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.
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.