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Misrepresenting the German Energy Situation

Amory Lovins responds to Bret Stephens’s New York Times article “Climate of Unintended Consequences”

Mr. Stephens misrepresents the German energy situation in three ways. First, he compares 2016’s record renewable electricity production with the whole economy’s carbon dioxide emissions. In 2015–16, those rose 0.9 percent—one-third due to leap day and a cold winter—as transport fuels and the gas that heats half the buildings got efficient and renewable slower than renewable electricity grew. Yet Germany’s coal burn fell in 2016, both in total and in the power sector, as renewables generated 29 percent of 2016 electricity and met 32 percent of domestic needs. (The difference was record net exports, 9 percent of production, notably to offset France’s nuclear decline with cheaper German wholesale power.)

Next, Mr. Stephens cherry-picks his emissions comparison with 2009, when the deep global recession made GDP nosedive to 13 percent below 2016’s, so energy use and emissions plummeted too, facilitating his deceptive conclusion that “emissions are almost exactly what they were in 2009.” But that’s wrong anyway. During 2009–2016, renewable electricity grew 98 percent (nearly twice nuclear’s decline), and the power sector’s CO2 emissions fell 3.5 percent, or 16 percent per dollar of GNP—hardly an “illusion of ecological virtue.” Germany’s renewables significantly cut its CO2 emissions, and helped make wholesale electricity prices some of the lowest in Europe (as Germany’s rising power exports confirm).

Third, Mr. Stephens cites German households’ high electric bills without mentioning that as a longstanding policy, home electricity is heavily taxed, averaging 55 percent taxes and fees. Only 22 percent pays for renewables—not just for the households themselves but also for billions of Euros of annual cross-subsidy to thousands of industries, though German taxpayers don’t subsidize renewables as Americans do.

Mr. Stephens is in good company in misunderstanding German energy policy and outcomes. Both have been widely misrepresented, including by the New York Times. Some of the most common misconceptions are corrected herehere, and here. Today, Mr. Stephens’s latest post recommends Der Spiegel as a “reputable” source on German energy policy. Its sensationalist campaign against renewables has long astonished German and other readers. Mr. Stephens may as well look to supermarket tabloids for evidence about climate.