Peaks & Valleys: Renewable Energy As A Majority of the Mix
Events like September’s People’s Climate March make it clear that folks around the world want their leaders to address climate change right now. But few countries are following through with effective renewable energy policies. One country is bucking this status quo, in a big way— as of 2014, Germany produced more electricity with renewable energy than any other source.
On average, renewable energy can account for 31% of the country’s electricity generation. With solar and wind counting for a big portion of Germany’s electricity mix, on sunny and windy days that number can notch up to 74%. Astonishingly, private individuals own 51% of the renewable energy sources in Germany; 11% of those are farmers. It’s a testament to the strength of Germany’s “Energiewende” program, which is helping transition the country from typical fuel sources toward a totally renewable energy base.
The transition isn’t without glitches. Under Energiewende policy, wind and solar are prioritized in the power grid— traditional power sources like coal and gas only get the call to fire up when there’s calm weather with no sun. For mainstream energy sources that have depended on calculating the amount of energy they will sell years in advance, this sort of volatility is a death knell. The result is leading German power producers loosing their grip on the market. These utilities have tried to socialize the risks by passing on additional costs to consumers, which has lead to some of the highest electricity costs per household in the EU. A burden that surveys show German citizens are willing to bear extra costs in the name of lifting up renewable innovation.
“The new solar and wind capacity is turning traditional energy management systems and business models on their heads,” explains Sven Teske, Senior Energy expert with Greenpeace International based in Germany.
According to Teske, these are just a few bumps on the road to something much bigger. “In Germany, we see ourselves as a sort of a laboratory, where the cheapest energy is not on the top of the agenda,” says Teske. “That is one of the advantages Germany has, is to play around and to experience— you just have to be brave enough to make mistakes.”
Energy Revolution is Inevitable
For Germany, succeeding in the transition will mean adopting much more flexible management systems, along with moving toward electrical power across sectors, from heating to transportation. The nagging question is how to get to 100% renewable when your power source is dependent on weather and time of day. Storage is the Holy Grail in renewable energy circles, and the Germans are investing hundreds of millions of Euros in developing technologies from heat pumps, renewable power to gas and all kinds of batteries.
Critics are pointing to the tectonic shifts in Germany’s power industry, and to the addition of supplemental coal power plants that were installed to provide power when the sun isn’t out and the winds are calm. While the leaders of other countries are dragging their feet, Germany’s “experiment” has already produced global results. The costs of solar panels were in part driven down globally by the scale and duration of Germany’s investment in developing the technology on a national level, affordable pricing that is making solar more accessible to people in the US.
That’s the sort of benefit that Germany is happy to be reaping right at home. “I don’t think CO2 reduction targets are economic barriers,” says Teske. “I think if politicians would have understood what the potential was, they would have been fighting each other to have the highest reduction targets in their countries. You have to rebuild your infrastructure, and along with that come all the positive effects of employment, reducing imported of fuels, the whole chain.”
While Germany is planning on heading toward 60% renewable by 2035, over in the US we are currently clocking in at just around 14% renewable. Our own wind industry is constantly buffeted by the uncertainty of whether tax credits that support the technology will lapse, or be continued. It’s business 101 that uncertainty will hamper any country’s ability to develop a cheaper and more effective energy platform. “The US needs some sort of consistent policy which is not 12-months sided, but more 12-year,” says Teske. “That is the enabler at the end.”
Germany’s leap into renewables is certainly one transition the world is watching closely. Hopefully our own leaders will take it as a lesson in investing for the future, and even with these latest elections, American renewable energy won’t be left blowing in the breeze.