Is German solar power growing too fast?

Mark Lynas has posted a good, quick summary of the status of Germany’s Energiewende. Like me he does not believe the Energiewende is doing a great deal to reduce emissions. However, his assessment of German solar power is perhaps more generous than it should be:

Solar continued its enormous growth rate between 2011 and 2012. Production rose from 19.3TWh (terawatt-hours) in 2011 to 27.6TWh in 2012, representing an impressive increase of 47.7%. In terms of total electricity generation, solar’s percentage rose from 3.2% in 2011 to 4.6% in 2012. This is an extraordinary achievement by any standard.

I will agree that, looked at in isolation, the growth in German solar power is impressive. You may even be inclined to throw around words such as exponential growth to describe what has happened in the last decade:

solar

Growth in solar power however does not occur in isolation. Money spent subsidizing solar is money not spent subsidizing something else, in particular wind. We can argue about the details, but I don’t think there is any real reason to not believe that onshore wind is a) a lot cheaper than solar and b) can provide a much higher percentage of Germany’s electricity supply. These two basic facts, and common sense, would indicate that Germany should be expanding wind much faster than solar. Instead the opposite is happening:

wind solar

Remarkably wind production was only 15 GWh higher in 2012 than 2007, whereas production from solar was up about 20 GWh. Lower wind conditions may have pushed wind farm output below average, but it is clear that in the last half decade solar has grown faster than wind power. This should be seen as a complete misuse use of vital money, but instead Germany’s rapid growth in solar is regularly touted as an example worth following.

So, here we have an example of a government “picking winners,” but clearly not doing a very job of it.

(Thanks to Gustaf Rossell for pointing me to the data referenced above)

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14 thoughts on “Is German solar power growing too fast?”

  1. Thanks for the post, Robert.

    If you compare the promotion of wind onshore and solar in Germany, it is worthwhile taking into account what has happened over the last decade. It seems that German policy-makers have already done what you suggest: Focus on the low-cost technology first. But by aiming for a renewable energy economy, more than wind is needed.

    in Germany, investments into wind onshore have grown steadily from the mid-1990s, peaking in 2002: http://energytransition.de/files/GET_2A18_steady_wind_power_groth_l.png

    Today, most best locations for wind onshore in Germany are already taken. (There are some exceptions in Bavaria and Baden-Wuerttemberg where politics got in the way, but these constraints have been removed most recently, too). So the biggest onshore growth is expected not in new installations, but in re-powering.

    Apart from that, all blueprints of a renewable energy economy in Germany (80-100% renewables in electricity sector) are taking solar PV as one of several major pillars in the system. You can’t run a system only on wind power. The recent success of solar PV in Germany is that by doing so (and by China providing low-cost PV) prices plummeted. Today, the FIT rate for PV (that is the payment you receive as a home owner when you sell you PV power to the utility) has dropped to 14.5 Euro cents – way below the prize for a kWh for ratepayers.

    I would call doing a good job. Other countries will benefit from this, too.

  2. ArneJJ

    Your comment here really makes me wonder how you propose Germany goes 100% renewable. You say most growth in onshore wind won’t come from new installations, but “re-powering.” It’s only at 8% right now. How exactly do you propose getting all of these things to add up to 100%?

  3. That is probably different from the UK energy discussion. Is there any 100% renewable energy concept/vision/blueprint out for UK?

    In Germany, there are several. Lots of energy experts, think tanks, government advisers, NGO’s have developed roadmaps and calculated how to run an economy like the German one without nuclear power and eventually on renewables only, what the grid should like, how much daily-seasonal-regional storage is needed etc. Main conclusion is: Different pathways, quite some challenges, but in general not problems, but tasks to solve. Check out the concepts here (some of them might have English summaries): http://www.bmu.de/themen/klima-energie/energiewende/szenarien-und-prognosen/

  4. Hi Mr. Wilson,
    wouldn’t you agree that looking at the “technology : investment => output” ratio is falling significantly short of any meaningful analyisis?
    It appears to be very arm-chairish to me.

    The EEG was designed by people who understood several things:
    1. The simple scientific consensus since the 1970s, that only a renewble energy mix that primarily taps into the most abundant renewable sources of energy (solar & wind) would be able to power a 100% renewable energy system.
    2. Renewable enerergy is a technology, not a fuel market. Technology markets need industrial scale production and competition to drive down unit costs… there is no doubt that the EEG as a policy frame work, accomplished this.

    And my last point, the one you unfortunatly don’t understand.

    3. The main obstacle of renewable energy are not technological, but socio-economic. These barriers are the expession of the main conflicts: (A) the systemic difference of the energy flows (=>different market participants) & (B) the fact that the conventional primary energy industry has to disapear when going 100% renewable energy.

    So unfortunatly you display a total lack of insight when stating that:
    “here we have an example of a government “picking winners,” but clearly not doing a very job of it.”
    Because investments in wind would have been so much more effective.

    In REALITY:
    When you say subsidies, you talk about private investments mobilized because of policy frameworks. They were only put into solar because the new market participants were mobilized to use their billions of euro for renewable energy instead of casual & unproductive consumption.

    They could only do so, because legal, political and other barriers are very easy to overcome when investing in solar power in Germany.

    In fact the main hinderance for wind power in Germany has not been a lack of money, but political resistance in pro-nuclear states… restrictive land use policiy and other arbitrary obstacles. (Grid operators not building power lines untill… never)

    Because you don’t understand this, you choose to make simplistic and flat out ridiculous statements, that might sound very clever to some people, but they fail to give insight.

    So today there is 30 GW of windpower (mainly owned by communities) and 32 GW of solar power (mainly owned by individuals, farmers, companies & communitys).
    These numbers are currently on course to double by 2020.

    Every time they peak they cut deep in the profitability of centralized power stations owned by very different economic interessts. Every time they peak, they make the entire conventional energy systems less profitable.

    And you try to tell me that making coal & gas less profitable won’t cut emissions in the mid-run?

    1. In contrast to you I am capable of counting. Germany got 40% of its power from low carbon sources before Fukushima. It aims to be at about 40% renewables when it shuts down its nuclear power plants.

      Maybe the rules of arithmetic are different for you, but it looks to me as if renewables aren’t doing a thing to the amount of coal or gas being burned any time soon.

    2. An excellent comment that really exposes how uninformed and confused some people are when they try to attack Germany’s energy revolution.

      We have blogs like this one trying to pick holes, but German renewable percentage keeps climbing rapidly and reducing CO2 and other pollutants.

      It’s clear that some people simply *want* Germany to fail but anyone can look at the real world results to see that is not the case.

      Renewable Energies in Germany – A success story. Renewable energies are of threefold importance to Germany’s economy. They offer climate protection, give incentives for growth as well as job creation and provide increasing independence from energy imports. http://www.unendlich-viel-energie.de/en/details/article/4/renewable-energies-in-germany-a-success-story.html

  5. I think it is easy to see that the subsidy policy towards solar PV has gone out of control. Between 2009 and this year, the renewables tax has shot up from €13/MWh to €53/MWh. Now PV represents more than half the ammount paid to producers of renewable electricity, wind less than a quarter. cf http://bdew.de/internet.nsf/id/3564E959A01B9E66C125796B003CFCCE/$file/BDEW%20Energie-Info_EE%20und%20das%20EEG%20(2011)_23012012.pdf

    ArneJJ, as per Bundesnetzagentur’s website, rooftop solar for facilities of less than 10kW are still paid €170/MWh. Second, the fact that production is paid less than the rate paid by regular people is true also for classical production. One gets to pay on top of this network charges and various taxes, among which the renewables tax. The baseload price is around €50/MWh. Comparing end user prices and production price is not correct, it means there is no value in being connected to the grid and that you do not pay taxes.
    And both 100% renewables scenarios presented on the environment ministry website have serious flaws. For example, how come a transmission capacity of 70GW between Germany and Norway is credible?

    1. Your comment appears superficially credible but it’s actually not. It’s a combination of flawed and misleading and failing to consider all factors.

      “Increasing supply of renewable energy is one of the main reasons electricity prices in Germany have declined, Teresniak said. Average day-ahead electricity prices in Germany fell 18 percent to 43.49 euros ($54.36) a megawatt-hour in the first five months of this year compared to last year…” http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-06-26/renewables-make-german-power-market-design-defunct-utility-says.html

      The German investment in renewables is paying off in many ways. 400,000 good jobs. Billions of Euros in exports. Cleaner air. Reduced dependency on fossil fuels, which are only going up in price in the medium and long term.

      Germany is producing a sustainable society. Uninformed and misleading blogs and comments on the internet are not slowing them down.

      1. Why have you ignored the facts presented and moved the goalposts to subsidies?

        But let’s play along. All energy sources receive subsidy, massive subsidies go to fossils and nukes despite having benefited from them for over half a century. Only one type of energy is sustainable. Do you really not know that?

  6. I am interested in whatever long term plans Germany has.

    ArneJJ I have read from the English language parts of the website you linked to but I haven’t found the detail that I am looking for.

    I believe that Germany still maintains energy intensive heavy industry. Do you know if they have any plans to exploit the abundance of power that can become available due to intermittency? E.G. wind in winter. Power that would otherwise be wasted could be made available at discount rates. There is a view that in the end game such bonus energy could be soaked up by smart marketting for domestic items such as personal transportation but provided some reliable forecast can be given and a supply price be guarranteed there are I suspect industrial processes that could secure cheap power.

    Alex

  7. German solar power is certainly growing too fast for the polluting fossil / nuke industries because it is rapidly destroying their profit as more clean and safe solar energy hits the grid. During the summer peak solar was about 26 GW – the equivalent of about 26 nukes.

    I think the serious point is that Germany continues rapid deployment of renewables no matter how many blogs and tabloid newspapers run stories about it being a failure. Here is a prediction of the reward:

    German Energy Switch Saves $736 Billion by 2050. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-10-10/german-energy-switch-saves-736-billion-by-2050-researchers-say.html

    The Germans invest for the future while countries like the UK hold on to the past with fossils and nukes.

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