The optimistic message of Fritz Vahrenholt, climate dissenter and CEO of RWE Innogy
"The sun is giving us time to come up with smarter solutions for the Energiewende"
Fritz Vahrenholt, head of the renewable energy arm of RWE and a former hero of the German environmental movement, has been derided in Germany as a lobbyist for the fossil fuel sector after he published a book highly critical of the global warming consensus. But Vahrenholt's message is far from simplistic. He supports the idea of an "Energy Transformation", but argues that the current German approach is too costly and even counterproductive. Germany's renewable energy policies are undermining the country's biodiversity and destroying its forests, he says in an interview with EER. He is convinced that the contribution of CO2 to global warming is being exaggerated and that there is more time to come to genuinely sustainable solutions. "We run the risk of destroying the foundations of our prosperity."
For decades he was a hero of the German environmental movement, but with the recent publication of his book Die Kalte Sonne (The Forgotten Sun) Fritz Vahrenholt (62) has become something of a public enemy to the climate-minded Germans. The subtitle of the book is: "Why the climate catastrophe is not taking place" (Warum die Klimakatastrophe nicht statt findet). The title and subtitle together sum up the main message of the book: there is climate change due to anthropogenic greenhouse gases, but the influence of the sun has so far been underestimated. As the sun is heading towards a more inactive phase we will not get a climate catastrophe in the next century.
Although this can be viewed as a positive message, many people in Germany don’t see it that way. The book has been severely criticized in German quality newspapers although a more popular newspaper like Bild shouted 'The CO2 Lie' in a headline. Die Zeit called him 'Störenfritz', troublemaker Fritz. A planned lecture at the University of Osnabrück was cancelled because the university found the topic too provocative. Meanwhile the book is selling very well (22,000 so far) and for this reason some newspapers are already comparing him with Thilo Sarrazin, the controversial politician who published the book Deutschland schafft sich ab (Germany Abolishes Itself) in which Sarrazin criticized German immigration politics. Sarrazin had to give up his job at the Deutsche Bundesbank but he sold a spectacular 1.2 million copies of his book.
What makes it all the more spicy is that Vahrenholt is not just anyone. Since five years he has been CEO of RWE Innogy, the part of RWE responsible for the production of renewable energy. RWE Innogy “aims to vigorously grow renewable energies in Europe”, it says on its website, and the company has 3.7 GW of renewables assets in its portfolio
(2.6 GW in operation and 1.1 GW under construction). RWE, however, is also the biggest German producer of coal- and lignite-based electricity. Critics therefore see a direct conflict of interest. Vahrenholt’s coauthor Sebastian Lüningworks for RWE DEA, the oil productionarm of RWE. In the interview that EER had with Vahrenholt in Essen, he says their connection with RWE makes it even harder to have a constructive public debate about the book and about climate change. “People are saying ‘we don’t have to read that book because it is influenced by the company’. I can tell you that’s not true. Lots of people inside RWE do not support this book,because it is politically incorrect”.
In 1978 Vahrenholt, who is a chemical scientist by education, wrote the book Seveso ist überall. Die tödlichen Risiken der Chemie (Seveso is everywhere. The deadly risks of chemistry). The book was a bestseller and Vahrenholt became a friend of the environmental movement. “The book was critical about the chemical industry. I was the good guy.” In the eighties he went into politics and became ‘Umweltsenator’ (senator for the environment) in Hamburg. In 1998 he moved to Shell where his task was to improve the image of the oil company after the controversy around the Brent Spar. In 2001 he became CEO of REpower Systems, a wind energy company, before he switched to RWE Innogy in 2007.
Under his leadership, RWE increased its production of renewable energy from 1 to 4.3% of the company’s total electricity production and 7.6% of its capacity. RWE Innogy employs 1450 people. Later this year Vahrenholt will step down as CEO of RWE Innogy(he will remain on the Supervisory Board of the company) and become president of the German Wild Animals Foundation (Deutsche Wildtier Stiftung).
When your job is to produce renewable energy and when you are responsible for almost 1500 employees, what made you decide to write such a detailed book about the global warming debate?
This was directly related to my work. Every year RWE invests 1.2 billion euros in RWE Innogy. But in 2009 there was little wind in the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland and our profits went down. During the annual meeting, Jürgen Großmann, the CEO of RWE, said to me: ‘I give you so much money, but you bring back too little, what’s going on?’ I said there is no wind. He said ‘come on, next
year I don’t want to hear the same excuse’. But 2010 was again not very windy as was 2011. However, the climate models of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UN body which coordinates international climate research, editor) said the rise of CO2 concentrations would lead to more wind in Northern Europe!I started looking in the scientific literature and found out the lack of wind had nothing to do with CO2 and global warming. In our region the weather is influenced by the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), a natural cycle with a period of about 60 years. For 30 years you have more wind in the winter, for 30 years less. And if there is less wind the winters are colder, like they were in 2009 and 2010. I published my findings in an op-ed in Die Welt in 2010. I was criticized by Stefan Rahmstorf, a well-known and influential German climate scientist. Sebastian Lüning then wrote in a reaction on Rahmstorf’s blog there was some merit in my analysis. I discovered that Lüning also worked for RWE and that we actually worked in the same building in Hamburg. We decided to team up and two years later we finished the book.
But you could have written a couple of op-eds, why a 450 page book in which you criticize mainstream climate science and the IPCC?
In Germany the Energiewende (energy transition) is mainly driven by fear of climate change. There is a generally accepted idea that global warming or climate change is the major environmental crisis facing us and that we have to act now. In my opinion this leads to hasty measures which cost the German economy many billions of euros. So when Sebastian and I realized we are being misinformed by the climate establishment, a book was the logical consequence.
Did you have indications that the dangers of global warming were overblown?
For years I believed the science of the IPCC was solid. I had the famous hockey stick graph (a graph purporting to show that current global temperatures are by far the highest in the last 1000 years, editor) in all my presentations. But then I read the book The Hockey Stick Illusion by Andrew Montford, which is very critical about this graph. Slowly I started to realize we have been misguided by the IPCC about the natural fluctuations in the climate in the past thousands of years. The whole purpose of the IPCC has been to get rid of the so-called Medieval Warm Period, a warm period around the year 1000 when the Vikings settled on Greenland and were able to live there for a couple of centuries. After this warm period we have had the Little Ice Age which coincided with a very quiet sun. Many papers have been published in the last few years which show that the Little Ice Age was not a local European phenomena, as the IPCC suggests. So yes, the IPCC has underestimated the natural fluctuations of the climate and overestimated the role of CO2.
You do not deny though that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and that it will generate warming. What is the main difference between your view and the generally accepted view that CO2 is currently the dominant climate factor?
The IPCC has made a couple of errors. The first is that they have diminished the influence of the sun to about five percent of the effect of CO2. So the IPCC is claiming that since the end of the Little Ice Age CO2 caused twenty times more warming than the sun. In this period the sun went from a very quiet to a very active state. From 1950 to 2000 the sun was more active than it has been for probably a thousandyears. Now the IPCC mainly looks at sunspots and what is called total solar irradiation. But there is more, there is the strong magnetic field of the sun and there are probably mechanisms in the climate system that amplify fluctuations in solar activity. The amplifying mechanisms are still under investigation, but the IPCC ignores these in their climate models. We therefore think that the contribution of the sun is much larger and that it can explain around 50 percent of the warming we have had so far. This also means the effect of CO2 is smaller.
A second major issue is that temperatures have been on a plateau now for fifteen years. Yes it is warm, but it has not been getting warmer anymore. When we and other critics point this out we are criticized. Our critics say fifteen years is not enough to make judgments about the climate. However the climate models of the IPCC expected a warming of 0.2 degrees between 2000 and 2010 and another 0.2 degrees until 2020. So far this warming has not taken place. We can explain this, but the IPCC should come up with an explanation too. So far they haven’t done this. Worse, most people are not even aware that the climate hasn’t been warming for the past fifteen years.
Has the IPCC failed to provide us with a balanced assessment of the scientific literature?
In 2010 I was asked to review a special IPCC report on renewable energy. I noted many errors and in the end someone from Greenpeace edited a main part of the summary of the report. A Greenpeace scenario, claiming that in 2050 we can produce 80 percent of our energy with renewables was presented as one of the major conclusions. The approach was not very scientific and I started wondering how other IPCC reports were being made.
I found out that one third of the core writing team of the Summary for Policymakers in 2007 had connections with Greenpeace and WWF. Now I don’t claim this proves the report is false, but suppose that people found out that IPCC summary reports were written by people with connections to Exxon or Shell, would that be acceptable?
The IPCC is first of all a political organization. Most of the 31 members of the IPCC Secretary come from developing countries like Sudan, Madagascar, Iran or Cuba. These countries are mainly interested in having money transferred from the north to the south. From that perspective it is understandablethat they do not support the view that the sun is playing a major role in global warming.
In recent years there has been growing evidence that the effect of black carbon on the climate is much bigger than we thought, more than fifty percent of the effect of CO2. This is something that we can address relatively easy in a global program. However, black carbon is a problem of the south, of Africa and countries like China and India. So the UN will never address this as a main topic.
With the book you have made your own assessment of the literature and you have even made your own prediction of the future. What can we expect?
The IPCC has underestimated the influence of a natural 60 year cycle, which is dominated by the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation. The climate models cannot yet simulate these natural variations. So part of the recent warming was not caused by CO2. These oscillations now move from their warm to their cooler phase. And at the same time the sun is moving to an inactive phase. We therefore expect cooling to at least 2035 and maybe even 2050. But we do expect a modest warming from greenhouse gases in 2100, in the order of one degree Celsius. So the good news is that we can stay below the two degree target. The sun is giving us time to make sensible decisions about the energy transition.
Are you suggesting that Germany is not taking the right steps?
Indeed I think we are on an awkward energy path. To give a few examples: on twenty percent of our agricultural land we are growing energy crops, mainly corn. This monoculture is endangering natural diversity. We are burning wheat to produce bioethanol. For the first time in forty years we even have to import wheat. Importing food like wheat for energy use, is that really the solution we want? Several federal states (Länder) are opening up their forests for wind energy with dramatic impacts. For each wind turbine you have to cut a hole in the forest of five to seven hectares. To build a turbine of 80 tons you need big cranes and a road through the forest. A lot of forest will be destroyed and many animals, like bats for example, will be killed. The fear for climate change is so big that the Germans are even sacrificing their forests.
Is Germany too ambitious in its climate targets?
Only Europe, Australia and New Zealand are taking measures against CO2 but these countries emit only 14 percent of the world’s total. Other important countries, like China, the US, India, Canada, Japan don’t support a binding agreement. China alone is responsible for 25 percent of the global CO2 emissions and its share is growing rapidly. They have overtaken France last year in emission per capita with 6.8 tons. When I was senator, twenty years ago, they emitted only one ton per capita. Next year they will overtake the UK and in three years Germany. In 2020 they will even catch up with the US.So the contribution of Germany and even Europe is relatively small. At the same time our policy is to run 10 or 20 years ahead of the others. In this way we’re destroying the foundations of our prosperity. In the end what we are doing is putting the German automotive sector at risk, the steel, copper and chemical sectors, silicon, you name it.
So you are saying that Germany should be less ambitious, also with their transition to renewable energy? That seems quite remarkable for the CEO of a renewable energy company.
Look I am in favor of the transition to renewable energy but my point is that this transition costs a lot of time. I see big opportunitiesfor wind energy along the North Sea coast and RWE is investing a lot of money there. But what Germany is doing now is incredible. Although we get the same amount of sunlight as Alaska, 800 hours a year, we have installed 50 percent of the global solar PV capacity. With all these solar roofs we generate only three percent of our electricity but it is costing us 8 billion a year! And this will go on for twenty years because of the feed-in tariff. One of the arguments is that it’s generating jobs but this is only partly true, because nowadays 85% of the panels are coming from
China and the US. Meanwhile our grid is not ready for large amounts of renewable energy. We have a huge problem with the stability. Either there is not enough power and we have to import from France or as happened last week, we had the opposite problem, a surplus of electricity. On Sundays we need a capacity of around 35,000 MW only, on an average day 50,000 and in winter it can be as much as 80,000. Now we have 27,000 MW wind and 28,000 MW solar capacity, so what do you do on a Sunday when it is windy and sunny? Right now we have to give it to our neighbors who take it for negative prices.Solar is doing nothing for the frequency stability of the network. So we need conventional power for back-up, nuclear or gas fired stations. Plans for the Energiewende date from 2010 and included nuclear for the transition phase. Now that we have phased out nuclear power Germany’s plans are even more ambitious. Renewable energy gets priority on the grid. For this reason nobody dares to invest in gas fired power stations anymore.Our current approach is a dead end.
So how can Germany get out of this dead end?
The exit is Europe. The Energiewende should be a European task. It makes no sense to do it with solar power in Flensburg Solar when you can do it in Andalusia for one third of the cost. Wind energy in the Po delta in Italy makes no sense either. But before we can do it on a European scale we need a pan-European grid. Building such a grid will take us at least twenty years.
Do you see a role for shale gas in the transition phase?
Shale gas is going to revolutionize the energy sector, I am quite sure about that. Four years ago thanks to shale gas the US became a gas exporting country. In Europe we have a huge belt of shale gas under the UK, the North Sea, The Netherlands, Lower Saxony to Poland. North Rhine-Westphalia has enough shale gas for a hundred years and this is one of the most industrialized regions of Europe. France has forbidden the exploration of shale gas by law, which is ridiculous. There you see the influence of the nuclear lobby. Poland is depending on gas from Putin and will certainly extract it. The UK is open for shale gas because the oil and gas from the North Sea, on which their prosperity was based, is declining very rapidly. In Germany there is a moratorium even for shale gas exploration. We have to be very transparent about the environmental risks, but in my opinion we should start the exploration of shale gas. We need gas for all the periods that there is little or no wind. Shale gas is more than a bridge, it’s a game changer.
You are soon stepping down as CEO of RWE Innogy, is this because your opinions conflict too much with the interests of the company?
No, I told my people my book is not controversial for Innogy. We have to invest in all those energy sources that end up in 10 euro cents per kwh or below. I see the price of electricity at that level beyond 2020. If we depend on subsidies forever we are in the wrong business.Wind onshore will come down from 9 to 6 cents, offshore will come down from 15 to 10. Large scale biomass can get to this level as well. We need biomass because wind and solar are volatile and if you want renewable energy as balancing power you can only use biomass and hydropower. Hydro is a no-brainer, it has always been competitive. Until 2025 the target for RWE is 25 to 30% renewables which is a nice target for a company and also for society. But that’s it, the system integration costs above 50% renewables are very, very steep. Some greens want 100% renewables. What do you do on a day like today, when it’s cloudy and there is no wind? If you want to store electricity for ten days, because ten days without much wind happens every now and then, how much pump storage do you need? We calculated this, it’s the Bodensee up to the top of the Zugspitze, the highest mountain in Germany, and then in ten days the lake is empty.I don’t exclude storage in batteries or as hydrogen, but it must be commercial. Wind energy to hydrogen through electrolysis cost you 20 cents today. We have a long way to go. But hundred years ago we didn’t know how to drive cars and airplanes. I am very optimistic about the skill of engineers but it will take a generation. Therefore I have a positive message with my book: we do not have to do silly things because we still have time.