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Solar Energy in Germany: Where the Sun Don't Shine

Rosana Francescato's picture
Principal Rising Sun Communications

Rosana is a seasoned clean energy communications consultant. For over four years she served as Director of Communications at the Clean Coalition, a nonprofit with the mission to accelerate the...

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  • Feb 14, 2013
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The Internet was abuzz last Friday with some astounding news: Germany has more sun than the United States!

That’s as reported by Fox business reporter Shibani Joshi last week on Fox and Friends, in a statement she’s probably been regretting ever since.

The good news about this news is that it’s simply not true. In fact, Germany has solar energy resources comparable to those of Alaska, while our mainland is more akin to sunny Spain:

solar energy distribution germany usa spain

This image, from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, is by now a familiar sight to anyone who knows anything about solar energy — a group that clearly doesn’t include Fox and Friends.

The same week, another Fox story also concluded that solar is on the decline. Why? Well, it’s clearly because solar is affordable only when the government “throws” billions in subsidies at it, which are now “being slashed.” At the same time, homeowners have been snapping up solar because of an influx of cheap panels from China. So, let me get this straight: The problem is that solar is not affordable without subsidies — and also that it’s so affordable that people are buying it in droves. There must be logic in there somewhere … right?

What these stories really tell us

What’s really on the decline is not solar. It’s a couple other things — and one of those is Fox News itself. A recent poll shows that the network’s credibility is at an all-time low, though that’s still not low enough when you consider how many people continue to absorb its misinformation. And while other media outlets may not be as laughably off-base as Fox (which some are now comparing to The Onion), the American public is not getting an accurate picture when it comes to solar.

What’s more significant, though, is that fossil fuels are on a slow but steady decline. Last year, even a major coal company admitted that it’s only a matter of time till we move away from them — and that this is the right move to make.    

But most in the fossil fuel industry are not so upfront. When people in power see that they’re losing their power (pun intended), they can get desperate. And that’s the real story behind these Fox stories.

The article on declining subsidies becomes less baffling when you look at its focus on utilities. As more people generate their own power, utilities are concerned they’ll lose money. That fear leads to all kinds of misrepresentations. And the same fear has gripped the fossil fuel industry.

Joshi’s outrageous claim on Fox and Friends got so much attention that it overshadowed the many times in the short segment she and co-host Steve Doocy touted “nat gas.” Doocy even went so far as to say, “That’s what we really have a lot of.”

I have news for Doocy: What we “really have a lot of” is sun. In fact, every day enough sun falls on the United States to more than power us for 10 years. Coal, oil, and gas combined can’t come close to matching that:

solar energy vs fossil fuels

But Fox, like other news organizations, is beholden to the fossil fuel industry. So they cling staunchly to the belief that the industry will prevail, against all odds. And that’s what they report.

Getting beyond misinformation

The sad thing about all this is that it perpetuates the impression that renewable energy is a partisan issue. In fact, 92% of Americans support developing more solar, and a majority want the government to support solar energy with subsidies and incentives. George Shultz is a major proponent of renewables; the Department of Defense is one of solar’s biggest adopters. Just visit Germany, and you’ll be struck by the fact that there, you can’t guess anyone’s political leanings by whether they have solar panels on their roof.

That’s as it should be. The truth is, solar is just getting started — in a big way. You could even say solar is booming. And given that it’s so abundant and confers so many benefits, solar power isn’t going away, no matter how much Fox News wants it to.

I hope their recent gaffes will make Fox News reconsider the way they report on solar power. I won’t hold my breath for that, but I predict it won’t be long till we see an overall shift in media representation of solar — at least, when it comes to the more trusted media sources.

In the meantime, I’m off to plan a vacation — to sunny Germany!

This post was originally published at PV Solar Report.

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Jesse Parent's picture
Jesse Parent on Feb 13, 2013

The American public is not getting an accurate picture regarding most anything related to energy and cliamte -- "the American public is not getting an accurate picture when it comes to solar." 

I'm working on some projects to deal with that, but, it's by far one of the most frustrating things as an energy, political, or even geostrategic analyst. There's a new feature film coming out "FrackNation" to combat "GasLand" - both of which appear to be particularly lopsided in analysis. We don't need exposes and incredulous remarks anymore.

But until there is a clear effort for something else, how will most people know the difference?

We've got a lot of work to do. . . 

Charlie Barrett's picture
Charlie Barrett on Feb 14, 2013

I'm conservative, and I love solar energy - I'm an old electrical engineer who used to spend all my extra money on rediculously priced solar cells while I was in High School. That was back in the 1970's. You could spend over a hundred dollars just to replace a little 9v radio battery with the tiny little solar cells available then.

These days, solar panels are priced as low as 79 cents per watt in pallet quantities, so the break-even point is as short as 5 years if you shop carefully and install them yourself. I'm buying a pallet of them and a grid-tie inverter as soon as I can afford to do it.

No batteries required with the grid-tie inverter - You have a virtual "money battery" by default, selling power to the electric company during peak sunny hours and buying it back while you're at home nights and weekends. Ok, I might buy some batteries and a regular inverter later, just to use during power failures. Later on, batteries might be cheap enough to cut the grid altogether, but oh yeah, the US battery company that the Federal Government threw a wad of money at got bought by the Chinese, didn't it? Sigh....

Too bad all those 79 cents/watt panels come from China, too... Sigh....

The Federal Government has totally screwed up the US solar market, the end result being that US-made solar panels are a whopping $3 - $4 per watt (due to subsidies and fat tax rebates, they didn't have to be competitive, until the Federal money dried up - We go through that boom/bust cycle on vertually everything that the Federal Government funds), which does not make economic sense. The payback time at that price is longer than the expected lifetime of the solar panels themselves, by the time you add installation costs.

Instead of just throwing money at few select solar companies, the Federal Government should just buy solar panels for use on government buildings through the normal competitive bidding process - But quit throwing free money around to whoever can write up the best grant application! Step back and let the marketplace decide the ultimate winners and loosers.

There's no reason why US companies can't produce solar panels as cheap as China in a free marketplace. China has cheap labor, but we have more robot capability - and US companies don't incur the cost of shipping them halfway around the world, which is definitely a non-trivial cost.

The best way the government can support US Solar companies, like I already said, is to ask for competitive bids and award a constant stream of contracts to install solar panels on government buildings. Not only will taxpayers receive tangible products and save energy, but more importantly, by virtue of competitive bids, we will automatically be backing the best horse instead of trying to "fix" the whole darn horse race.

BTW, I also have an all-electric car, the Mitsubishi i-MiEV. It looks like a little geeky hamster-mo-bile, but I throughly enjoy passing up all the gas stations on my daily commute! It's also a surprisingly fun-driving little car, at a much better price than a Chevy Volt, Ford electric Focus, or a Tesla.

Too bad it's made in Japan.... Sigh....

 

Roger Levy's picture
Roger Levy on Feb 15, 2013

It would be nice if article like this one could stick to the facts and leave the political ideology (e.g. comments about the decline of Fox News) on the cutting room floor.   The facts are that Germany does have more solar capacity installed than the US (http://cleantechnica.com/2012/11/07/1000-mw-of-new-solar-power-installed-in-germany-in-september-6000-mw-installed-in-2012-already/).  The other fact of relevance is that German energy costs are now starting to upset the population and the also cause problems for operators of the interconnections necessary to address "when the German sun don't shine". 

Solar is fine, it has its place in utility resource plans but even in the US the sun does not shine at night or even consistently during the day. Some other resource needs to provide the backup until someone comes up with reliable, cost effective storage.

And by the way, here's some news - renewable energy is a partisan issue.  Renewables are necessary, they provide some benefits but they also have technical and cost problems. Renewables can't fully replace conventional fuels yet but try to raise that point in most forums - including this one.

 

Randy Voges's picture
Randy Voges on Feb 16, 2013

Speaking of Germany, because of those high electricity rates Angela Merkel is apparently trying to cut subsidies to renewables.  So is Spain.  See here.

Randy Voges's picture
Randy Voges on Feb 16, 2013

Kent,

Well aware of the attempts to construct what is in effect a perpetual-motion machine and for the sake of educational and entertainment purposes I'm more than happy to cheer the efforts.  Nevertheless it is hardly a coincidence that the countries pushing renewables the hardest (Denmark, Germany, and Spain) have the highest residential electricity rates in Europe, according to the IEA.  The infighting in Germany over the attempts to contain the costs for the Energiewende then becomes predictable, as it affects the prospects for wind and solar.  There will be attempts to rectify things using storage, but this still won't help the cost issue, either.

Not buying the rosy picture.

Stephen Nielsen's picture
Stephen Nielsen on Feb 17, 2013

Thanks.  Lol, I enjoyed this comment more than the article

Rosana Francescato's picture
Rosana Francescato on Feb 23, 2013

Thanks for all the great comments! A few things I'd like to note:

I agree that solar alone is not enough, but I also think we can get to 100% renewables -- what will get us there is political will. Look what's been done in Wildpoldsried, Germany, a town that now has an energy surplus: http://green.blorge.com/2011/08/wildpoldsried-germany-now-has-an-energy-.... And Gainseville, Florida, isn't doing badly either: http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/rea/blog/post/2012/01/gainesville-fl... and http://biomassmagazine.com/articles/5856/grand-opening-held-for-100-mw-b...

There's even evidence that we could be closer than we think to 100% renewables: http://cleantechnica.com/2013/02/16/100-renewables-could-be-closer-than-... and http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378775312014759

And guess what, most Germans are not so upset about the costs of renewables -- a recent poll shows that most favor renewable energy and many even think its progress in Germany is too slow: http://cleantechnica.com/2013/02/10/germany-solar-subsidies-poll/

Yes, renewable energy has been made a partisan issue in the U.S., but it shouldn't be -- if we wreck our planet, it will affect people of all parties. And renewables are proving more and more economical. I hope we can all work together to do what's best for all of us.

 

 

Rosana Francescato's picture
Rosana Francescato on Feb 23, 2013

Well yes, the planet is in sorry shape. Yes, the situation is bad. It's turning out to be worse than predicted. But if it's really too late, then why are we thinking about this and writing about it at all? I feel we have to try to do something about it -- and I believe we can still make a big difference. 

You bring up an important point -- population. While we do have an overpopulation problem, the key, as you note, is the population's rate of resource usage. Europeans guzzle a lot less than we do in the U.S. We need to emulate them and set an example for the rest of the world.

I K's picture
I K on Mar 29, 2013

Germany has over 40 million homes, not 30 million

Plus plenty of commercial sites, industrial sites and Brownfield sites (like disused airfields) to host PV panels. If 15% of their homes install a 5KWp system that would mean 30GWp, say the other group can also match this and you have 60GWp before you even need to think about installing on Greenfield sites.

So space is not the problem, its the 10% capacity factor which makes solar a bad idea for Germany especially considering that if you install 1 watt of solar you are probably displacing 1 watt of much higher capacity factor offshore wind in the future

I K's picture
I K on Mar 29, 2013

The problem is, even if you install 60GW of solar, which will be difficult, that would only generate about 52TWh of electricity which is not even 10% of Germany consumption.

By comparison the nuclear stations in Germany produced over 150TWh in 2006  It would be completely impossible to generate the same electricity your nuclear plants were doing, with new solar PV, simply because your grid can not take the 180GW of solar that would be required to generate 150TWh from solar.

Math Geurts's picture
Math Geurts on Apr 1, 2015
Europe :  more wind,  less solar.  

“Cost-optimal design of a simplified, highly renewable pan-European electricity system”

 “Based on a data-intensive weather-driven modelling approach, technically and economically optimal designs are derived for a simplified, highly renewable pan-European electricity system, which minimise the need for backup energy, backup capacity, transmission capacity and the levelised system cost of delivered electricity. The overall cost-optimal design, based on standard cost assumptions, relies on synchronised backup across the transmission grid and comes with a renewable penetration of 50% with a rather high wind fraction of 94%. Given the current European electricity consumption, this corresponds to 600 GW rated wind power capacities, 60 GW installed solar power capacities, 320 GW conventional backup power capacity, and about five times today’s installed transmission capacities”

http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.energy.2015.02.066

 

 

Math Geurts's picture
Math Geurts on Apr 3, 2015

Germant could extend its production from solar panels but it seems not going to do it. Any idea why?

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

“Indeed, the energy ministry estimates that the targeted PV installation corridor of between 2.4 and 2.6 GW this year will again fall short

Read more: http://www.pv-magazine.com/news/details/beitrag/government-rep-feels-heat-at-german-pv-symposium_100018440/#ixzz3WkTN6ISv

Not sure that Germany wil reach 52 GW in 2020. The government does not seem to consider that a problem.


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