The German question

I see we are getting another round of guff about Germany as part of local propaganda on renewable energy.

“Staggering” numbers (to quote one writer) are available on the role of solar and wind in the German power market.

This is based on a report that renewable sources generated 75 per cent of German power demand at midday on Sunday, 11 May.

Time for me to trot out the Flinders Street rag trade joke: never mind the quality, feel the width.

This is a different story in the depths of winter as boosters very well know.

For example, production of solar power in July (summer) last year in Germany was 5.1 terawatt hours – but in January (winter) it was 0.35 TWh.

Pointing out that, say, solar power provided 50 per cent of Germany’s electricity demand one sunny Sunday is actually pretty meaningless.

The number that matters is annual supply and this is nearer five per cent.

In the real world, wind and solar combined delivered about 23 per cent of German electricity sent out in 2013, but the actual daily output varied between 10 per cent and 50 per cent.

That’s fine when you have conventional power sources to come forward to fill the (rather unpredictable) gaps but the boosters, of course, are promoting a nirvana where solar and wind are the main sources – and they have set Germany up as a symbol of the 100 per cent green state that is to come for us all (if we are wealthy enough to afford it).

Official figures for German electricity supply for the first quarter of this year, which was a relatively mild winter up there, show that demand was down 5.4 per cent over 2013 (that would be less freezing weather combined with a continuing response to very high power bills).

The breakdown of production (that’s power sent out, not consumption, before line losses) for the quarter was: black and brown coal 63.7 terawatt hours, gas 10.8 TWh, nuclear 24.8 TWh, hydro power 4.1 TWh, biomass 13 TWh, wind 17 TWh and solar 5.7 TWh.

So fossil fuels accounted for 74.5 TWh of German power supply in first quarter 2014 versus 22.7 TWh for solar and wind.

When one factors in hydro power and nuclear energy, conventional generation delivered 104.5 TWh, more than four times the contribution of solar and wind.

For all 2013, German power stations produced some 280 TWh of fossil-fuelled electricity versus 74 TWh for solar and wind versus 80 TWh for nuclear.

Last year, in fact, German coal-fired power production rose three per cent. Wind generation also went up three per cent and solar 6.3 per cent – the big losers were the country’s modern gas-fired plants, with production down 21 per cent.

Another point is that German generators have built 32,500 megawatts of wind capacity and it delivered 47.2 TWh in 2013. The average capacity factor for wind in Germany is 18 per cent, quite a lot lower than in Britain, for example, where it is about 29 per cent.

Why the difference? It’s windier in Britain.

By the way, most German wind farms are in the country’s north but most energy-consuming industry is in the south, creating a transmission issue – and more than a little pushback from citizens who don’t want new high voltage lines anywhere near them.

It is estimated that meeting the current 2020 renewables target will require a $27 billion investment in new and upgraded power lines.

Also, let’s not forget that, thanks to green power support policies, Germany today has some of the world’s highest electricity prices.

(You might be interested to know that the feed-in tariff for solar power in Germany all by itself is equal to 60 per cent of the average American residential rate!)

There’s another set of stats that are worth a passing glance as well.

Thanks to over-the-top support, Germany has been installing 7,500 megawatts of solar arrays annually.

Now the government is pulling hard on the reins and this is expected to fall to 2,500 MW annually.

But Germany also has plans to build 10,700 MW of new coal plant – and it will take two to three decades of installing solar at the lower capacity to match the production from these plants.

The International Energy Agency tells us that it expects, if current policies are pursued, solar and wind power will be providing 38 per cent of German electricity needs by 2030, but one only has to read the German media to see that the political commitment on renewables is wobbling in the face of its huge cost.

The real news about German energy policy is that “energiewende” is another very messy story (cf Grattan Institute).

Germans are now paying energy bills roughly twice as high as the average between 2000 and 2010 but the country’s carbon emissions are two per cent higher than they were before. Energy poverty has now entered the country’s public debate lexicon.

Subsidies for green generation are now running at 21 billion euros (roughly $32 billion) a year, handing the German mass market the highest power bills in Europe. If maintained at the 2013 level, which they won’t be, the subsidy costs would reach $40 billion annually by 2020.

(I see one report claiming that the total cost since 2005 to residential and small businesses consumers of Angela Merkel’s green game is $140 billion.)

As well, the European Commission is on Merkel’s case because of the (unlawful under EU rules) protection against these costs her government has given high-employing heavy industry.

Even with this protection, Germany has the second-highest (after Italy) industrial power bills in Europe, so any change forced by Brussels could create real problems for factory owners.

The Cologne Institute for Economic Research says there has been a “marked decline” in the willingness of industrialists to invest in Germany since 2000.

Meanwhile, the renewables set-up has seriously undermined the financial standing of the major German electricity supply businesses and the new Merkel government is wrestling with reform to find a way to prop them up and ward off risks to power security.

And then there is the small fact that, under her regime, Germany has become critically dependent on gas from Russia for cooking, heating and industrial needs. (Germany has a large shale gas resource but pandering to green opposition to fracking prevents its exploitation.)

Shortly after Merkel was re-elected in September, she was handed a report by a committee she set up herself saying that the present “energiewende” approach is uneconomic and an inefficient way to cut carbon emissions.

Her own energy minister (who is also the economy minister and leader of her coalition partner) says continuing on the present path risks “de-industrialisation” in Germany.

In the light of all this, the line our renewables boosters, aided by parrots in the Australian media, are pursuing about the recent German green generation numbers would make a Flinders Street rag trader of a bygone era blush.

The truth is that “energiewende” has very little value here as a blueprint.

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