An update on the German solution – and it doesn’t look pretty

An update on the German solution – and it doesn’t look pretty

Aug

06
2013

Andrew Horvath
The Big Picture

In the wake of the Fukushima incident, Germany was one of the first nations to make a lot of noise about saying no to nuclear.

I came across an interesting article from ClimateWire recently reivewing the results of that strategy to date.

I have to say, it doesn’t look too pretty.

Germany’s bold claim was to phase out nuclear energy by 2022, ensuring 80 per cent of its energy supply comes from clean sources by 2050. At the time of its pronouncement, Germany was operating 17 nuclear power plants to produce one-fifth of its total energy supply.

It is now looking to offshore wind turbines and the obligatory sales pitch for solar panels at a cost ClimateWire estimated at around USD$720 billion.

Solar power currently represents around 19% of total install capacity, with (onshore) wind farms producing 17%.

But it’s not been smooth sailing with the country’s solar boom “depressing energy prices and hurting the bottom line at the nation’s big utilities” while the “expansion of offshore wind has been slowed by grid problems”.

Pre-Fukishima it was Germany’s policy that nuclear energy was good for its economy. And it was. In a post-Fukishima panic the government reversed its position.

It busily set about erecting “1000 miles of new high-voltage power lines”, but so far less than 155miles have been built.  These new high-voltage lines are essential to transfer offshore wind energy to the country’s industrial sectors where demand is at its peak, but ClimateWire reported that “difficulties connecting offshore wind farms to the grid reduce their profitability and change the original investment calculations”.

I’ve always been concerned with the unpredictable costs of renewable energy sources, such as wind power, and here’s the proof in the proverbial pudding.

Some of Germany’s key power players are in fact cutting spending on renewable energy according to the article, in a bid to reduce their debt. Without their investment, the likelihood of Germany meeting its target for new energy operators, such as offshore wind farms, looks shaky at best.

Funnily enough, some of the sore points in the nation’s solar scheme, are coming from the fact it’s been rolled out too far, too fast, reaching a total installed capacity of 52,000 MW between 2017 and 2018.

The solar story in Germany should be a good one, with peak supply on sunny days almost entirely supplied by solar, however, the knock on effect to other energy suppliers, such as gas plants is not such a good news story.

Solar is all good and well when the sun is shining. In winter it’s a different story. Running back-up energy sources in anticipation of solar’s off season is costly and incredibly inefficient. ClimateWire put it thus: “If and when wind and solar capacity double their outputs from current levels, base load plants, which have to run constantly to ensure grid stability, will start to suffer financially as well and risk becoming uneconomical”.

Any major change upsets the apple cart but it has to do so for the right reasons, and the long-term strategy needs to be a sound one. In this  case I’m not so sure that it is.

Renewable energy sources offer a Band-Aid style solution to bridge the gap between fossil fuel consumption and the dawn of a new energy age. If we consider the amounts being invested for an interim and intermittent solution, it just doesn’t make sense.

Perhaps the German experiment will serve as warning to others. Knee-jerk reactions to escalating energy demand don’t work. Sustainable solutions do.