Wind, solar, and other renewable sources supplied a record 83 percent of Germany’s energy for one hour in August last year, according to a recent study.
It’s only an hour. But the analysis by Agora Energiewende, a German think tank, singled out that one hour to show the potential of renewable energy as Germans march towards their goal of shutting down the country’s nuclear reactors by 2022, while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.
“Germany has power in abundance, despite the decommissioning of nuclear power plants,” said Patrick Graichen, director of Agora energy transition, in a statement that accompanied the study.
Boosters of clean energy in the United States took similar lessons from the numbers.
Some parts of the US electric grid periodically generate more than half of their energy from renewables like wind and solar, said Michael Goggin, senior director of research at the American Wind Energy Association, an industry group. But America is still operating under capacity, he said.
“This experience in Germany shows we can go even higher,” said Goggin.
Germany increased its wind power generation by a whopping 50 percent, for example, as utilities put up more wind turbines and Mother Nature delivered plenty of blustery days to keep them turning. That growth helped the country generate around a third of its energy from renewables that helped drive down electricity bills to their lowest levels in more than a decade, Agora found.
But Germany is in Central Europe, where gray days are common, and the Alps, while superb for skiing and romantic idylls, aren’t suited for wind farms.
“The US has many advantages that Germany does not have,” said Goggin. “We’ve got the Great Plains, which is one of the best wind resources in the world. The whole area from the Dakotas down to Texas and stretching as far west to Wyoming and east to Illinois — that is really just a stellar wind resource that is at least twice as good as the best you can get in Germany.”
Germany decided to replace nukes with renewables in a bid to avoid a repeat of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government enacted a wide range of subsidies for renewables. At the same time, carbon taxes under the EU cap-and-trade system, which allows companies to buy and sell permits to release greenhouse gases, and German taxes on fossil fuels helped divert folks to clean energy.
American leaders have adopted policies to promote clean energy, too. Oregon recently joined California, Hawaii, and Vermont in requiring their utilities to generate at least 50 percent of their power from renewable energy sources by 2050. President Barack Obama and Republicans in Congress reached a deal late last year to extend tax credits for solar and wind energy for another five years.
But the United States isn’t fully exploiting its solar or wind riches — renewables comprised 13 percent of American electricity generation in 2014, according to the US Energy Information Administration — because cheap American natural gas makes it hard for solar and wind to compete and because American leaders haven’t dumped the same proportion of subsidies into the industry as Germany, said Goggin.
“If we had policies like Germany does — both promoting renewables with a large incentive and taxing carbon — we’d only be building renewables,” he said.
‘The total greenhouse gas emissions in Germany have even slightly increased.’
But German is facing problems in its green push, too.
Germany isn’t necessarily on track to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. Ample supplies and low prices have allowed the country to hike electricity exports to Austria, the Netherlands, and other neighbors to the tune of $2.27 billion, according to the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems. Much of those exports came from coal production, according to Agora.
“The carbon footprint of the German electricity system has therefore hardly improved in the past year,” said Graichen in his statement. “The total greenhouse gas emissions in Germany have even slightly increased.”
Also, German operators of coal- and natural gas-fired power plants have lost bucket loads of money as the renewables have come online — both in terms of share price as investors flee their old-school industry and in profits as excess capacity reduces the cost of the energy they sell to consumers, reported Power magazine. But the country can’t simply ditch those power plants. They keep the lights on when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.
So next year Germany plans on scrapping its generous subsidies and instead is going to auction off permits to build renewable energy projects, a shift that experts believe will slow the current rapid expansion of German renewable energy but keep the country on track to hit its targets for fighting climate change.
“Growth is to be cut almost by two thirds over the next decade,” wrote Craig Morris, an American journalist in Germany, on his Energy Transition blog. “After all, the official target is 80 percent renewable electricity by 2050, not 100 percent by 2035 (the current theoretical course).”
By John Dyer, Vice News