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A Snapshot of Germany's Electricity Mix: Solar Capacity Reigns, but Coal Generation Sustains

Stephen Lacey's picture
Greentech Media

Stephen Lacey is a Senior Editor at Greentech Media, where he focuses primarily on energy efficiency. He has extensive experience reporting on the business and politics of cleantech. He was...

  • Member since 2018
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  • Dec 26, 2014
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Until recently, Germany was known as the undisputed leader in clean energy. But the country’s legacy may be shifting.

Germany was one of the few countries in the world to take a no-excuses approach to developing renewable energy by creating a highly ambitious set of policies to promote localized, distributed generation. In many ways, the policies were a resounding success: the country sparked the modern solar industry; half of all renewables are locally owned; and traditional utilities are now transforming themselves into energy service companies focused on distributed generation and divesting from centralized fossil fuels.

But Germany is also facing some hard realities. Mounting legacy costs of feed-in tariffs, increasing electricity rates and rising CO2 emissions are raising a debate about the effectiveness of the country’s energy transition.

Earlier this month, Dr. Bruno Burger of the Fraunhofer Institute released the latest data on Germany’s electricity mix. It features 250 charts that illustrate every relevant yearly, monthly and daily statistic on the country’s energy production for 2014.

What do the numbers tell us? There’s something for both optimists and pessimists to rally around.

1. Net installed capacity numbers show just how much solar and wind Germany has on its grid.

2. But when considering yearly electricity production, coal is still winning out over everything.

3. Coal generation did decrease in 2014. In order to accommodate wind and solar on the grid, nuclear plants reduced baseload production by 10 percent, and lignite plants reduced generation by 30 percent.

4. Hard coal plants saw radical variation in utilization rates, contributing to the strong decline in revenue among power-plant operators.

5. On June 6, 2014, Germany saw a record-breaking 212 gigawatt-hours of solar production — around 18 percent of total generation that day.

6. On December 12, 2014, wind hit a new record of 562 gigawatt-hours — producing around one-third of total electricity that day.

7. Despite those impressive records, solar and wind still followed biomass, coal and nuclear in monthly generation totals.

Optimists about Germany’s situation would say these graphs are proof that renewables are wreaking havoc on the utilization and economics of fossil fuels, thus stimulating a business transition for large power companies.

Pessimists would point to the increase in yearly coal generation as proof that large amounts of solar and wind aren’t enough to quickly derail entrenched fossil fuels, nor to make up for a phase-out of nuclear power.

However, realists would likely see both sides and agree with an energy expert like Vaclav Smil, who argues that true energy transitions do not happen in a decade.

“The historical verdict is unassailable: because of the requisite technical and infrastructural imperatives and because of numerous (and often entirely unforeseen) socioeconomic adjustments, energy transitions in large economies and on a global scale are inherently protracted affairs,” writes Smil.

Germany might be moving faster than other countries. But it’s also proving that energy transitions don’t happen quickly, no matter how aggressive the policies.

“A world without fossil fuel combustion is highly desirable and, to be optimistic, our collective determination, commitment, and persistence could accelerate its arrival — but getting there will demand not only high cost, but also considerable patience: coming energy transitions will unfold across decades, not years,” Smil argues.

You can view the rest of Dr. Burger’s charts here.

greentech mediaGreentech Media (GTM) produces industry-leading news, research, and conferences in the business-to-business greentech market. Our coverage areas include solar, smart grid, energy efficiency, wind, and other non-incumbent energy markets. For more information, visit: greentechmedia.com , follow us on twitter: @greentechmedia, or like us on Facebook: facebook.com/greentechmedia.

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Math Geurts's picture
Math Geurts on Jan 8, 2015

.

Math Geurts's picture
Math Geurts on Jan 7, 2015
Willem Post's picture
Willem Post on Jan 8, 2015

Sean,

Your flip side will be ignored by German power system engineers.

Energy storage is and will be very expensive. Economically viable energy storage has not yet been invented.

It is better to finally start the HVDC lines, as Germany’s engineers have decided (THEY are not stupid), and have been asking for for many years, but could not get politicians to join them, because of NIMBY.

Willem Post's picture
Willem Post on Jan 8, 2015

Deleted

Willem Post's picture
Willem Post on Jan 8, 2015

Nah, he likely read some RE propaganda

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Jan 8, 2015

Sean,
There is time enough for those north-south DC-lines. They start to really need those in ~2019.
English literature gives the impression that NIMBY is rather big, which is actually not the case.

The new German law prevents endless delays, such as we had here in NL. Here environmental action groups succeeded in delaying a really necessary stretch of 7km highway for 50years (A4 Delft-Schiedam)!

With power cables there is also the underground alternative. It is more expensive, but if it concerns relative short stretches the costs are not such high.
Few years ago Tennet needed to install a new line to transport the electricity generated by the green house CHP installations. It went near the houses of Delft and Pijnacker. After discussion Tennet agreed to put that stretch (~10km) underground.

Btw.
The first grid scale battery is installed in Germany. If it turns out to be profitable (all 34 pumped storage facilities make losses), many more may follow since those batteries are becoming cheaper and cheaper.

Math Geurts's picture
Math Geurts on Jan 8, 2015

The ultimate solution?

“In other words, coal power is no longer a problem towards reaching the German government’s renewable energy targets because power exports will not be counted. Let domestic demand continue to fall, renewable power production continue to increase, and imports continue to rise, with coal power remaining stable thanks to exports – Germany will easily reach its renewable power targets if defined in terms of domestic demand without consideration of exports”

source: http://www.renewablesinternational.net/the-underreported-change-in-germa...




Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Jan 8, 2015

… coal phase-out; that difficult job lays completely in the future...”

Nuclear out is far more important in the Energiewende.
So any dedicated effort regarding the phase-out of coal comes after 2022, when all nuclear is out.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Jan 8, 2015

Thanks.
Your nice graph show the problem.
Those 3yrs (2010-2012) had ~4GW/a too much new solar with high guaranteed FiT’s (~27cnt/KWh) during 20years. So now the Energiewende fund is drained by this 3*4 = ~12GW unscheduled solar at a rate of; 27-3.4 (whole sale price) = ~24cnt/KWh.

If the same 12GW is installed with 2GW/a since 2014 the drain is <6cnt/KWh.
At ~10% cap. factor it implies an unscheduled and unnecessary bruto drain of ~€2billion/a during 20yrs out of the Energiewende fund.  So Merkel rightly replaced the responsible minister.

Nevertheless, even with present lowered installation target of ~2.5GW/a, installed solar capacity will reach 52GW (=the 2050 target) in 2020. With present installation rate they will have 128GW of solar in 2050, nearly twice the max. consumption rate of Germany.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Jan 8, 2015

With present installation rate they will have 128GW of solar in 2050, nearly twice the max. consumption rate of Germany.”

Bas, 

Yes that installation rate follows.  It also follows that ~350 GW nameplate of solar would be required to meet the average German load of ~70 GW, assuming that energy could be somehow stored for the winter, which though technically possible is currently not remotely economic.  Then, even after the expense of $700B or so by 2050 to install all that solar, and more by 2035 to start replacing that installed in 2015, most of the existing 100GW of conventional generation fleet capacity must be maintained in place to burn fuel (whatever it is) for the solar outages, even through 2050. 

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