Answering your questions on Germany’s solar and wind experiment

Last week I shared a description of a forthcoming speech I’m going to give on Germany’s failed solar and wind experiment, and asked whether you were interested in learning more. The response was overwhelmingly positive.

I asked my head of research, Steffen Henne, to elaborate on the points I made and answer some of the questions you sent in. (Warning: the references are in German.)

Despite talk of its enormous solar and wind “capacity,” Germany gets less than 4 percent of its energy from solar and wind

SH: According to AG Energiebilanzen e.V., a German non-profit that analyses domestic energy markets, wind and solar combined made up 3.3% of Germany’s primary energy consumption in 2016, the last year for which data were available. All “renewables” combined, including hydro and biomass provided 12.6% of all primary energy. Without biomass and hydro that drops to 4.7%.

Matthew Mendell asks: “So would you say that these charts on Wikipedia are wrong? Net generated electricity in 2016:

* 14.3% wind

* 6.9% solar

If so, why is Wikipedia wrong?”

SH: Wikipedia is not wrong. These percentages are for electric power generation, not total energy consumption.

This is a) only part of the total energy (excludes non-electric heating and cooking, transportation, etc.) and b) a slightly different measure as the domestic generation of energy differs from the domestic consumption of energy as a result of the imports/exports over the year.

Since Germany exports a lot of the useless surplus generation from intermittent sources to neighboring countries, it’s not exactly a success indicator.

The price of electricity has more than doubled since Germany began its push for renewable energy

SH: You can find the data on page 7 of this document. You can also see that it is Germany’s support for renewables that is driving those rising prices: mainly as a result of direct subsidies paid by private households to renewables (pastel green, 6.79 €-cents per kWh in 2018) and an increasing cost for grid services (light blue).

Jack Crawford asks: “I don’t doubt you but it looks funny to me when you say that only 4% of Germany’s power comes from unreliable sources but that they have to shut businesses and the price of electricity has doubled. Seems to be a non-sequitur.”

J c asks a related question: “4% electricity from renewables, but electricity prices have doubled? How come?”

SH: The 4% share is in relation to the total energy consumed, not just electric power. The total energy includes transportation, heating, cooking, industrial process heat and other uses of energy that are not electrified.

For example, the prices for gasoline at the pump have come down quite a bit over recent years thanks to the impact of the American shale revolution on world oil markets. In contrast, the fee per kWh of residential electricity that goes directly to renewable production subsidies has grown from 0.0013€ per kWh in 2000 to 0.06792€ ($0.08) per kWh in 2018 (see page 7 here). That’s about the retail price per kWh in Oklahoma, Washington or Wyoming.

Germany has had to temporarily shut down businesses when unreliable sources of energy can’t supply enough power

SH: On February 13, 2014 according to German newspaper Der Westen an unanticipated shortfall in power production required Germany’s biggest aluminum producer, Trimet, to shut down its smelters in Essen and Hamburg for one hour. This was caused by insufficient production from solar and wind that had been incorrectly forecast. The aluminum smelters require as much power as several cities (500 MW) and it was cheaper to compensate them than to ramp up more capacity on short notice.

Germans can look forward to spending billions more euros each year to stabilize their grid thanks to the impact of unreliable energy

SH: As the German paper Die Zeit reports, measures to stabilize the power grid are increasingly pricy for consumers and the result of increasing capacity of wind and solar, predominantly in the windy northern parts of the country, and nuclear shutdowns. Around 660 million Euros for 2016 had to be paid for extra reserve capacity and to shut down overproduction from intermittent sources, costs that have tended to rise.

When the last nuclear reactors in Germany are shut down by 2022 the cost could climb up to 4 billion €, according to the federal regulator Bundesnetzagentur. Relief could come from additional infrastructure, especially new power lines specifically designed to transport large amounts of power over great distances from the windy north to the industry-heavy south of Germany. This infrastructure, of course, will be costly as well.

According to German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, German grid operator Ampiron’s chief technical officer Klaus Kleinekorte said that during the winter of 2016/2017 Germany’s grid was close to a major blackout. The reason was stress on the transmission lines because several French and Belgian plants and one German plant shut down unscheduled. Germany’s massive wind and solar capacity contributed little to production during a period without much sunshine and wind movement across central Europe.

Local coal and gas plants had to be activated, which cost 20 million Euros for this “redispatch” measure alone. According to Kleinekorte, during the period December to February there were repeatedly hours in the evenings where the grid was close to a hard limit, which could have resulted in a blackout cascade.

More questions answered

Michael Donohue asks: “I recently read somewhere that the US is shipping vast quantities of wood chips/pellets to Germany. This is categorized as ‘renewable.’ Is this correct and will it become part of your story? Cutting down trees to save the planet sounds counter-intuitive.”

SH: This is based on wood pellet exports for energy generation in Europe. The pellets are usually burned for power and heat cogeneration. The idea is that wood biomass counts as “renewable” because you can replant trees.

In 2016 biomass energy (including liquid fuels like ethanol and biodiesel, which make up less than 1% of total energy) was almost 60% of renewable energy and over 7% of total energy in Germany (according to AG Energiebilanzen).

There are several problems with using wood for power. To name just one, wood does not grow particularly fast compared to the enormous amount of fuel needed to be burned to satisfy the demand in power and heating.

Rod Sellers asks: “Some good friends of mine were recently traveling in the Hood River area and stopped in a Pub for a bite and and a drink. My friends struck up a conversation with the only other people in the Pub, three contractors working exclusively on maintenance of the many wind generators in the area. Their contract was for millions over a long period of time, 10 years if I remember correctly. The conversation soon revealed that their job was not to keep the many wind generators producing electricity but to keep the blades turning so it appeared they were producing electricity. They went on to explain that a huge percentage of the towers did not produce any electricity and were too costly to get into proper operation so they were just to try and keep them turning for appearance sake. My friends had no particular interest in the subject until this conversation, they sure do now. This may be worth further investigation by someone.”

SH: I have heard this before, but it is unlikely to be very common and might be an urban myth (or rural myth in this case). There are several problems with the plausibility of it. One is that the moving parts of the turbine are subject to wearout. This fake production would wear them out without getting the production credit or revenue. Second, the actual production has to be measured accurately otherwise this would endanger grid stability.

So it’s possible for this to happen on a single project but rather unlikely. It would cost money to keep the illusion alive and wind farmers are in it for the money.

Steven Showers asks: “I’m interested in hearing more about Germany in future mailers. Colleagues have stated, in conversation, recently that Germans have completely moved off of fossil fuels. I just nod my head because I am uninformed.”

SH: They’re wrong. Coal made up 23.6% of Germany’s energy consumption, oil 34%, and gas 22.6% in 2016.