be a sharp drop in the use of natural gas. Natural gas offerings will, more and more, need to be combined with solar heat generation and, in the future, increasingly with financing offerings for energy efficiency. Much more so than at present, energy expertise will have to be marketed in tandem with financing and IT expertise.
Natural-gas vehicles no longer lead a niche existence but are now a common sight on our roads. All major automakers include natural-gas vehicles in their model ranges. How do you see the future potential of natural gas in the transport sector?
Matthes: The extent to which natural-gas vehicles can gain ground depends, above all, on providing the necessary natural-gas infrastructure and maintaining current reduced tax rates. The infrastructure has been improved considerably in the last few years but I doubt whether the reduced tax rates will be permanent. In the transport sector, what's needed are radical rather than step-by-step innovations. And, in my opinion, such innovations are more likely in the electric mobility and hydrogen sectors or in second and third generation biofuels.