Affairs: Energy / Global
Who’s keeping the lights on?
As prices skyrocket and pipelines mysteriously explode, the folly of Europe’s over-dependence on fossil fuels, especially those imported from Russia, is being revealed and punished. With autumn turning to winter, Monocle visits the people, places and companies forging the continent a way out of the energy crisis.
Storming ahead with wind power
Denmark is home to the world’s largest wind-turbine manufacturer, Vestas, and the largest developer of offshore wind power, Ørsted. It also plans to build the first energy island to store and distribute the power generated by offshore wind by 2030. For the past two years, more than half of the country’s electricity has been generated by wind, a figure expected to increase to 84 per cent by 2035.
The current energy crisis, however, has focused minds on the short term. Historically, Denmark is a net importer of natural gas, most of which, until now, has come from Russia’s Nord Stream 1 pipeline via Germany. This source is now strangled and analysts have predicted that gas for industrial use will probably have to be rationed this winter. As the Danish energy minister, Dan Jørgensen, tells monocle, “The Danish public sector has agreed to turn down the heat to 19c and reduce energy consumption where possible. And we encourage all Danes to do the same.” But such initiatives aren’t sustainable in the long term and if Europe is to innovate its way out of this crisis, it will be with the expertise and equipment of industry leaders such as Ørsted.
On 31 August the company inaugurated the world’s largest offshore wind farm 89km off the coast of Yorkshire in northeast England. Hornsea 2’s 165 Siemens Gamesa eight megawatt turbines provide power for than 1.4 million UK homes. A round trip to visit the farm requires two weeks aboard a maintenance and accommodation ship, so monocle settles for the world’s 77th largest, at time of writing, instead. Horns Rev 2, on a North Sea reef 30km from western Denmark, was the world’s largest wind farm when it was built in 2009. As Jens Nybo Jensen, senior communications adviser at Ørsted says, “The technology is advancing so rapidly that the record keeps being broken.” Indeed, Ørsted has broken it five times since 2009.
Founded in 1972 to manage fossil-fuel extraction in the North Sea, Ørsted was, until 2017, called Danish Oil and Natural Gas (unfortunately acronymised as dong Energy). Renamed Ørsted, after the Danish scientist who discovered the link between electricity and magnetism, it has done a fairly good job of rebranding itself: this year it was named the world’s most sustainable energy company in research group Corporate Knights’ Global 100 Index.
But even if the crew wear slick, branded cagoules to match the spruce, hi-tech ship, Ørsted hasn’t completely wiped the soot from its hands. A huge coal-fired power station owned by the company dominates Esbjerg’s harbour; Jensen says that it is due to be decommissioned in March. Ørsted has also been accused by some critics of “greenwashing” through carbon-quota trading, whereby companies buy and sell “credits” that allow them to emit more co2. Two years ago, it was revealed that, between 2008 and 2012, it had been involved in purchasing such credits from a fraudulent Russian company. After pressure from its majority owners, the Danish government, Ørsted has doubled down on its green transition, declaring that it intends to become carbon neutral by 2025 – a goal that its new ceo, Mads Nipper, insists is on track. This seems to be a profitable move: revenues in 2020 topped €7bn and if Ørsted can continue to turn wind into money, the future looks bright, even if today’s weather doesn’t.
Unaccustomed to the open sea, I’m surprised at how choppy the water can be on a relatively placid day. Thankfully, the boat’s toilet has well-fitted support grips. “People told us that we couldn’t do anything here,” says Horns Rev 2’s operations manager, Kasper Mikkelsen, gesturing towards his whirring charges. “But look at all this.” The wind farm sits on a sandy reef once considered treacherous by fishermen, who avoided sailing here, which is why the Danish government optioned it for wind-farm use in the late 1990s.
Our boat pulls up at a super-structure, named Poseidon, which looms out of the North Sea like a four-legged sea monster. This is Horns Rev 2’s three-storey, 750 sq m “hotel” – with a kitchen, dining room, TV lounge, gym and technical room, as well as 24 bedrooms – and it’s the only one of its kind in the world.
Winds of change
Blowing in: In 2020, 57 per cent of Denmark’s electricity production came from wind energy.
Gassing out: Denmark has seen the EU’s largest decrease in fossil-fuel use between 2009 and 2019 (from 83 to 64 per cent).
Today there are three Horns Revs, which together provide 9 per cent of Denmark’s electricity needs. Mikkelsen leads half of a 28-person team of technicians who work in two-week shifts between March and October. Outside these months the weather is too stormy. During the season, workers clock up 84 hours a week. Days begin at 06.00 with technicians spending 12 hours outside, buffeted by the North Sea winds. Mikkelsen, who was a technician before becoming manager, spends his day directing teams from the control room, where a large screen displays 91 icons lit up red or green, depending on whether the turbine is in operation. He is avuncular, with a dry sense of humour – two valuable qualities for someone who spends long stretches in a confined space at sea. I mention how clean the place looks. “That’s how we like it,” he says. “I’m the operations manager, the janitor, the hotel manager and the IT guy.”
Some of the technicians and sailors who work for Ørsted would have formerly been involved in oil and gas exploration. Their journey personifies that taken by the company and its hub in Esbjerg. This blue-collar port town, like many others around Europe, is being transformed by the winds of change. It was here in May that the leaders of Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark, alongside the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, signed the Esbjerg Agreement, a pledge to expand the four countries’ North Sea offshore wind capacity to 65 gigawatts by 2030 and 150 by 2050. Ørsted believes that they could go further. According to a 2018 study by the company, Europe’s northern seas could generate 600 gigawatts of power by 2030. One gigawatt of offshore wind produces the equivalent energy of approximately half a billion cubic metres of natural gas. In 2020 the EU consumed 394 billion cubic metres of liquefied natural gas – about the equivalent of 788 gigawatts. So with a few more North Sea wind farms may significantly reduce the entire continent’s fossil-fuel consumption in eight years. That will require serious investment: Hornsea 2 alone cost approximately €4bn. But a combination of governmental co-operation and private-sector innovation could blow European gas dependency out of the water. Hold on to your toilet handles.
The village that went off-grid
monocle arrived in Berlin in late September as the leaves turned brown. The government had just nationalised Germany’s largest gas provider, Uniper, and the chancel- lor was negotiating an energy deal with a despotic regime. This time it was Olaf Scholz, not Angela Merkel, and Mohammad bin Salman, not Vladimir Putin, but the feeling was more of déjà vu than Zeitenwende. The changing of the seasons should bring fresh hope but the prevailing mood in the capital was one of impending doom.
On a bright Wednesday morning, monocle jumped in a car and drove 80km south of the city to an area known derisively by Berliners as the Speckgürtel (bacon belt) due to its heavy agriculture and right-wing politics. In the 2019 state elections, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party (notorious for its climate-change denialism) won 23 seats here, doubling its vote share and becoming the second-largest party in the Brandenburg legislature. And yet, nestled among the chocolate-box houses and dairy farms is a village that could become a prototype for how Europe’s largest economy and consumer of energy weans itself off fossil fuels. Feldheim is a community of 130 people that is completely off-grid and self-sufficient in renewable energy.
The first thing that you see is the turbines, 55 of them, some as tall as 90m, that provide electricity for 55,000 households. In the beginning there were just four, seed- lings planted by a young engineering student called Michael Raschemann, who arrived in this sleepy backwater in 1994 with a plan to harness its natural advantages. Raschemann had driven for hundreds of miles from his home in the west of Germany after hearing about an area of flat Brandenburg sitting 150 metres above sea level.
When he arrived in Feldheim, he contacted the mayor, who agreed to let him make his proposal to the villagers. A population well versed in the power of both wind and collective action didn’t need much convincing: Feldheim built its first windmill in 1912 and in the 1960s local farmers set up a 30-member co-operative. But Raschemann, who co-founded the renewable energy firm Energiequelle in 1997, was seemingly more concerned with making a profit than being considered a prophet: “Renewable energies are a treasure in every community,” he tells monocle. “Using this treasure brings a lot of income to the municipality in the short and long-term”. Feldheim’s wind farm now produces so much electricity that 99 per cent of it is sold on the energy market.
Between its first turbine and today, the village has embarked on an almost Promethean mission to become self-sufficient. The spark was Raschemann’s vision but it has been sustained by citizens’ co-operation. In 2004, Feldheim’s farmers realised that the liquid manure that they were spreading on their potato and sugar-beet fields was more valuable as an energy source than as a fertil- iser. Using a hybrid investment model, the co-operative and Energiequelle began construction on a biogas plant. It took four years to build and today converts 8,600 cubic metres of pig and cattle manure, 8,700 tonnes of maize silage and 190 tonnes of ground cereals into 4 million kilo- watt hours of electric power and 2.2 million kilowatt hours of thermal power a year – enough to take care of Feldheim and its farmers’ needs many times over.
Not content with those shit-hot figures, the village then built a biomass plant that uses woodchip, a by-product of local timber processing, to provide additional heating in very cold weather, when wind or manure cannot be relied on. Impressed by Feldheim’s success, a neighbouring village, Treuenbrietzen, sold Energiequelle a piece of land that was once used as a Soviet military base for €1. Today it is a solar farm made up of 284 trackers (solar-panel holders) and 9,844 photovoltaic modules that produce enough electricity for 600 households.
By 2009 the only thing preventing Feldheim from being able to declare complete self-sufficiency was that the village was still linked to the local grid, owned by energy giant e.on. So the villagers decided to build their own. The Feldheim District Heating Grid, whose 3km of underground pipes provide heat for 35 homes, four farms, two apartment buildings and one industrial unit, cost €1.7m to construct. Feldheim Energie, by then a limited company, provided €138,000 of this. In addition, it received €830,000 from Berlin and Brussels, with the rest of the cost paid by private investors keen for a piece of the action. The electricity grid, which cost €450,000 to build, was funded completely by the villagers.
Feldheim’s freedom cost each of its citizens €3,000. In 2010, after both grids were completed, they paid 31 per cent less for electricity and 10 per cent less for heating. Today, in the midst of an energy crisis, those savings are much higher. On average, the residents of Feldheim pay €5.95 a month for electricity, compared with about €50 nationally, and a €1.50 standing charge, far below German averages, especially in the current context.
Feldheim’s sagacity first came to national attention in 2012 when Angela Merkel, who was then Germany’s chancellor, announced a moratorium on nuclear power following the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan. Soon visitors, including the wife of then Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, were arriving from all over the world. Later that year, Feldheim built a visitor centre in which to accommodate all these pilgrims. When monocle asks 82-year-old Siegfried Kappert, who has lived in Feldheim all of his life, why its citizens are so keen to share their story, he gives me a rather predictable response – something to do with the need to save the planet. It’s easy to be cynical but Feldheim’s more useful lesson lies in its capitalistic success. If a small village can harness the profitability of local renewable energy, perhaps it can inspire countries to do the same.
Indeed, Feldheim is in the company of engineers, urban planners and project managers rather than politicians. They had come from, among other places, Saudi Arabia, Brazil and South Korea, as part of a group organised by Berlin’s Technical University (tub), a world leader in renewable infrastructure and research. All were tub alumni who now worked for some of the world’s largest companies.
Michael Saleh is an environmental design manager for Orascom Construction, Egypt’s first multinational company. He says that his employers “have started to focus on the environmental aspects of building new cities” and he had come to see Feldheim because Germany is “the leader in this kind of construction”. Islam Zakzouk works in Saudi Arabia as operations and maintenance manager for Dubai-based water-treatment company Metito. He is involved in building desalination plants in a country that gets most of its water from the sea. “We need to reduce the energy that we are consuming to produce clean water,” he says, before praising Feldheim as an example of “multi- resource generation”.
Daniel Wagner, from Brazil, works as a project advisor for giz, Germany’s main development agency. “Brazil has recently passed some laws that allow individual consumers to produce their own energy and sell it back to the grid,” he says. “This, combined with the lower prices of photovoltaic plates, has really boosted the market for individual energy producers in the country.”
For these three, Feldheim is an example of how smart technological risk-taking in the pursuit of profit can lead to innovation on an impressive, though still relatively small, scale. The road to a future in which every village, town and city in Germany is 100 per cent self-sufficient on local renewable energy might be a long one but it does exist – the people of Feldheim have already mapped it out.
Origin story: In 2020, 75 per cent of Germany’s energy came from fossil fuels; 16.1 per cent from renewables, 6.2 per cent from nuclear.
Sun records: Germany is Europe’s leading producer of solar energy and makes up 7.9 per cent of the total world consumption.
Catching some rays – and lighting up Europe
Morocco has long been a shining star in renewable energy. In 2009, King Mohammed VI set out a national strategy that pledged 40 per cent of energy production from clean sources by 2020. Although the country didn’t quite hit that figure (it reached 37 per cent), it has been ploughing ahead with constructing wind and solar plants, and has now targeted 52 per cent capacity from renewables by 2030.
Morocco’s long hours of sunshine and high global horizontal irradiance (that’s the power of rays due to the position of the sun in the sky) make it a naturally strong solar player. The country has been positioning itself as a market-friendly renewables partner, aided by the minister for energy transition and sustainable development, Leila Benali. Its sparkling jewel in the crown is the Noor Ouarzazate solar complex in the south – the largest of its kind in the world. It contains four of Morocco’s seven solar plants and mainly uses concentrated solar power technology (csp), which requires water for cooling. Perhaps the most impressive of these plants is Noor iii, a vast field of solar panels that form a circle facing a central tower. The sun’s heat is reflected towards the top of the tower and collected as energy. The newest plant, number IV, uses more standard photovoltaic panels that produce energy directly.
As well as upping domestic consumption, Morocco is also set to become a major provider for Europe (even if the likes of Italy have been chasing natural gas from Algeria in an effort to divest from Russia). In 2016 a road map was drawn up between Morocco and the EU nations of Germany, France, Spain and Portugal looking at ways to better interconnect renewables and trade energy. The UK also wants a piece of the Moroccan pie and has one of the most ambitious plans to harness its clean energy. A start-up called Xlinks is looking to run subsea cables from Guelmim-Oued Noun, where there are 1,500 sq km of solar panels and wind turbines, to the distinctly less sunny county of Devon in the UK. The aim? Nothing less than seven million homes powered by Moroccan renewables by 2030, meeting 8 per cent of the country’s electricity needs. In its bid to meet climate-neutral goals, Europe is taking a big swig of Morocco’s sunny delight.
States of dependence
Burning up: Malta, the Netherlands and Poland are the most fossil-fuel dependent EU nations.
Cooling down: Sweden, Finland and France are the least fossil-fuel-dependent EU nations.
The factory that goes with the flow
“We were lucky to have cheap energy running across the valley,” says Julian Riess, gesturing at the Ybbs river, which flows through the mountains of Lower Austria before joining the Danube near Linz. In the small town of Ybbsitz, a two-hour drive west of Vienna, family-owned company Riess has harnessed these Alpine waters to power its factory. Today it is a model for how more manufacturers might adapt to the energy crisis.
Originally founded as a pan forge in 1550, Riess is now Austria’s only producer of porcelain enamel kitchenware: glass fused onto steel at 850c, making it food-safe and rustproof. In addition to its vast catalogue of pots, pans and jugs, Riess makes enamel signs and industrial components. Since 2000 the company has been headed by Julian and his two cousins, Friedrich (pictured, on left, with Julian) and Susanne, all from the ninth generation of the family firm.
Austria gets more than 75 per cent of its energy from renewable sources, mostly hydro and wind power, and plans to increase this to 100 per cent by 2030. Yet despite its green credentials, the country has still suffered from the spike in energy prices since Russia invaded Ukraine. More than one million Austrian households use gas for heating, though the government has banned the sale of new gas boilers from next year. “Every gas heater we get rid of is a step out of our dependence on Russia,” said the country’s climate minister, Leonore Gewessler, in June. Since the war began, Austria had managed to reduce its dependency on Russia gas, which now makes up 50 per cent of total imports, down from 80 per cent.
Riess has been running on its own hydropower since the 1920s, when three fraternal directors, Julian, Leopold and Josef Riess, decided to build their own hydroelectric power plant to replace coal from the nearby mine (the factory’s remote location meant that gas was not an option). Hydro is a low-cost form of electricity generation, widespread in Austria and other mountainous countries such as Norway and Switzerland, that captures the energy of falling water to produce electricity. Today, Riess has four hydroelectric plants in Ybbsitz. Two are powered by the Kleine Ybbs, the small river that flows past its headquarters, while another continues to run on its original machinery, from 1926, and still bears a sign declaring “Gebrüder Riess” (Riess Brothers). The fourth and largest on the Ybbs was expanded in 2016, a €4m investment that brought its capacity up by 250 per cent to more than 1.97 million kilowatt hours. Last year, Riess generated a total of 8.7 million kilowatt hours of electricity from hydropower – an average household consumes 3,731 a year.
“This is absolutely clean energy, without rubbish or smoke,” Friedrich shouts above the thundering green river. “The water can be used before and after it passes through the power plant; it is not gone.” This elemental force powers the factory, which runs 16 hours a day split into two eight-hour shifts divided among 130 employees. The space reverberates with the sound of machinery, punctuated by the rhythmic thud of metal being melded. Steel sheets from Linz are stamped into shape and, after being coated in enamel by hand, the pots are fired in a kiln to fuse the materials together. Riess has taken steps to minimise energy use, employing a cold-forming shaping technique and reusing heat from the kiln to dry the pots and warm the factory. The products are also made with energy-saving in mind: the pots and pans are meant to be used on a low heat (including induction).
Yet not even Riess has been able to shield itself entirely from the energy crisis. Prices of the raw materials it uses, including steel, have risen sharply. And hydropower can be fickle, with output fluctuating depending on the weather. “In the winter we always hope for a lot of snow so that the water trickles down to our power plants in the spring,” says Friedrich. When Europe suffered its worst drought in centuries this summer, reducing hydropower output in Austria by a third, Riess was forced to buy electricity at a high price to make up for the shortfall. On the upside, after covering its own needs, it sells surplus electricity from its power plants to the public grid.
While few businesses or communities can switch to full Riess-style independence in the short term, they can follow its lead by preserving their natural surroundings and local workforce, using energy smartly, and investing in renewables. For some, especially in hilly regions, this might mean building a hydroelectric power plant. While this requires a high upfront investment, as well as ongoing maintenance costs, it offers long-term savings. “Even if the current energy crisis ends in a few months, it will be a lesson for manufacturers,” says Julian. “The most important thing is to diversify, in terms of energy sources but also suppliers of raw materials and customers.” To this end, the company is considering installing solar panels on its factory roof to supplement hydropower during dry summers.
One thing is definitely clear: Riess intends to remain in Ybbsitz. “You could move the manufacturing of a few products to another factory but the spirit of this cannot be transferred,” says Julian. As a family business, Riess can invest in solutions that further reduce its environmental effect or diversify its energy supply without having to worry about short-term financial results. “The problem now is that companies are thinking in terms of months or a year or two – there is no future in their plans,” says Friedrich. “We always say: if it is good for the grandchildren, then we will do it.”
Glass half-full: Norway is the EU nation with highest use of hydropower.
Glass half-empty: The European country with largest unexploited hydropower potential is North Macedonia.
Open to the elements
Taking your home off-grid need not mean tea lights and eco-toilets. Avala House, located on a mountain near Belgrade, is both sustainable and attractive. It was designed by Studio Ten, a Swiss-Serbian architecture practice pioneering inventive environmentally conscious designs. Completed in 2020, it was built using crafts and materials from nearby. The construction process involved the owner carefully monitoring energy and water demands during all four seasons, then working with the studio’s lead architects to eradicate the residence’s already light carbon footprint.
Instead of relying on modern technology to generate energy, the house was built to take advantage of natural light, heat and cooling. Orientation of the living area towards the south guarantees maximum heat absorption in the winter, with the mineral floor trapping warmth during the day and then slowly releasing it overnight for an average measured temperature of 17c inside (as opposed to an average winter temperature of 0c outside).
Most domestic energy consumption in this part of the world comes from heating or cooling. During the summer the house’s open front is protected by vegetation and a remote-control shading system. It has no air conditioning and, due to east-west cross ventilation, an entirely openable north façade and cooling and shading protection, it requires no system to keep the interior at a low temperature in summer.
Avala House’s electricity requirements are fully generated using solar panels on the roof. The number of annual sunny days in its location was calculated and the panels placed to gain maximum exposure. Its water supply comes from three wells in the garden that cover basic needs, with additional rain collectors at the top of the plot feeding a reserve tank for periods of low rainfall.
This house is a model for domestic design with low technology demand that combines with nature to reduce energy consumption. “There is something powerful about raw structures open to the landscape,” Ten’s Nemanja Zimonjic tells monocle. “They are primitive and always tempting.” He’s certainly right on the last point.
Should you go solar?
As energy prices continue to soar, demand for solar panels has gone through the roof. While installers predicted a 15-year payback period before the energy crisis, the spike in costs this winter means that a domestic solar panel could pay for itself in about half that time. After the installation fees, which will set you back about €7,300 for a three-bed semi-detached house, the cost of running solar panels is very low. The catch? The exponential increase in demand has led to a global shortage, meaning that there are now long waiting lists which show no signs of easing. Norwegian company Rec Group is the largest European manufacturer but 90 per cent of solar panels are produced in China, which has created significant supply problems.
Images: Maxime Delvaux, Getty Images