Sunday, July 08, 2012

The Great and Devastating German Green Energy Folly

German electricity consumers are paying the second highest power rates in all of Europe, second only to Denmark. Germany is losing industrial plants to other countries with more reasonable electricity rates, and jobs are fleeing the country along with the plants.
What was the German government thinking in 2004, when it offered a subsidy, known as a feed-in tariff, that guaranteed investors as much as €0.57 per kilowatt-hour for the next two decades of photovoltaic generation? At the time, the average price for electricity from other sources was about €0.20/kWh; by comparison, the average U.S. electricity price in 2004 was 7.6 cents, or about €0.06/kWh. With subsidies like that, it was no wonder that Bavaria Solarpark was just the beginning of a rush to build photovoltaic plants in Germany. By the end of 2011, Germany’s PV installations had a capacity of nearly 25 gigawatts, which was more than a third of the global total. If you subsidize something enough, at first it can seem almost reasonable; only later does reality intervene. This past March, stung by the news that Germans were paying the second highest electricity rates in Europe, the German parliament voted to cut the various solar subsidies by up to 29 percent.

Such generous subsidies are by no means a German peculiarity. They have been the norm in the new world of renewable energies; only their targets differ. Spain also subsidized wind and PV generation before cutting its feed-in tariff for large installations by nearly 50 percent in 2010. China’s bene­fits to its wind-turbine makers were so generous that the United States complained about them to the World Trade Organization in December 2010. _Vaclav Smil in IEEE

Big wind and big solar are not economical without massive and ruinously expensive government subsidies, mandates, tax breaks, and other special favours -- often given to developers who happen to be political cronies of the party in power.
The most ardent supporters of solar, wind, and biomass argue that these sources can replace fossil fuels and create highly reliable, nonpolluting, carbon-free systems priced no higher than today’s cheapest coal-fired electricity generation, all in just a few decades. That would be soon enough to prevent the rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide from its current level of 394 parts per million to more than 450 ppm—at which point, climatologists estimate, the average global temperature will rise by 2 °C. I wish all these promises would come true, but I think instead I’ll put my faith in clear-eyed technical assessments.

...But other analyses refute the claims of cheap wind electricity, and still others take into account the fact that photo­voltaic installations require not just cells but also frames, inverters, batteries, and labor. These associated expenses are not plummeting at all, and that is why the cost of electricity generated by residential solar systems in the United States has not changed dramatically since 2000. At that time the national mean was close to 40 U.S. cents per kilowatt­-hour, while the latest Solarbuzz data for 2012 show 28.91 cents per kilowatt-hour in sunny climates and 63.60 cents per kilowatt-­hour in cloudy ones. That’s still far more expensive than using fossil fuels, which in the United States cost between 11 and 12 cents per kilowatt-hour in 2011. The age of mass-scale, decentralized photovoltaic generation is not here yet. _Vaclav Smil in IEEE

Wind and solar power supporters invariably undestimate the costs of their favourite forms of energy, because they never take into account the costs of intermittency, or the costs of ancillary infrastructure which must be built to support and back up the intermittent unreliable forms of energy they prefer.
Projections of wind-power generation into the future have been misleadingly optimistic, because they are all based on initial increases from a minuscule base. So what if total global wind turbine capacity rose sixfold between 2001 and 2011? Such high growth rates are typical of systems in early stages of development, particularly when—as in this case—the growth has been driven primarily by subsidies.

And a new factor has been changing the prospects for wind and solar: the arrival of abundant supplies of natural gas extracted by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, from shales. Fracking is uncommon outside the United States and Canada at the moment, but it could be used in many countries in Europe, Asia, and Latin America, which also have large shale deposits. Some countries, such as France and Germany, have banned the technology for fear of possible environmental effects, but such concerns accompany all new energy technologies, even those touted for their environmental virtues. And natural gas can be used to generate electricity in particularly efficient ways. For example, combined-cycle gas plants exploit the heat leaving the gas turbine to produce steam and generate additional electricity using a steam turbine. What’s more, gas turbine modules with up to 60 megawatts of capacity can be up and running within a month of delivery, and they can be conveniently sited so as to feed their output into existing transmission lines.

The siting of massive wind farms is also becoming increasingly contentious—many people don’t like their look, object to their noise, or worry about their effect on migrating birds and bats [see “Fixing Wind Power’s Bat Problem,” in this issue]. This has become a problem even for some offshore projects. For example, a vast project off Martha’s Vineyard island, in Massachusetts, which was supposed to be the first offshore wind farm in the United States, has been stalled for years because of local opposition. The intermittence of the wind makes it hard to estimate how much electricity can be generated in a few days’ time, and the shortage of operating experience with large turbines introduces even greater uncertainty over the long term. We’ll just have to wait to see how reliable they’ll be over their supposed lifetimes of 20 to 30 years and how much repair and maintenance they will require.

And, of course, you can’t use wind turbines unless you’re prepared to hook them to the grid by building lots of additional high-voltage transmission lines, an expensive and typically legally challenging undertaking. _Vaclav Smil in IEEE

Germany is just beginning to pay the price for its impetuous descent into a reliance on intermittent unreliable green forms of energy. The final costs to Germany and Europe will by much higher than anyone -- even the most pessimistic analyst -- has yet anticipated.

And so, naturally, US President Obama wishes to take the United States down the same destructive energy decline as the greens in Europe have chosen. Obama had best hope that US voters do not catch on to his foolish agenda before the next US national election.

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