Why Germany should leave coal behind

by John Brian Shannon

Germany, a thriving economic powerhouse under the Chancellorship of Angela Merkel, is also a renewable energy superstar and a country that is loaded with potential.

Lately, the Germans have taken a break from aggressively adding renewable energy to their grid by ending a lucrative feed-in-tariff (FiT) subsidy program that ramped-up the adoption of solar, wind and biomass installations across the country.

Not that these so-called ‘lucrative’ subsidies approached anywhere near what fossil fuel and nuclear power plant operators receive and have received since the postwar period began, as all energy in Germany (like most countries) is heavily subsidized by taxpayers but only the (much smaller) renewable energy subsidies get the headlines. Go figure.

Chancellor Angela Merkel made the courageous decision to accelerate the shutdown Germany’s nuclear power plants in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster in 2011 after stress tests of German nuclear power plants showed safety concerns existed within the their nuclear fleet. She ushered in meaningful FiT subsidies to speed the German Energiewende program towards its goal of transition to renewable energy and greater energy efficiency — which had received only sporadic subsidies prior to Merkel.

Snapshot of the German Energiewende program

  • A popular Germany-only program to move towards a highly industrialized, sustainable green economy
  • Full phase-out of nuclear energy by 2022
  • 80-95% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050
  • Minimum of 80% renewables in the power sector
  • 50% increase in energy efficiency by 2050

Germany’s utility companies haven’t seen change like this since WWII. After a century of serving conventionally-generated electrical power to a captive electricity market — approximately 1/3 of all German electricity is now generated via renewable energy if you also include biomass and hydro-power. That’s historic change by any standard.

Germany-renewable-energy-power-capacity at October 29, 2014 Fraunhofer Institute image

Although solar panel outputs are lower during the winter months, over the summer of 2014 renewable energy generated more than 75% of total demand on many of those days. Not bad, for 5 years of relatively minor renewable energy subsidy euros provided by a (now ended) Feed-in-Tariff!

Germany renewable energy generation for the first 10 months of 2014 courtesy of the Fraunhofer Institute

Another benefit of the switch to renewable energy was the added billions of euros of economic activity generated annually by European solar panel and wind manufacturing companies like Vestas, SolarWorld, Siemens, ABB, and the jobs created for hundreds of SME renewable energy installation companies in the country.

Exports of German solar panels and wind turbines went through the stratosphere once Germany proved to the world that solar and wind could replace lost nuclear power generation capacity at a much lower cost than building new, multi-billion euro, nuclear or coal-fired power plants with their massive footprint on the land and their obscene water usage levels.

Germany renewable energy power generation change (in absolute terms) for the first 10 months of 2014 compared to the first 10 months of 2013. Image courtesy of the Fraunhofer Institute

For Germany, installing their own solar, wind and biomass power plants proved to the world that large-scale renewable energy could add huge capacity to a nation’s electrical grid and that different types of renewable energy could work together to balance the over-hyped ‘intermittency problem’ of renewable energy.

It turns out that in Germany, during the long, hot days of summer when solar panels are putting out their maximum power the wind actually tapers off — but at night the wind blows at a very reliable rate. Karmic bonus! That about covers the summer months.

During the winter months in Germany, the wind blows day and night and adds significant amounts of reliable power to the national grid.

Germany solar and wind energy are complementary, helping to stabilize the German electricity grid without adding pollution to the air. Image courtesy of the Fraunhofer Institute

And now, all of that renewable energy capacity is operating without FiT subsidy — quite unlike the coal, nuclear, and oil and gas power generation in the country which require huge and ongoing subsidies every day of the year to continue operations. That’s every day since 1946, meine Freunde!

Also a factor with nuclear and coal-fired power plants are the healthcare spending to combat the adverse health effects of fossil fuel burning/air pollution on humans and animals, on the agriculture sector, and the huge security infrastructure that is necessary to counter the potential theft of nuclear materials, to defeat possible nuclear terrorism and prevent nuclear proliferation.

While the rest of Europe (with the exception of notables like Norway, Sweden and Luxembourg) wallowed in recession or near-recession since 2008, the German economic powerhouse not only set global export records year-on-year, it bailed-out numerous other EU economies like Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and others, and began an unprecedented domestic renewable energy program. And now, Germany is an electricity net exporter.

That’s heady stuff, even for this industrious nation of 82 million.

Germany imports and exports of electricity 2001-2014. Image courtesy of the Fraunhofer Institute

Where to next?

Not only has Germany added many TeraWatt hours (TWh) of clean, renewable energy to its electrical grid to replace lost nuclear power generation, it is now an electricity net exporter — raking in multi-millions of euros per year at present — and make that an electricity exporting superpower if they ever decide to revive their now defunct Feed-in-Tariff subsidy for renewable energy.

Replacing coal with renewable energy in Germany:

If Germany revived the previous FiT regime for 5 more years, *all lignite-fired (brown coal) electrical power generation* could be eliminated within 10 years.

If Germany revived the previous FiT regime for 10 more years, *all coal-fired electrical power generation* (not just lignite coal) could be eliminated within 10 years.

Replacing coal with renewable energy in Germany would save millions of Germans (and Polish, Swiss, Austrians, and others living downwind of German smokestacks) from breathing toxic lignite-fired air pollution. Think of the health care savings and the taxes that must support it, especially as their demographic ages. Some people believe that the health care savings alone could far exceed the cost of any FiT subsidy.

Not only that, but as a result of leaving coal behind, historic buildings, concrete bridges and roadways would require less maintenance to repair the spalling caused by the acid rain from coal burning. Additionally, Germany would save the millions of litres of water consumed annually by the coal industry.

Replacing coal with renewable energy in Germany would create thousands more jobs for solar, wind, and biomass manufacturing and construction. And the agriculture sector would begin to show ever-improving crop outputs. And, clean air for all visitors, expats and German citizens to breathe!

A note about (renewable energy) Hybrid power plants

So-called Hybrid power plants offer the best of both worlds in the renewable energy space by providing plenty of electricity day and night. This Hybrid power plant uses solar panels and wind turbines, while others can incorporate biomass or hydro-electricity dams, along with wind or solar, or both.
Hybrid power plants provide electricity day and night.

An energy policy stroke of genius for Germany could come in the form of a new subsidy (a FiT or other type of subsidy) that could be offered to promote the installation of Hybrid power plants — whereby 30% of electricity generated at a given power plant site would come from solar and the balance could come from any combination of wind, biomass, or hydro-electric generation. (30% solar + 70% various renewable = 100% of total per site output)

As long as all of the electrical power generation at a site is renewable energy and it works to balance the intermittency of solar power — it should qualify for the (hereby proposed) Energiewende Hybrid Power Plant subsidy.

When all the different types of renewable energy work in complementary fashion on the same site, energy synergy (the holy grail of the renewable energy industry) will be attained.

More jobs, billions of euros worth of electricity exports to the European countries bordering Germany, better agricultural outputs, lower health care spending and less environmental damage — all at a lower subsidy level than coal and nuclear have enjoyed for decades — are precisely why Germans should renew their commitment to renewable energy.

Seriously, what’s not to like?

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Modi changes India’s national conversation with Renewable Energy

by John Brian Shannon.

Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi of India. Image courtesy of: www.narendramodi.in
Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi of India. Image courtesy: www.narendramodi.in

India’s newly-elected Prime Minister, Narendra Modi says 400 million Indian citizens presently living without electrical service in rural areas of the country will have electricity within five years via upcoming, massive investments in solar power.

Not only that, but the country’s various electrical grids (which are not necessarily connected to each other, nor to the main national grid) will benefit significantly from thousands of distributed solar installations by adding to overall capacity and helping to stabilize weaker parts of the infrastructure.

PM-elect Modi sees no reason why each rooftop in the country cannot install a number of solar panels. Indeed, when millions of rooftops are involved with an average of 10 panels per rooftop (for example), and plenty of land that is unsuitable for growing crops and entire canal systems are already covered with solar panels, you know big numbers are coming.

So, what could India do with 1 billion solar panels?

For starters, every home and business in the country could have reliable (daytime) electricity. Many towns and villages in remote areas would have electrical power for the first time in their history, thereby allowing them entry into the world’s knowledge-based economy. With the advent of electricity, education and commerce should flourish and easy access to online government services will offer significant benefit to many millions of India’s citizens.

And for locations with home-battery backup or diesel-backup power, 24-hour-per-day electricity will become the norm. Employment and productivity in these regions could be expected to rise dramatically and online medical advice could be a lifesaver for those who live in remote areas. All of these are good things to have in a rapidly developing nation.

Then there is the possibility of electrical power sales between electrical power producers and energy consumers of all sizes, whether neighbour-to-neighbour or direct-to-utility, along the projected pathways of the constantly evolving grid system. Finally, (daytime) surplus electricity sales to neighbouring countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan might become commonplace and profitable.

Mr. Modi is taking on an unparalleled task, fraught with challenges. Here is a comment on the present state of affairs in India as it relates to the proposed rural electrification of the country.

Four hundred million Indians, more than the population of the United States and Canada combined, lack electricity. An official of India’s newly elected Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, recently said that his government wants every home to be able to run at least one light bulb by 2019. Administrations have made similar claims numerous times since India gained independence in 1947, but this time renewable power sources could bring the longstanding promise closer to a realistic vision.

In a sprawling, diverse country of more than 1.2 billion residents this task is tantamount to a second green revolution, the first being agricultural advances that relieved famine across the subcontinent in the middle of the 20th century. — ThinkProgress

India’s utility industry is at a ‘tipping point’

The Indian utility industry is comprised of a mishmash of coal-fired generation, less than reliable nuclear power plants noted for their high maintenance costs, oil-fired power generation, along with some hydro-electric dams and biomass power generation. The ‘pylons and powerlines’ component of the national grid in India is in need of a complete overhaul. On top of all that, the fossil and nuclear power producers have been heavily subsidized for decades and theft of electricity continues to be a multi-billion dollar problem.

Prior to the Indian election, the country’s utility industry was summed up by industry expert, S.L. Rao;

Power retailers were behind on 155 billion rupees ($2.5 billion) of payments to their suppliers as of Jan. 31, reducing their ability to provide electricity to customers. Blackouts may spread as state utilities in Delhi, Haryana and Maharashtra slash consumer bills in a populist wave before elections. That’s jeopardizing a $31 billion government bailout of the industry, which requires companies to boost rates.

“The power sector needs tough politics, and the only person in politics today who might be capable of that kind of toughness is Modi,” said S.L. Rao, the head of India’s central electricity regulator from 1998 to 2001, according to his website.

The Indian utility industry “has reached a stage where either we change the whole system quickly or it will collapse.” Rao, who was appointed to the regulatory body by an independent committee, said he maintains no political affiliation. — Bloomberg

On the bright side however, India’s outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had begun a process to inform citizens of the benefits of renewable energy and was instrumental in promoting a 4 GigaWatt(GW) solar park being built in four stages. At present it is only partially operational, with 1GW of power flowing now and construction of the three remaining stages continues at a brisk pace. When completed, it will easily be the largest solar park in the world.

Dr. Singh also directed policy towards massive wind power capacity additions, with major offshore wind installations due to come online in 2015. However, even with the efforts of PM Singh, only 4% of total electrical generation came from renewable energy in 2013. Prime Minister Singh’s policy goal of 20GW of solar by 2022 looks likely to be superceded by PM-elect Modi. Perhaps in dramatic fashion.

Tulsi Tanti, Chairman of the Pune India based wind power company The Suzlon Group, told the newswire today that, “the BJP-led government will provide an environment conducive for growth and investments, with major reforms in the infrastructure and renewable energy sector. This is important as India’s economic environment will act as a catalyst in reviving the global economy.” — Forbes

It is time to roll up our sleeves and get to work

Hundreds of thousands of direct and related jobs are expected during the 2014-2024 Indian renewable energy boom. And, bonus for consumers, the falling cost of solar and wind power electricity rates will have an overall deflationary effect on the national economy.

Later, as solar and wind power begin to displace fossil and nuclear power, declining healthcare costs, improved crop yields, cleaner air in cities resulting in a better quality of life for citizens — the new and stable energy paradigm will remove many of the historic constraints on the country and its people, allowing India to become all that it can and should be.

At this point, it looks like India’s transition to renewable energy may happen quickly and turn out to be the good-news story of the decade with massive economic, environmental, and human health ramifications — not just for India but for the region and the world. Hats off to India!

Follow John Brian Shannon on Twitter: @JBSsaid