Energy expert Weber calls for an unleashed energy market. (Photo: Greens MPs/​Flickr)

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Klimareporter°: Mr. Weber, Germany is "drastically behind" in climate action, as the new Green Minister of Economics Robert Habeck has admitted. According to the 'traffic light' government, electricity production based on renewable energy sources must be more than doubled by as early as 2030. Can that actually be accomplished?

Eicke Weber: Yes, certainly. We have already seen in 2012/13 what a level of rapid expansion of renewable energy is possible, especially in the case of solar power, if only we allow it and provide the necessary incentives. In contrast to conventional power plants, the expansion of wind and solar power can be realized very quickly, and if this is done intelligently in a decentralized manner, we essentially only have to worry about storage and less about new long power lines.

How can we achieve this?

It would be important to unleash the energy market. In other words, customers must be allowed to really benefit from the low costs of renewable energy. This includes not only self-consumption without financial burdens, but also the possibility of forming local supply units, neighbourhoods, districts that can generate very low-cost electricity themselves and distribute and use it internally.

But with such a turbo expansion, problems with nature conservation are foreseeable.

I see the greatest potential for conflict with the old fossil fuel utilities, which will of course cry foul because their easy profits are at stake. This must be resisted politically; for long enough, they have obstructed the fastest possible expansion of renewable energy.

Solar energy has few problems with nature conservation, since large solar installations often allow biotopes to form below the modules, if these areas are not used for agriculture, as is the case with agri-photovoltaics.

I think conservationists' objections to wind power are exaggerated. The number of birds killed by wind turbines is much smaller than the number of birds killed by other hazards such as windows and other glass panels.

Nevertheless, there are many local protests against new windmills. What about those?

I must admit that a large wind turbine is a nuisance to a neighbourhood. Therefore, an attempt should be made to bring the affected neighbourhood along during the planning process, and to involve them in the project, as well as the local community. This is not a bribe, but a compensation for the decrease in value caused by the construction of a wind turbine nearby.

I don't believe in rigid distance rules at all, especially not by federal law. The decisive factor should be the consent of a qualified majority of the affected residents near a wind turbine or wind farm.

When is a full supply of green electricity feasible?

Easily by 2030 – and by 2035, the conversion of virtually the entire economy.

But what about the rare but existing periods during which both sun and wind are scarce?

This can be done by networking, for example with hydropower in the Alpine countries and Norway, by storage, by intelligent load control, and also by gas-fired power plants. This has already been modelled in detail for the years up to 2050.

The current coalition wants to have natural gas power plants built to ensure the stability of the power system. They could later run on hydrogen. Is that the right strategy?

There's nothing to be said against that. The existence of the old coal and nuclear power plants makes gas-fired power plants uneconomical today. We should get rid of these old base-load plants as quickly as possible, and then we'll have an attractive business model for flexible gas-fired power plants and storage.

We will have huge amounts of surplus electricity in the future. We can use this surplus electricity to produce large quantities of green hydrogen in our country – as storage, and to decarbonize steel and concrete production.

And Nord Stream 2 may well become a pipeline for green hydrogen, as we have almost infinite potential in eastern Russia for renewable energy from wind, solar and hydropower that can be piped to us in the form of green hydrogen.

Would the cost even be bearable?

The cost of this transformation is not a wasted cost, but an investment that is financially viable. Yes, we need capital for this, but not taxpayer's money, we just need to create smart and attractive boundary conditions for these lucrative investments – and here I see promising approaches in our new administration.

We should recall: There are insane amounts of capital worldwide, thousands of billions of dollars, that are urgently looking for lucrative, secure investments. All we have to do is create the stable framework conditions that make it attractive for this capital to channel the money into the desired investments.

The German solar industry, a world leader until ten years ago, has virtually disappeared. A new photovoltaic boom in this country would mainly benefit Chinese manufacturers ...

Porträtaufnahme von Eicke Weber.
Photo: ISE

Eicke Weber

is one of the world's most renowned solar researchers. The physicist taught as a professor at the University of California for 23 years and headed the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Research (ISE) in Freiburg from 2006 to 2016. Today, he is co-president of the European Solar Manufacturing Council, which represents photovoltaic manufacturers, research institutes and mechanical engineers.

I don't think that's debatable: we can't just move from dependence on fossil fuel imports to dependence on Chinese solar cells. We still have the world's best solar technology to offer, which we can also produce competitively with our Industry 4.0/5.0 methods.

When the automotive industry recognized the danger of becoming dependent on imports – especially from China – for battery cells, the bosses came to then-Chancellor Merkel and demanded: We need our own battery cell production. An "Important Project of Common European Interest", IPCEI for short, was immediately created, which made it possible to support the development of European battery production with billions of euros from the participating EU countries.

We also need such an IPCEI for the production of solar cells and modules, and we are currently working on this.

But are there even enough skilled workers to handle a renewables boom?

Working in the field of renewable energies, for a clean energy system, is certainly more attractive than working for fossil energy, which is characterized by downward concerns. I don't see any problems there at all.

Another topic: There are more and more voices calling for an extension of the operating lives of the nuclear power plants still on the grid. Do you agree?

Not at all. I say this after our experience with new nuclear power plant construction projects in other countries over the last ten years: While we are spending these billions here on transforming our energy system as quickly as possible, these countries are wasting valuable resources on building ruins. Kalkar sends its regards.

Simply because the electricity from these plants will be far too expensive in competition with electricity from wind and sun at one, two or four cents per kilowatt-hour, depending on the location.

Now there is speculation about small nuclear power plants. The problem is, the cost of electricity will be even higher than for large nuclear power plants, which today is well above ten cents per kilowatt-hour.

What's more, if these countries also expand solar and wind power, they will realize that in a system with a large fraction of fluctuating solar and wind power, there is no longer any room for base-load power plants, which for technical reasons ideally have to run around the clock.

Final question: Do you think Habeck can start the energy transformation 2.0?

Yes, together with Finance Minister Lindner. The two could make a great couple. After all, this is demonstrated by Lindner's clear, negative statement on the subject of nuclear power, as well as his entire speech at the Three Kings Party Conference of the FDP a week ago.

The simple fact is that the fastest possible conversion to renewable energies is an economically sensible process that combines ecology with economy. Obstacles are not in the small and medium-sized businesses, the 'Mittelstand', but among the representatives of old industry, who will be dealt a bad hand by both Habeck and Lindner.