Generating Solar Power in Germany

Posted by on Jul 29, 2013 in Alternative Energy Projects | No Comments

Germany’s ambitious quest for renewable energy alternatives has catapulted the country to the forefront of renewable energy production. After investing billions of Euros over many years in order to advance as many installations as possible, the country boasts a very advanced renewable energy sector. The numbers tell the story: In 2012, a record-breaking 7.6 GW worth of photovoltaic power plants were installed and connected to the national electricity grid. The country’s investment in renewable-energy is its biggest reconstruction of its energy market since the devastation of World War II. This push for alternative energy sources stems from the government’s desire to shift energy sources from coal, natural gas and nuclear power to wind, solar and biomass in order to be less reliant on these finite energy sources and to reduce greenhouse emissions that cause global warming. They are so far quite successful, having build the world’s largest renewable generation complex with a capacity of 53.8 GW of wind and solar in 2011. Germany is seen as the gold standard in the development and introduction of renewable energy around the world. Today, over 20% of Germany’s electricity comes from renewable energy—3 percent of that is from solar. Solar energy is used primarily by private households, where people install PV solar panels on their roofs throughout Germany. They use it mostly for heating homes, heating water, and using electrical appliances.

Solar collectors on a roof in Northern Germany

Solar collectors on a roof in Northern Germany


Why Germany Is Ahead With Solar Energy

Since 2000, Germany’s solar industry has enjoyed generous public subsidies that have transformed it into the world’s largest solar market. Average solar panel prices have fallen by 55 percent since 2010 even as German government support has begun dropping sharply. The global industry is now at a tipping point between subsidy dependence and market-driven growth, says Shayle Kann, a vice president at GTM Research, a market research firm.

Germany is quickly converting to renewable energies because the country wants to be able to generate 50 percent of its energy from renewable energy sources—wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, etc., for factories and heat for homes by 2050. The German government provides subsidies to households and businesses to install solar panels and sell surplus electricity to the grid at a premium. This has helped create a surge of solar panel installations, accounting for 7,634 megawatts of power in 2012, an increase of 2 percent from 2011. Although, rapid installation of solar over the last ten years has caused the government to cut back on these subsidies.

Feed-in-tariffs (FiTs)

Hermann Scheer, once member of the German parliament and general chairman of the World Council for Renewable Energy, introduced feed-in tariffs (FiTs). With FiTs, individuals and businesses that generate power through renewable energies are able to sell it back to the grid at above-market prices, encouraging the spread of wind, solar and hydro power. Scheer believed that the main obstacle to the change to renewables is political, not technical. He said that renewable energy implementation has three challenges: “Guaranteed access to the grid, guaranteed prices, no limitation for introduction.” The German government’s feed-in-tariffs work as German Federal Environment Minister Peter Altmaier has proposed a system to define and limit costs to German electricity consumers due to the nation’s feed-in tariff, setting a maximum yearly increase of 2.5% and implementing retroactive charges. Under his initiative, the current feed-in tariff levy of EUR 0.0528 per KWh would be maintained through 2013 and 2014. The German Solar Industry Association (BSW-Solar) argues that the proposal is neither feasible nor capable of securing a majority. “A limiting of energy costs must not be achieved by putting the brakes on the energy transition, but rather by facilitating the rapid switch to renewable energy sources,” argued BSW-Solar in a press statement.”

Harnessing the Sun

Germany is not exactly situated on the sunniest spot on Earth—it receives only half the sun radiation of Las Vegas—so one could argue that it is not an ideal country for producing solar energy, but it has become the second largest solar thermal market after Japan. Despite these differences, the popularity of solar thermal and PV power generation can be explained by the generous state support programs through the German government’s Renewable Energy Act EEG, private consumers’ environmental awareness and the decrease in prices of rooftop PV systems since 2009.

PVGIS © European Union, 2001-2013

PVGIS © European Union, 2001-2013

Stephan Kohler, the head of the German Energy Agency, says the country must act smarter and more realistically in its transition to renewable energy. In an interview with Der Spiegel magazine, Mr. Kohler discussed some of the issues facing Germany’s plan to replace nuclear power. He notes that the public believes in transitioning to renewable energy and give up nuclear power to rely on wind and solar. Unfortunately, Germany will still need conventional power plants until at least 2050, since 75% of electricity in Germany goes to industry and the current generation of solar and wind power is not enough to power the industry sector. Der Spiegel points out that solar energy only has a load factor of about 1,000 hours a year, but there are 8,670 hours in a year.

Although Germany is at the forefront of solar energy development, there are some bumps in the road to renewable energy production. Even as solar energy production continues to boom, Germany’s manufacturers of solar technology are collapsing at an alarming rate due to competition from cheap solar panels from China. There are political battles in Berlin, the nation’s capital. Another concern is high energy costs. All over Europe, prices are escalating for energy, both renewable and conventional. Europeans pay up to five times more for natural gas than in the United States. On top of all this, experts are concerned about solar overloading the grid. Despite these set-backs, Germany is on the right path to a country that will be free of fossil fuels in the future. There is much work to be done, but already other countries are looking at Germany as an inspiration.

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