The German Renewables Diversion

German Renewables - Tom Shepstone ReviewsTom Shepstone
Shepstone Management Company, Inc.

The German renewables diversion has captured the imagination of many politically correct fractivists but, when you look close, there isn’t much to it. 

It happens regularly. I am confronted in a debate somewhere over natural gas by someone saying “but Germany is getting half their energy from solar, so why can’t we do it here?” as if that should end all arguments. They are, invariably, regurgitating some line they think they remember from some fractivist presentation they attended or some blog dedicated to anti-fossil fuels agitprop. When I tell them it isn’t true and Germany is building coal plants at a breakneck pace, they react with skepticism and try to change the subject by resorting to every NIMBY’s firewall line of “but, what about…”

Fortunately, others are now taking notice; Germany’s renewables program isn’t delivering, isn’t affordable and isn’t anything close to what’s been touted by our fractivist friends. They’ve fallen for the German renewables diversion.

The Facts About German Renewables

A recent article by Robert Wilson at the Energy Collective reveals the hard facts about the German renewables program, which is a diversion from what the country is really doing – building more coal plants. We’ve talked about the Energiewende here before, noting this:

The US has kept its industrial electricity prices in line with shale gas powered power plants. China has done so with coal, with great consequences to human health from the increase in PM 2.5 pollution. France and Germany have followed the dream, latching onto the politically correct energiewende as policy. What it’s got them is a 50% increase in electricity prices that has destroyed their economic competitiveness and sucked wealth out of the German economy.

Wilson digs into the telling details. Here are the basics:

The more common version of the myth is debunked with simple reference to Germany’s official statisticsfor electricity generation. And what they tell us is quite simple. Germany does not get half of its electricity from solar panels, instead the figure is around ten times lower. Last year only 4.5% of Germany’s gross electricity generation came from solar panels, far short of 50%.

And if you want to think that half of Germany’s electricity comes from something green you will be disappointed. 46% of generation comes from coal. And just over half of coal powered electricity in Germany comes from burning lignite, perhaps the most polluting way to generate electricity on the planet.

German renewables

He then goes on to explain the flip side of the equation:

An even more sobering comparison, given Germany’s much trumped green credentials, is with the growth of coal power plants this decade. At the end of last year Germany had a total of 36 gigawatts of installed solar capacity, and this produced 28.3 terawatt hours of electricity. However, between 2011 and 2015 Germany is opening 10.7 gigawatts of new coal power plant capacity. The consulting company Poyry projects that these new coal power plants will have average capacity factors of 80%. If so, they will have a combined average annual output of 75 terawatt hours. In other words, in five years Germany is opening coal capacity which will have an annual output of more than double that from all of its solar panels. However, this comparison is perhaps too generous. Solar panels typically last twenty to twenty five years, but coal power plants easily last twice that long.

What we are seeing in Germany, then, is much more of a coal lock-in than a solar revolution.

He also points out several details demonstrating why renewables are best done with natural gas as a backup (e,g., Texas shale combined with wind). Germany’s solar panels peaked out last year on July 21 in terms of energy output, meeting 20.9% of daily electricity demand, which is impressive, but on January 18 they only managed to satisfy just over 0.1% of that demand. We know which stat got the headline, of course.

Wilson’s conclusion sends the fractivist claims about the German renewables diversion where the sun doesn’t shine:

The new German government has put in place a long-term target of having between 2.5 and 3.5 gigawatts of solar panels installed each year. If we take the higher figure, and assume that 3.5 gigawatts is installed each year, it will take Germany almost ninety years to reach 50% solar electricity. This however is an underestimate. Solar panels must be replaced every twenty or twenty fives years, and 50% solar energy in Germany would require massive advances in energy storage techniques. Germany, then, is around a century away from getting half of its electricity from solar panels.

The Reality of German Renewables

Another article at Watts Up With That offers additional perspectives on the German situation:

Since the introduction of the “Renewable Energy” law (EEG) in 2000 aimed at replacing coal and gas-fired as well as nuclear power generation by so-called renewable energy sources, the household price for electricity has jumped by more than 200%. German customers now pay the second-highest electricity prices in Europe. At the same time, the task of stabilizing the grid against the massive erratic influx from solar and wind power plants that produce without regard for actual need has pushed the operators to their limits. Now already, with a combined share of just some 13% of total electricity production, their unreliable input is massively imperiling the stability of the grid.

The financial burden of the huge subsidies required to do all this isn’t limited to the burden on the energy consumer, either. It is shared by all German taxpayers and the government realizes it must scale them back as it cannot continue. Still another article at NoTricksZone reveals a speech by Germany’s Economics Minister and Vice Chancellor to Angela Merkel, Sigmar Gabriel, who announced the Energiewende was “on the verge of failure,“ unable to sustain itself at the subsidy levels required. Here are the key quotes, made to solar energy leaders in Germany:

The truth is that in all fields we under-estimated the complexity of the Energiewende…

Those who are the engines of the transformation to renewable energies, that’s you, you don’t see how close we are to the failure of the energy transformation.

Gabriel was telling the German renewables industry the gig is largely up as far as any expansion of the country’s solar initiative at taxpayer expense. They’ve reached the limit. They’re turning to coal to put things back in order financially, as this story tells and it isn’t pretty. They’re mining lignite, the dirtiest of all coals, using gigantic strip-ming machines like this one, depicted being move from one site to another:

German renewables - Massive-Bucket-Excavator-2

They’re also moving entire towns to create the mines as this picture shows:

German renewables - coal mine

Lignite coal mining is the sort of industrialization fractivists like to say happens with natural gas development as they sing the praises of the progressive Deutschland and the German renewables program, about which they know nothing other than what some other fractivist told them. As for me, well, I’ll take Pennsylvania any day because this is what natural gas development looks like here.

German renewables

Lycoming County, Pennsylvania gas well pad

The German renewables program meets reality and reality wins. Who’d have thought it?

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12 thoughts on “The German Renewables Diversion

  1. Tom, It’s not surprising that you get your material from Robert Wilson, the most discredited of the fossil-fuel advocates at the Energy Collective. Headlines aside, no one with any knowledge of the energy situation in Germany has said they get half their electricity from solar, though it may be true for the rare, cloudless, summer day. Here’s some insight that Wilson didn’t cherry pick: http://www.businessinsider.com/electricity-prices-in-germany-down-to-zero-2014-5 and http://www.triplepundit.com/2014/04/electricity-prices-fall-europe-german-renewable-energy-increases/

    Do you ever have a tinge of guilt when you show eye-level photos of a fracking site and compare it with an aerial shot of other industrial activity? Here is a more telling photo: http://www.damascuscitizensforsustainability.org/category/gas-drilling-tech-notes/radioactivity/ It’s not the pastoral scene you’d like folks to believe, is it?

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    • From your second link:

      “Reuters reported last week that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet approved a reform measure for the country’s renewable energy law. The reform measure “will slow the growth of green energy…and force new investors in green power to take some risk,” according to Reuters.”

      That’s code for “we’re backing off and if you want to do solar, don’t expect much help from us anymore” and I notice you don’t address the matter of coal. Damascus Citizens (I come from there and know them all) is a phony outfit – a bunch of Soho artist types with second homes in Damascus) who are the most discredited of fractivists, to use your terminology, a bunch of pampered goofballs. Their picture appears to depict a mud pond that is but temporary (and not even employed in most cases today) whereas the lignite mine is permanent. Sorry, Cliff, “nice try” to employ your words again.

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  2. “The reform measure “will …and force new investors in green power to take some risk”

    Tom, you could also say that the German government feels that the renewable technology is mature enough that private industry should not expect as many subsidies (corporate welfare) to fall back on. It’s supposed to be a market economy, it’s time for private industry to put more skin in the game. Isn’t that exactly what free marketers want: to get industry off the teat of the government?

    It is also misleading to focus on solar: it is but a part of the German renewable energy mix. Last I checked, solar is only 15% of German renewables. The rest is hydro 15%, biomass 30%, wind 40%. Cumulative renewable totals for 1st qtr 2014 is 30%. At the current pace, their target of 60% by 2050 seems reasonably achievable.

    You failed to notice – in your haste to disparage Germany at any cost – that one of the articles also points out that it is necessary for fossil-fueled plants to modulate output in order to work in tandem with renewable sources, and that it is easier to do so with gas plants than with coal. Why didn’t you focus on that? Fits with your narrative. Better to have no gas at all of course, esp HVHHF.

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  3. “a bunch of pampered goofballs”

    That is not a factual statement with reference to any supportive data that is relevant to a meaningful discussion.

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  4. Tom there is an interesting project at an Alabama Power company on a new technology to convert coal fired power plant. To generate energy from coal without oxidizing it or producing CO2 or CO. It is a chemical (exothermic reaction) that renders the coal into carbon that a pilot plant has been successful in generating energy cleanly on a very small scale. Not considering the mining impact to the environment of course. I’m wondering what all the Nay Sayers will think of that?

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  6. SOP for the anti posters above: ignore the facts as presented- i.e. Germany is indeed using one hell of a lot of the dirtiest strip mined coal (and escalating rapidly) to cover their politically correct bad bet on renewables. then spin that to assume they will continue to ramp up renewables at an optimum pace whilst their own govt warns that the program and it’s complexities and subsidies are unsustainable. then always sprinkle in some sanctimonious faux intellectual blather about what stupid hayseeds energy pragmatists are…

    “pampered goofballs” is far to civil a term. the various regional and NYC trustfunders are still criminal robber barons- except now they do it in the guise of “environmentalism”- with a cadre of bought and paid for Albany politicians, judges, lobbyists and lawyers, and the help of clueless celebrities.

    thanks to the above actors, NY landowner’s deeded mineral rights have been rendered worthless. it’s one thing for a govt to seize property- it’s entirely another to do it without compensation.

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