A Success Unimagined

October 5, 2012

If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unimagined in common hours.   –   Henry David Thoreau

One of the great stories untold in the American media is the ongoing revolution in one of the world’s most advanced economies  – as Germany undertakes a bold and serious transition from powering a great engine of prosperity on fossil fuels, to plentiful and inexhaustible renewable energy.

Listening to Mitt Romney double and triple down on the bogus Fox/Fossil narrative about “clean coal” and failed renewables, it might be well to consider how one of our toughest manufacturing competitors is going all-in on the high stakes renewable energy revolution of the new century.

Paul Gipe’s WindWorks:

German use of coal to generate electricity has declined steadily from 1990 to 2011, according to readily available statistics on the German electricity system. The percentage of coal-fired electricity in German electricity generation has fallen from 56.7% in 1990 to 43.5% last year–a decrease of more than 10% despite a increase in total electricity generation during the same period of about 10%. At the same time the share of renewable energy in the electricity mix has increased from 3.6% to 19.9%, mostly due to the rapid development of wind energy and biomass.
It’s necessary to make this statement short and succinct because, if anyone has missed it, there’s a presidential election campaign in full swing here in the USA. And with it is a full-on, no-holds-barred propaganda war against renewables.
Weekly–if not more often–a new broadside appears and makes the rounds of generally right-wing blogs and talk shows. The latest talking point is that Germany is burning more coal than ever because of all the intermittent renewables that have been added to the system.
So, let’s have some fun with numbers and separate fact from fiction.
First, the source. All the data I’ll use comes from the Work Group on the German Energy Balance (Arbeitsgemeinschaft Energiebilanzen) and can be downloaded from their web site.
There are others sources of this data. This happens to be one that I could find easily, the data was relatively concise, and it was in spreadsheet form.
Ideally, I would put all the information on one chart, but this much to busy to easily read and comprehend. Consequently, I’ve broken the data down into a series of charts.

German renewable generation now exceeds generation from hard coal and generation from nuclear.
Total renewable generation was less than brown coal in 2011. However, at last year’s pace of growth, renewable generation may exceed that from brown coal by 2015.


The installed cost for residential solar power systems in Germany — that is, installations of up to 10 kW — is considerably less than in the U.S. Why? That’s the subject of a fascinating analysis [PDF] from sharp minds at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

The researchers conducted a survey of German solar installers and reviewed public and private consultant data to get a handle on the German market. The answers they found aren’t as obvious as you might think.

For one thing, it isn’t mainly about the hardware, or the panels themselves. Those costs are comparable. The difference comes almost entirely in “soft costs” — customer acquisition, labor, interconnection to the grid, and the like. Long story short, when it comes to residential solar, in the U.S. it costs a little bit more to do … just about everything.

Let’s look at some graphs! (All these graphs come from the paper — you can find sources documented there.)

Here are installed costs of small PV systems in the U.S. and Germany:

Germany passed us in the mid-00s and hasn’t looked back. As of the fourth quarter of 2011, the difference in installed price was about $2.8 per watt. That’s a big chunk.

The first and most obvious explanation for the difference might simply be that Germany has installed a lot more solar than us. In 2011, they installed four times as much as us and their cumulative total is five times what we have.


Germany’s promotion of renewable energy rightly gets singled out for its effectiveness, most often by me as an example of how to do things well versus the fits and starts method of promotion common in the US. Over at Wind-Works, Paul Gipe points out another interesting facet of the German renewable energy saga: 51% of all renewable energy in Germany is owned by individual citizens or farms, totaling $100 billion worth of private investment in clean energy.

Breaking that down into solar power and wind power, 50% of Germany’s solar PV is owned by individuals and farms, while 54% of its wind power is held by the same groups.

In total there’s roughly 17 GW of solar PV installed in Germany—versus roughly 3.6 GW in the US (based on SEIA’s figures for new installations though the third quarter of 2011 plus the 2.6 GW installed going into the year).

Remember, Germany now produces slightly over 20% of all its electricity from renewable sources.

The thing that got me though, other than the huge lead in solar PV installations Germany has over the US, thanks to good policy, and the fact that so much wind power isn’t owned by utilities, is what slightly over half of renewable energy being owned not by corporations but by actual biological people means—obviously a democratic shift in control of resources and a break from the way electricity and energy has been produced over the past century.


13 Responses to “A Success Unimagined”

  1. rayduray Says:

    Off Topic

    New NY Times article on Antarctic Sea Ice compared to Arctic Ice.

    Maximum Southern Ice cover occurred on Sept. 26.


  2. John Oneill Says:

    Why does your graph of electricity generation show coal, nuclear and renewables but not gas?

    • greenman3610 Says:

      not my graph. I believe the data is available at the site linked.

      • John Oneill Says:

        Sorry couldn’t navigate in German. Ideally you’d want to graph CO2 emissions versus different energy use, since burning brown coal would produce more than black coal per kw/hr, even though the black coal is shipped from as far as Australia. That still wouldn’t show the effect of methane escaping from the natural gas supply chain; I saw one study which claimed release of only a couple of percent CH4 to the atmosphere would cause worse greenhouse gas effects than burning coal. Electricity imports and exports are relevant too, if German production goes down but is made up by imports of French nuclear or Polish coal power. Ditto if electric space heating is not used because of high electricity prices, and gas is burned instead. And finally, if high energy-use industry decamps to Asia, to be fueled there by coal, the claimed savings are illusory.

  3. rayduray Says:

    A recent TED talk might be of some interest:

    Vicki Arroyo: Let’s prepare for our new climate


    Blurb: Set aside the politics: Data shows that climate change is happening, measurably, now. And as Vicki Arroyo says, it’s time to prepare our homes and cities for the new climate, with its increased risk of flooding, drought and uncertainty. She illustrates this inspiring talk with bold projects from cities all over the world — local examples of thinking ahead.

    Vicki Arroyo uses environmental law and her background in biology and ecology to help prepare for global climate change.

  4. David Lewis Says:

    The average retail price of electricity in Germany was .2541 EU cents per kw/hr in May 2012, according to http://energy.eu/ . That would be about 33 US cents per kw/hr at todays EU/USD rate.

    You can have all the renewables you want, but it costs. What matters is tonnes of CO2 avoided at what cost, it seems to me, not some renewables at all costs religion.

    • Alteredstory Says:

      David, while renewables may cost more, currently, there are a couple things that, intentionally or not, you are ignoring.

      First of all, you’re ignoring the money we pay for fossil fuels through our tax dollars in the form of subsidies, VERY cheap leasing of land rights, and so on.

      Second, you are ignoring the billions we’ve already had to spend dealing with climate change alone, not to mention cleaning up spills, coping with health impacts, and so on.

      The current rate of fossil fuel energy is artificially low, so before you start going on about how expensive renewables are, try injecting a little honesty into your claims.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      If we accept your cost numbers as reliable, it is still a misleading statistic, as the average household customer in germany uses only a fraction of the electricity that we do in the US, due to higher efficiency standards – which need to be the first component of any serious energy plan..
      Moreover, experience shows that renewable energy is extremely competitive here in the US. New wind power purchase agreements here in michigan are coming in at 6 cents/kwh – versus the 13 cents / kWh estimate for new coal. In the best great plains sites, the costs are more like 3 cents for wind, and new technology is bringing costs down.
      Solar is currently somewhat more expensive, but is making inroads because it competes well in the market for peak power during afternoon hours, which is traditionally more expensive due to the high cost of power from peaking power plants. Important to remember, the more fossil fuels you use, inevitably the more expensive they become.
      The more renewables you use, just as inevitably, the cheaper they become.

  5. andrewfez Says:

    Also, in Germany, we have to remember that in the early nineties the price for electricity was around 20 cents per kWh, for the average fella. Prices dipped to a low point of 17 cents per kWh in the late nineties. So Germans are seeing a few cents higher than they’re used to seeing. This will continue to grow, but it will be slower growth than if Germany had just stayed with a business as usual plan.

    Germany industry on the other hand is seeing prices lower than those of the early nineties. If industry was competent when they were seeing 13 cents per kWh back then, why would they tuck their tail between their legs when they are now seeing 11 cents per kWh? Was German manufacturing decimated in the early nineties? Was there a mass exodus to countries with cheaper energy?

    One thing about German manufacturing is it is a tight system that benefits from keeping everything local. If half their factories get moved to Asia, they sacrifice their well oiled machine. So there is a large opportunity cost of searching for short term gains in other countries. The Germans are expected to have cheaper energy in 2020, than if they had carried on with the mass fossil burning. So if you were a CEO, would you not want to see energy cost projections for the life of your factory, and take that into account before considering building outside the country?

  6. […] on top of the Lovins presentation, I wanted to draw your attention to an item on Climate Crocks last October 5th. One of the great stories untold in the American media is the ongoing revolution […]

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