Over-heated trains, dying fish, and devastating forest fires. So far, the extreme summer heat has brought practically nothing but bad news - and with it comes the fact that the planet is getting measurably hotter by the year, with unknown consequences.
But the Fraunhofer Institute for Wind Energy and Energy Systems Technology released a report on Thursday that offers a little sun-related succor. The institute has recorded better-than-expected progress in harnessing the power of the sun on these hot summer days. Much earlier than expected, solar, wind and water power are expected to cover Germany's total energy demands.
Rainer Baake of the environmental group Deutsche Umwelthilfe (German Environment Aid), which commissioned the new report, expressed his delight. "Nobody expected the development of renewable energy to be as quick as we're experiencing in Germany," he told Deutsche Welle. "Our government now estimates that in the year 2020 we will already have 40 percent feed-in from renewable sources. That is phenomenal."
Carsten Pape of the Fraunhofer Institute says this could have a real effect on Germany's carbon dioxide emissions targets. "Theoretically, because things have developed much faster than expected one could raise the targets and say, 'more is possible.' The CO2 emissions through energy production could be reduced by around 40 percent," he said.
The conflict of supply
But there is one problem. The current German government has decided to reverse an earlier decision to phase out nuclear power by 2020. Instead, Angela Merkel's center-right coalition has opted to extend the operational lifespan of nuclear power stations.
This puts the grid in a paradoxical situation. Since Germany has introduced a law designed to give renewable energy precedence on the grid, and since there will be times in the next few years - the sunniest, windiest times - when renewable sources will be able to cover 100 percent of Germany's energy needs, nuclear power stations will be surplus to requirements. But they can't be, because nuclear power stations can't be switched off at short notice.
"That means that we need flexible power generators that can always produce electricity when wind doesn't blow and sun doesn't shine," explains Baake. "It is simply not possible to shut off nuclear power generators from nine o'clock in the morning to four o'clock in the afternoon, for example. And that means we're going to have a big conflict in our electricity system if our government decides in favor of life-time extension for nuclear power stations."
Because the lion's share of renewable energy in Germany comes from wind and solar power, the technological challenge for renewable energy remains storage. But Europe-wide cooperation can also help. Different countries specialise in different renewable technologies.
"Future technologies like off-shore wind are very strong in Britain, and I think this is good because we can learn from each other," said Baake. "But we should never forget about the goal - and the goal is 100 percent renewable energy, at the latest by 2050."
Author: Ben Knight
Editor: Michael Lawton