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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
- Energiewende: energy transition in Germany (The Guardian)
- German solar ambitions at risk from cuts to subsidies (The Guardian)
- Sustainable Energy has Merit in Germany (JohnBrianShannon.com)