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In this column, Risto Isomäki, Finnish environmental activist and award-winnning writer whose novels have been translated into several languages, looks at what lies behind Germany’s moves towards a renewable energy economy and the possible spin-offs for other areas of the world.
HELSINKI, Jun 16 2014 (IPS) - Germany has now become the world’s first modern renewable energy economy, according to the experts. The Federal Republic of Germany already obtains 29 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, meaning photovoltaic, hydro and wind power, and power produced by burning wood or other biomass.
Perhaps even more importantly, the national average hides significant regional differences. German states have strong identities and quite a lot of independent decision-making power.
The state of Saarland only produces 15 percent of its electricity from renewables and Rheinland-Pfalz only 21 percent, while the figures for Schleswig-Holstein and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern are 54 and 56 percent respectively.
The most impressive case is the state of Brandenburg, which surrounds Berlin, the capital of the Federal State. In Brandenburg, 78 percent of all electricity now comes from wind turbines, photovoltaic panels or from burning biomass.
What makes the case of Brandenburg especially important is the fact that it is an inland state and a part of the vast North European Plain. In other words, it has very little hydropower to supplement the other renewables and it cannot construct any off-shore wind parks. In spite of these deficiencies, Brandenburg will most probably soon be producing more renewable electricity than it consumes and will be exporting a growing share of its production.
It has often been said that it is next to impossible to have an energy system in which 100 percent of the power production – or even 50 percent – could be based on renewables. According to conventional wisdom, renewables will always need a large amount of wasteful and expensive spare power based on fossil fuels.
Because wind turbines only produce electricity when the wind blows and photovoltaic panels only when the sun is shining, wind and solar power need so much supporting power that this power cannot come from ordinary or pumped storage hydropower alone.
In the light of the above statistics, it seems that these worries have been exaggerated. In Brandenburg and in the other German states wind, solar and biomass energy have actually complemented each other better than most experts predicted.
The northern parts of Germany can produce very little photovoltaic power during the winter. However, most of the wind power is produced during the winter months, because in Germany winters are windier than summers. Winter air is also colder and denser than summer air, which means that a stream of air contains more energy. The burning of wood and other biomass in the heat and power co-generation plants also concentrates in the winter months.
A key element in Germany’s energy revolution or Die Energiewende, the energy turn-around, has been a system of feed-in-tariffs that was introduced by the German Renewable Energy Act in 2000. Feed-in tariffs guarantee a relatively high, fixed price for the producers of wind and solar power.
After the adoption of the Renewable Energy Act, the installed solar power capacity in Germany increased from 114 megawatts to 36,000 megawatts and wind power capacity from 6,000 to 35,000 megawatts, by the end of 2013.
The final targets are even higher. According to the official plan, the share of renewables in power production should increase to 35 percent by 2020 and to 80 percent by 2050.
The success of the solar energy programme has also created a number of new political problems. An estimated 1.4 million residential buildings have already installed their own, grid-connected solar power stations on their roofs. This has expanded the cost of the feed-in-tariff system to 18 billion euros per year. Because the costs are covered by energy surcharges and not by public subsidies, the electricity bills paid by private households have increased.
German export companies, on the contrary, have benefitted because they have been freed from the surcharge and due to the new energy system they now obtain part of their electricity almost for free. The market price for power in Germany has already become very low during very sunny or very windy days.
Germany has not really decided, yet, what is the best way to increase the production of solar and wind power further without treating its citizens too unequally. The low capacity of Germany’s main power transmission lines is also slowing things down.
Still, it would be wrong to assume that Germany’s energy revolution has begun to stagnate, as many commentators have remarked. According to a recent opinion survey, an astonishing two-thirds of Germany’s commercial enterprises are planning to produce at least part of their own power using photovoltaics.
The world has not really acknowledged the most important aspect of Die Energiewende. Germany has almost single-handedly made photovoltaic panels economically attractive for most of the world’s people. Orders from Germany – and from Italy and Spain – have increased the production series of photovoltaic panels to such an extent that their average price dropped from about 5 euros in 2003 to approximately 0.7 euros in 2013.
Even though solar power is now becoming economical even in North Europe, the sunniest parts of the Earth receive two times more solar radiation and have significantly lower salary levels and installation costs than Europe.
In the South, photovoltaic panels could be used almost as much as the covering materials of patios and terraces attached to houses. When photovoltaic panels are installed on roofs in the South, the cooling effect, due to their shading the part of the roof that receives the largest amount of sunlight, should be more valuable than in Europe.
In the South, photovoltaic electricity will be even bigger and better than in northern Europe, and the sector is likely to explode soon in a large number of countries. (END/ IPS COLUMNIST SERVICE)
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