Germany's Solar Failure
A new analysis answers the question “should other nations follow Germany's lead on promoting solar Power?” That question was asked on Quora and answered by Ryan Carlyle, BSChE, and a Subsea Hydraulics Engineer. His detailed and well reasoned answer is the most forceful possible NO. According to Carlyle Germany's program has the “absurd distinction” of hitting the trifecta of bad energy policy: bad for consumers, bad for industry, and bad for the environment. So while misguided greens point to Germany as a solar success, a rising tide of opposition and resentment is growing among the German public.
Along with all the other troubles besetting the world, Germany has watched its economy, the so called “engine of Europe,” stumble. This is mostly attributable to the horribly botched shift to a renewable energy economy. In Carlyle's own words:
I was shocked to find out how useless, costly, and counter-productive their world-renowned energy policy has turned out. This is a serious problem for Germany, but an even greater problem for the rest of the world, who hope to follow in their footsteps. The first grand experiment in renewable energy is a catastrophe! The vast scale of the failure has only started to become clear over the past year or so. So I can forgive renewables advocates for not realizing it yet — but it’s time for the green movement to do a 180 on this.
Pretty strong stuff, but as good skeptics we should demand evidence to back up these statements. Fortunately, the author provides data to back up his claims. Here are some of Carlyle's “awful statistics”:
- Germany is widely considered the global leader in solar power, with over a third of the world's nameplate (peak) solar power capacity. Germany has over twice as much solar capacity per capita as sunny, subsidy-rich, high-energy-cost California. (That doesn't sound bad, but keep going.)
- 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. (This means they could simply buy zero-carbon power from France and Denmark for less than they spend to subsidize their own.) More than 300,000 households per year are seeing their electricity shut off because they cannot afford the bills. Many people are blaming high residential prices on business exemptions, but eliminating them would save households less than 1 euro per month on average. Billing rates are predicted by the government to rise another 40% by 2020.
- Germany's utilities and taxpayers are losing vast sums of money due to excessive feed-in tariffs and grid management problems. The environment minister says the cost will be one trillion euros (~$1.35 trillion) over the next two decades if the program is not radically scaled back. This doesn't even include the hundreds of billions it has already cost to date. Siemens, a major supplier of renewable energy equipment, estimated in 2011 that the direct lifetime cost of Energiewende through 2050 will be $4.5 trillion, which means it will cost about 2.5% of Germany's GDP for 50 years straight. That doesn't include economic damage from high energy prices, which is difficult to quantify but appears to be significant.
- Here's the truly dismaying part: the latest numbers show Germany's carbon output and global warming impact is actually increasing despite flat economic output and declining population, because of ill-planned “renewables first” market mechanisms. This regime is paradoxically forcing the growth of dirty coal power. Photovoltaic solar has a fundamental flaw for large-scale generation in the absence of electricity storage -- it only works for about 5-10 hours a day. Electricity must be produced at the exact same time it's used. The more daytime summer solar capacity Germany builds, the more coal power they need for nights and winters as cleaner power sources are forced offline. This happens because excessive daytime solar power production makes base-load nuclear plants impossible to operate, and makes load-following natural gas plants uneconomical to run. Large-scale PV 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. They can't run steadily enough to operate at a profit. Coal is the only non-subsidized power source that doesn't hemorrhage money now. The result is that utilities must choose between coal, blackouts, or bankruptcy. Which means much more pollution.
The emphasized passages are the author's from the original posting.
Carlyle presents his case in four sections: 1) Wrong place, wrong tech to start the green revolution; 2) Supply Variability; 3) Displacing the wrong kinds of power; and 4) The kicker. The post is quite long and comes with copious references. I will not be going into details of all four arguments here but rather, presenting some of the highlights.
With the recent controversy over industrial scale, concentrating solar plants, renewables advocates constantly point to Germany as an example of how large-scale rooftop solar power can work. Unfortunately, given Germany's geographic location and climate it's a stupid place to push solar panels. Other places have a much better climate for solar panels as shown in the map below.
Global annual solar irradiance.
As Carlyle explains: “Between the northern latitude, the grey weather, and the Alps blocking much of the diffused morning sunlight from the south, Germany is a terrible place for solar power. When you put the US side-by-side on the same scale, you realize that Germany has the same solar power potential as dismal Alaska, even worse than rain-soaked Seattle.”
Though I disagree that Alaska is dismal—I graduated from West Anchorage High School more years ago than I like to remember—his point is that for solar power it sucks. Being an engineer, the author then presents a myriad of numbers and calculations all pointing to the inescapable conclusion that Germany's solar power boom is being driven entirely by politics. Moreover, the growth of solar power is not economically justified, nor can it continue without massive political interference in Germany's power markets.
With respect to supply variability, the author points out that a major problem with expanding solar power is, ironically, oversupply. On sunny summer afternoons, Germany actually exports power at a loss compared to generation costs because it needs an excess of solar panel area at other times to meet its needs. Excess solar power actually forces conventional power plants to shut down, thereby lowering the capacity factor of coal & gas plants. “Yes, this means large-scale solar adoption makes non-solar power more expensive per kWh, too!” he argues.
The reason this happens is because there is no effective way to store solar generated electricity for use at night. This forces conventional plants to ramp back up at sundown to make up for the drop in solar generation. This is illustrated in the graph shown below taken from a CA-ISO report.
Non-renewable power generation “Duck”.
Each point in the “duck chart” portrays the hourly demand for non-renewable electricity generation (i.e. electricity production from fossil fuel power plants) in California over the course of a March day for each year between 2013-2020. As Carlyle explains:
People often complain about wind power being unreliable, but when you get enough wind turbines spread over a large enough area, the variability averages out. The wind is always blowing somewhere. This means distributed wind power is fairly reliable at the grid level. But all solar panels on a power grid produce power at the same time, meaning night-time under-supply and day-time over-supply. This happens every single day, forever. At least in warm countries, peak air conditioning load roughly coincides with peak solar output. But Germany doesn't use much air conditioning. It's just a grid management nightmare. The rate of “extreme incidents” in Germany's power grid frequency/voltage has increased by three orders of magnitude since Energiewende started.
These severe output swings have reached the point where Germany's grid cannot operate without importing power from neighboring countries to soak up the variability. This is because the ramp-down of solar output in the evening happens faster than the rest of Germany's generation capacity can ramp-up. What happens if the rest of Europe follow Germany's lead and go solar? Where will the makeup power come from? Perhaps Putin's Russia.
With regard to displacing the wrong type of power, residential solar has legal right-of-way over utility-scale wind in Germany. This means that wind and non-renewables must both throttle down when the sun shines brightly. Here is the analysis:
The majority of electricity worldwide comes from coal and nuclear base load plants. They are big, efficient, and cheap. But base load generation is extremely difficult and expensive to throttle up and down every day. To simplify the issue a bit, you cannot ramp nuclear plants as fast as solar swings up and down every day. It takes several days to shut down and restart a nuclear plant, and nuclear plants outside France are not designed to be throttled back, so nuclear cannot be paired with the daily oscillations of PV solar. Supply is unable to match demand. You end up with both gaps and overages.
This leads to the need for plants that can run when the sun doesn't shine and the wind doesn't blow. Plants that can also be ramped up quickly. This leaves out nuclear plants, which can take days to start up, leaving natural gas “peaker” plants the normal way to handle variable power demand. But Germany has minimal domestic natural gas resources (Putin smiles in the background), plus load-following gas plants are very expensive to operate. As a result, Germany is building more coal plants, and even re-opening old ones. It's inefficient, but coal plants have better load-following capabilities than nuclear. The end result is that solar is forcing the displacement of nuclear and a resurgence in coal.
The “kicker” according to Carlyle, is the increased use of biomass—i.e. wood—to feed those recommissioned coal plants. This, he claims, is even worse than using coal because it continually destroys a carbon sink (forests) to create a carbon source. “Germany is so focused on meeting renewables targets that it is willing to trample the environment to get there,” he writes. “They've managed to make renewables unsustainable! It's tragicomic.”
The main point in the article's summary is: “You can't build more PV solar than the rest of the grid can ramp up/down to accept. The necessary grid storage for large-scale solar power is a "maybe someday" technology, not something viable today. Calls for 50% of power to come from solar in our lifetimes are a fantasy, and we need to be realistic about that.”
That is the same message we presented in The Energy Gap, and pretty much the same message you will get from any knowledgeable engineer who works in the power industry. If someone tells you otherwise you can be sure to find a government subsidy at work. Bottom line? Green mandates don't work. They hurt the public, they hurt industry, and in the long run they hurt the environment, and that's not being green at all.
Be safe, enjoy the interglacial and stay skeptical.