At German utility company RWE’s site in Lingen in the norther state of Lower Saxony the staff had reason to celebrate on January 17. That day, they fed more energy into the grid than ever before. The output reached 3,300 megawatts, more electricity than all of the wind turbines in Germany can produce combined.
The local nuclear power plant, along with three gas-fired plants, ran at full blast. “We fed everything we could into the grid,” says Matthias Hartung, who oversees RWE’s power plant division. He happened to be on site that day.
Lingen was not the exception, either. Nuclear- and gas-fired power plants, as well as those using black- and brown coal were in constant use nationwide. Conventional energy sources peaked at 67,000 megawatts that day and supplied 90 percent of Germany’s energy, according to think tank Agora Energiewende. Renewables did not even reach 15,000 megawatts. Wind turbines operated at 12 percent of their capacities, solar plants at 14 percent – even at midday.
Germany’s transition to renewable energy seemed to pause on January 17. In the central and southern regions heavy clouds covered the sky, paired with fog on the ground. The sun barely reached the solar roofs. There was also very little wind that day.
“Gas- and coal-powered plants ensured the supply,” RWE manager Hartung concludes. This was the case on many days this winter, but especially in January. Between January 17 and 25 the contribution of solar- and wind energy remained almost constantly low. As a result, the sector is now debating the successes and failures of the country’s plan to transition to renewables, commonly known as the Energiewende, and the role of conventional power plants in the energy supply.