Energiewende and German Energy Troubles

What has been obvious to me for a long time now appears to have become obvious to many others: Germany's energy policy is a confused mess. Germany's energy revolution is, in the words of New Scientist, "on the verge of collapse." And it was all rather predictable. Ramping up renewables quickly, building more coal power plants, closing nuclear power plants, and doing very little to reduce carbon emissions. Vaclav Smil, perhaps the most trenchant observer of energy transitions, rightly called this "totally zany."

However point out these realities and you will quickly be labelled "anti-renewables," such is the vacuous nature of too much debate on energy policy. Germany however has been set up as a symbol of the 100% renewables nirvana state to come, so I guess this is understandable. Yet, despite what many believe, Germany has a target of sixty, not one hundred percent, renewable energy by 2050, and is now building more coal power plants than any European country. Again, pointing out that Germany is building coal power plants puts me at risk of getting called "anti-renewables." Mumbo jumbo rules the world.

This then is the perversely ideological backdrop to such debate. If things have gone wrong in Germany, they are bad for renewable energy, thus we should not talk about it. However as the great physicist Richard Feynman said "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled."

Here then is what has gone wrong in Germany. It built far too much solar capacity, when wind was a much better option. It closed nuclear power plants, while building coal plants. And it built these coal plants instead of much cleaner, if more expensive, natural gas plants.

Yes, again I risk being called "anti-renewables", but a careful reader will note that I argued for building wind instead of solar. That would, by any reading, be "pro-renewables", or at least "pro-wind". Sadly these caveats, while frustrating the flow of one's prose, are by experience necessary. Here I will focus on the first statement, where conventional opinion is rather misguided. Germany's solar build up, instead of being a huge success, was a massive mis-application of much needed effort.

In 2012 Germany had one third of the world's solar panels, and at one point these panels generated over half of Germany's electricity demand. This is how things are normally put. But it as rather like talking about a third rate golfer and only referring to the time he almost won the US Masters. Yes, Germany got 50% of its electricity from solar one afternoon. Throughout the year it only produced 5%. The 5% is what really matters. The 50% gets all the headlines.

And solar is an awful source of energy in a country as cloudy and as far north as Germany. Electricity has to be available when we want it. Germans, like many Europeans, most want the stuff around 6 pm on a cold Winter evening. This is an incredibly reliable peak in demand. Yet, the electricity supplied by Germany's solar panels at 6 pm on a cold December is also incredibly reliable: zero.

Physical realities mean that Germany's solar panels generate a pitiful amount of electricity for a large part of the year. This is demonstrated by comparing the output of Germany's solar panels in July 2013, 5.1 TWh, with that in January 2013, 0.35 TWh. This is a difference of more than an order of magnitude. Solar is unlikely to be anything other than a marginal source of energy in Germany, simply because of its distance from the equator. And wishful thinking cannot shove Germany ten degrees to the south.

The astonishingly poor value for money of Germany's solar build out can be demonstrated by comparing the subsidies for solar with those for onshore wind. Solar gets more than two times more in subsidies, but produces almost two times less electricity. Just think what could have been done by putting that solar money into wind turbines. Some will counter that Germany's build up helped costs decline. Yes, this has happened, in part thanks to China dumping under-priced panels in the EU.

But what is Germany doing now that the costs have declined? They are building far less solar. At peak Germany was installing 7.5 GW of new solar each year. Now the government wants this to be limited to no more than 2.5 GW per year. To put this number in perspective consider the 10.7 GW of new coal plants Germany is building. It would take between 20 and 30 years to build enough solar panels, at 2.5 GW each year, to match the electricity generated by these coal plants.

Solar then appears to have left Germany with a very hefty bill, and with very little to show for it. Or I should say wishful thinking politicians have. Solar remains a very promising long term bet compared with wind, because of its higher power density. Just not in cloudy northern countries.

The lesson here is not "solar and renewables are a failure", but "build solar where the sun shines."