June 23, 2014

Travails of Renewable Power in Germany

Renewable electricity is so unreliable that it now undermines the stability of the European grid and provokes international incidents.

May 11, 2014 was a red letter day for renewable power in Germany. The biggest clean energy market reached an enviable record of almost 75 per cent renewable market share for several hours that day. Germany faces its own travails over its chosen path.

Germany's love affair with renewable power started many decades ago. Osha Gary Davidson noted that the track record for renewable power in Germany stretches back to 1990s, before it went into overdrive in 2000 with the passage of the Renewable Energy Act. (DISSENT, 2013)

“Between 2000 and 2011 electricity from renewable sources grew from 6.8 to 20.5 per cent of total electrical consumption — nearly tripling the amount of power coming from sources like wind and solar,” Davidson clarified.

Virtually every one who owns a roof in Germany erected solar panels, produced power and sold the excess back to the utility at fixed prices guaranteed for decades.

Severe criticism

In a review titled ‘Economic Impacts from the Promotion of Renewable Energy Technologies — The German Experience (2009),’ Manuel Frondel and others from the Institute of Energy Research, Germany severely criticised the German renewable energy policy, and in particular the adopted feed-in tariff scheme.

What are the ground realities now?

Mr.Will Boisvert, an energy specialist argued that “despite massive construction of new capacity, electricity output from renewables especially from wind and solar grew at a sluggish rate.

Avoiding blackouts

Germany is indeed avoiding blackouts-by opening new coal and gas fired plants. Renewable electricity is proving so unreliable and chaotic that it is starting to undermine the stability of the European grid and provoke international incidents.

The spiraling cost of the renewables surge has sparked a backlash, including government proposals to slash subsidies and deployment rates” (DISSENT, 2013).

According to Financial Times (FT, January 7, 2014), “the brown coal electricity production in Germany rose last year to its highest level since 1990, despite the country's campaign to shift to green sources of energy.”

Bloomberg, the influential U.S. daily discovered that German Utilities are replacing lost nuclear power with “lignite, a cheap, soft, muddy- brown... form of sedimentary rock that spews more greenhouse gases than any other fossil fuel.” Greens are not amused by the energy shift to a lignite shift.

For all modes of power generation, capacity factor — CF (the amount of electricity, a generator produces in a year divided by the amount it will produce if it ran at full capacity for all 8,760 hrs a year) — is important. Typically during 2012, CFs (per cent) in Germany were, for solar: 11; wind: 17; fossil fuel: 80 and for nuclear: 94.

Mr Ryan Carlyle (Forbes, 10 April 2013) argued that Germany’s pro-renewable energy policy is bad for the consumers, producers and the environment. He felt that the only people who benefit are the home owners and the solar panel installation companies.


“Germany’s residential electricity cost is about $0.34/kWh, one of the highest rates in the world. About $0.07/kWh goes directly to subsidizing renewables, which is actually higher than the wholesale electricity price in Europe..... More than 300,000 households per year are seeing their electricity shut off because they cannot afford the bills,” he added.

“Large-scale photovoltaic solar power is unmanageable without equally-large-scale grid storage, but even pumped-storage hydroelectricity facilities are being driven out of business by the severe grid fluctuations,” he clarified.

“The technology for grid-scale electricity storage does not yet exist, and nothing in the development pipeline is within two orders of magnitude of being cheap enough to scale up,” he cautioned

Mr Carlyle says that almost one in five German industrial companies plans to or has shifted capacities abroad because of cheaper electricity costs.

After listing several issues he asserted that other nations should not follow Germany's lead on promoting solar power. That appears to be an extreme view.

The New York Times reported that key German industries have repeatedly expressed concern that the rapid and costly expansion of renewables could undermine the strength of country's industrial base, ultimately putting 800,000 jobs at risk. (NYT, 8 April 2014).

Serious mismatch

Writing in Current Science (25 November 2012) Professor S.P. Sukhatme has shown that the annual need of power in India may be met through renewable energy sources alone. However, he pointed out that because of the intermittent nature of solar and wind power; there is a serious mismatch between the diurnal variation of electricity generation by renewable sources and the demand for electricity. He added that we have to overcome many difficult technical challenges to match the electricity demand on a round-the-clock basis.

Since India has in place an ambitious renewable energy programme, we must learn from the experiences of other countries particularly Germany; Germany's tryst with renewable power is often taken as a model.

India must promote all modes of power generation including solar and wind. Copious sunshine and abundant wind may lead to over production in the grid. Balancing the grid may be a challenge. Central Government must organise a systematic review of the challenges to arrive at India- centric solutions.

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