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Germany's Energiewende Troubles Prove That Renewable Energy Has Failed. And Other Strange Ideas

Energiewende and German Energy Troubles

What has been obvious to me for a long time now appears to have become obvious to many others: Germany’s energy policy is a confused mess. Germany’s energy revolution is, in the words of New Scientist, “on the verge of collapse.” And it was all rather predictable. Ramping up renewables quickly, building more coal power plants, closing nuclear power plants, and doing very little to reduce carbon emissions. Vaclav Smil, perhaps the most trenchant observer of energy transitions, rightly called this “totally zany.”

However point out these realities and you will quickly be labelled “anti-renewables,” such is the vacuous nature of too much debate on energy policy. Germany however has been set up as a symbol of the 100% renewables nirvana state to come, so I guess this is understandable. Yet, despite what many believe, Germany has a target of sixty, not one hundred percent, renewable energy by 2050, and is now building more coal power plants than any European country. Again, pointing out that Germany is building coal power plants puts me at risk of getting called “anti-renewables.” Mumbo jumbo rules the world.

This then is the perversely ideological backdrop to such debate. If things have gone wrong in Germany, they are bad for renewable energy, thus we should not talk about it. However as the great physicist Richard Feynman said “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.

Here then is what has gone wrong in Germany. It built far too much solar capacity, when wind was a much better option. It closed nuclear power plants, while building coal plants. And it built these coal plants instead of much cleaner, if more expensive, natural gas plants.

Yes, again I risk being called “anti-renewables”, but a careful reader will note that I argued for building wind instead of solar. That would, by any reading, be “pro-renewables”, or at least “pro-wind”. Sadly these caveats, while frustrating the flow of one’s prose, are by experience necessary. Here I will focus on the first statement, where conventional opinion is rather misguided. Germany’s solar build up, instead of being a huge success, was a massive mis-application of much needed effort.

In 2012 Germany had one third of the world’s solar panels, and at one point these panels generated over half of Germany’s electricity demand. This is how things are normally put. But it as rather like talking about a third rate golfer and only referring to the time he almost won the US Masters. Yes, Germany got 50% of its electricity from solar one afternoon. Throughout the year it only produced 5%. The 5% is what really matters. The 50% gets all the headlines.

And solar is an awful source of energy in a country as cloudy and as far north as Germany. Electricity has to be available when we want it. Germans, like many Europeans, most want the stuff around 6 pm on a cold Winter evening. This is an incredibly reliable peak in demand. Yet, the electricity supplied by Germany’s solar panels at 6 pm on a cold December is also incredibly reliable: zero.

Physical realities mean that Germany’s solar panels generate a pitiful amount of electricity for a large part of the year. This is demonstrated by comparing the output of Germany’s solar panels in July 2013, 5.1 TWh, with that in January 2013, 0.35 TWh. This is a difference of more than an order of magnitude. Solar is unlikely to be anything other than a marginal source of energy in Germany, simply because of its distance from the equator. And wishful thinking cannot shove Germany ten degrees to the south.

The astonishingly poor value for money of Germany’s solar build out can be demonstrated by comparing the subsidies for solar with those for onshore wind. Solar gets more than two times more in subsidies, but produces almost two times less electricity. Just think what could have been done by putting that solar money into wind turbines. Some will counter that Germany’s build up helped costs decline. Yes, this has happened, in part thanks to China dumping under-priced panels in the EU.

But what is Germany doing now that the costs have declined? They are building far less solar. At peak Germany was installing 7.5 GW of new solar each year. Now the government wants this to be limited to no more than 2.5 GW per year. To put this number in perspective consider the 10.7 GW of new coal plants Germany is building. It would take between 20 and 30 years to build enough solar panels, at 2.5 GW each year, to match the electricity generated by these coal plants.

Solar then appears to have left Germany with a very hefty bill, and with very little to show for it. Or I should say wishful thinking politicians have. Solar remains a very promising long term bet compared with wind, because of its higher power density. Just not in cloudy northern countries.

The lesson here is not “solar and renewables are a failure”, but “build solar where the sun shines.”

Robert Wilson's picture

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Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Feb 21, 2014 4:44 am GMT

As to your suggestion for funding backup for distributed generation, I’m happy to see this issue getting some thought put into it.  However, I’m very skeptical that using the grid for only a few hours per month results in lower costs to the cooperative that using it the whole time.  This is especially a concern since different users will not run their system at random intervals, but rather on sunny days grid use will be very low, and cloudy days the grid use will be very high.

The cost of the grid depends on the physical distances, and the peak power (not average!).  I think this system needs a smart grid, with real-time pricing.  The bad news is I really doubt a small local grid is a cost effective way to provide backup power to self-generation pro-sumers; many users will end-up off-grid using highly polluting fossil fuel powered piston generators for 25% of their annual use (i.e. expect more air pollution, home fires, and carbon-monoxide poisoning with this scenario).

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Feb 21, 2014 10:11 am GMT


Agree with you. Energie efficiency is one of the basic targets of the Energiewende.
Iceland is 100% renewable thanks to geothermal and hydro.
Just 10km from my house we have a big gardener which heats his glas houses with Geothermal (he pumps water up-/down through tubes ~a mile deep in the earth). He also heats our village swimming pool, as he needs less heat during the day, and it is the other way around the swimming pool.

So, I think Georthermal has huge unused potential.
With the improvements in sensing technology, the risk to drill into an unusuable hot water bassin will become less, and more of those will be found.
But I am no geologists so my know how is limited, which implies I write little about it.

There is a list of countries that generate all electricity via hydro.
Hydro is also used as pumped storage: Pump the water up into the mountain lake when electricity is cheap and use it when electricity is expensive. The same turbine/generator combination that generates electricity can also be used to pump the water up into the mountain lake.
Norwegian Statkraft offers that to other countries, as they have enough mountain lakes.

Portugal has a 2MW wave power plant in the ocean before its coast. I think some jump is needed in order to make the technology competitive. Similar with tidal power.

Norwegain Statkraft has also a pilot power plant that generates electricity from the difference in ph  between sea water and river water (the difference between salt and ‘sweet’ water creates an electric current).

Math Geurts's picture
Math Geurts on Feb 21, 2014 11:10 pm GMT


Indeed, it is not the Energiewende as such, but solar which causes the problems.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Feb 22, 2014 6:41 am GMT

Bas, the barrier to high renewable penetration is the variability and low capacity factor.  Denmark, with its tiny electrical demand (under 4 GWatts, see here), can easily pay its neighbors to smooth out the variability in its electrical supply, using their hydro and dispatchable fossil fuel plants.

So they are not really blazing a trail for others to follow, but rather using more than their fair share of the regional supply/demand balancing capability.

Thus far, German solar and wind still have low enough penetration that their fossil fuel plants can balance out the variability; i.e. they have only gathered low hanging fruit.  They have many years before their grid is scheduled to be as clean as France’s, and it will only get more difficult the further they progress.

Marijan Pollak's picture
Marijan Pollak on Feb 22, 2014 8:25 am GMT

Just keep lamenting and beating that dead horse.

Whole discussion is outdated since new baseload PSs using Wind and Sun would take over.

Bob Bingham's picture
Bob Bingham on Feb 23, 2014 12:33 am GMT

The private sector is begining to have an increasing affect on the power industry. Overall domestic demand is falling as devices become more efficiant and more people put in solar systems. As solar PVA panels drop in price this is set to be a huge factor. We still need the grid but the power companies income from the domestic sector is fallin steadilly. In my view the power companies have not grasped the new market economic dynamics (A bit like newspapers and the internet) and are still running on the old model. They need to be opening up new markets, like transport, instead of watching their share price decline. Oil is a diminishing resource and has a volatile price. It is wide open to exploitation. 

Math Geurts's picture
Math Geurts on May 5, 2015 9:56 pm GMT

Photovoltaik-Zubau sinkt im März auf 66 Megawatt

Math Geurts's picture
Math Geurts on May 5, 2015 9:57 pm GMT


Math Geurts's picture
Math Geurts on May 5, 2015 9:56 pm GMT

Photovoltaik-Zubau sinkt im März auf 66 Megawatt

Math Geurts's picture
Math Geurts on May 5, 2015 9:56 pm GMT

Photovoltaik-Zubau sinkt im März auf 66 Megawatt

Math Geurts's picture
Math Geurts on May 5, 2015 9:56 pm GMT

Photovoltaik-Zubau sinkt im März auf 66 Megawatt

Helmut Frik's picture
Helmut Frik on Jun 24, 2016 1:20 pm GMT

Seldome read such trash. Germany does not build any power plants any more. Ony Datteln IV is “under construction”, stalled for years in legal battles and likely to be knocked down before going online.
And subsidys for solar in germany was _not_ intended to buy cheap elecricity, but to push down manuufacturing costs. Reading the rationale of the law when it was made can be enlighting sometimes. This target was achieved, PV is now price competitive in a ever growing part of the world. The electricity production of 40GW Photovoltaic installations was and is just a positive sideeffect.
The same worked for Wind power, and in both cases it was also supported by other states which pushed renewables forward to scale up.


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