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In-Depth: Germany’s 22 GW Solar Energy Record

Last Friday, on the 25th of May 2012, Germany set a new world solar energy record in photovoltaic solar energy: 22.4 GW of photovoltaic energy on the grid covering over 30% of all electricity demand! That’s the equivalent of 20 huge conventional fossil or nuclear power plants. This is clearly amazing news that made headlines around the world and was accompanied by either praise or the typical anti-solar bickering that is rather dominant in big media outlets even today (or especially today).

The latter didn’t mind even using this incredible clean energy accomplishment to repeat the usual ignorant talking points, disinformation, or flat out lies. Unfortunately, those news pieces and early articles praising the event didn’t fully exploit the opportunity to explain the true significance of having so much solar energy in the energy mix, especially when looking at the technological developments and opportunities of the coming years.

Beyond the Gigawatts

So, it’s obvious that, in my opinion, the story of this solar energy record shouldn’t stop at the number of 22.15 GW of peak output. In fact, the really meaningful story starts with a different number: 189.24 GWh. That’s the amount of electrical energy generated from more than a million PV solar systems spread all over the country on that record day. Not only was this almost 14% of Friday’s total electricity consumption in Germany, it was also, actually, not that unusual.

For the last couple of weeks, the output of PV solar peaked within an inch of the 20 GW line several times, and it never peaked very low throughout the month. The lowest peak load was 8 GW, while the average peak load of PV solar was 16 GW. So, it seems that solar is not as unreliable as conventional wisdom and media outlets often lead people to believe. Because I can tell you that we didn’t have 4 weeks straight of sunshine here in Germany, that’s for sure.

Looking at the daily power production during the first 4 weeks of May makes this even more obvious. While it is not a constant increase day by day, the weekly output is increasing steadily as we are heading towards mid-summer. During the first week of May, solar energy produced about 780 GWh of electric power; and, at the end of the month, during the record-breaking week, it amounted to 1,096 GWh or 1.1 TWh. Those were enough GWhs to meet almost 12% of the total power needs in Germany that week!

Looking into the Future

So, what does this mean for the future? (Especially considering the fact that there is enough suitable roof space left to increase solar capacity by up to 5-10 times without many problems.)

In my opinion, there are two significant developments that are currently taking place which will revolutionize the energy system in a rapid and unprecedented way. This fundamental structural change could start within the coming decade and might put the world on a more sustainable path a lot faster than the 30- to 70-year time tables that are proclaimed as ambitious goals by many politicians and energy industry “experts” around the world.

The first major development is the fact that the renewable energy system beats the conventional energy system in terms of prices already. This is not that obvious to many people because the common benchmarks used in the media are biased against renewable energy sources. This bias is usually showcased by so-called “energy analysts / experts” on TV, in articles, and in books. Their typical approach is to single out one renewable energy technology, put it into the power plant position of the conventional centralized energy system, and come to the conclusion that it’s not economical (for the power plant operator) to use renewables.

So-called experts using this kind of faulty benchmark can have only two reasons:

  • The “experts” are actually what people call “Fachidioten” in German, specialized idiots. Highly knowledgable people who fail to understand reality because they view the world through a prism of outdated paradigms. (Best case.)
  • The “experts” have direct or indirect ties with the conventional energy industry, in which case they use their reputation to spread anti-renewable disinformation. (Worst case.)
Either way, these so-called “experts” disqualify themselves by failing to judge fundamentally different systems with the fitting benchmarks.

For everyone remotely familiar with renewable energy systems and without links to the conventional energy industry, it is quite obvious that such benchmarks are bullshit. Renewable energy systems operate in a decentralized fashion, close to consumers / communities. They gain efficiency by combining several technologies to reach 100% supply and by utilizing synergy effects like providing energy in forms of power and heat at the same time, locally.

The obvious truth is that local wind power, biomass, and even solar energy can deliver energy to the citizens and industries of region cheaper than what the power grid delivers by burning lignite or uranium in a multi-GW power station hundreds of miles away. Today, even electricity from rooftop PV solar systems can beat the conventional energy system when looking at a conservatively realistic 15-20 year cost calculation, here in cloudy Germany.

The second huge development is what is happening in energy storage right now. Around the world, companies and even huge corporations are investing billions of dollars in research and factories. There is a sort of gold rush atmosphere with the big electronics and chemical corporations, as well as the car industry trying to claim parts of what will soon be a multi-billion-dollar market. This development is, at the moment, primarily aimed at providing the electric car with the power it needs to revolutionize transportation throughout the coming decades. But without a doubt, this development will also provide homeowners and municipal utilities with falling prices for energy storage solutions. The first products are already entering the market right now, especially in Japan where “smart houses” are promoted on all TV channels.

Is the Stage Set for a Rapid Change?

With those developments in mind, you actually don’t need a lot of imagination to figure out that we are approaching a point of historic proportions. Within this decade, we could reach a time in which widely available products enable private households and commercial customers to produce and store their own energy for cheaper than what the conventional energy system is able to offer them. This will especially be the case as decreasing global reserves and increasing global demand for fossil fuels lead to higher prices for the conventional power system.

The application of millions of such renewable micro energy systems will lead to a situation in which an increasing number of GWh are no longer bought from the grid every week. Adding the increasing investments in energy efficiency, the natural consequence is a shrinking market for electricity generation from the current centralized fossil and nuclear power system.

Since the traditional power producers have no influence over these developments, this change will decrease the profitability of their huge investments in power plants that were build with a 30-50 year lifespan in mind. The changing market conditions will also call into question all new investments in centralized power plants, and eventually for the entire infrastructure focused on providing fossil and nuclear fuel.

The effects of this development are already clearly visible today. Among the more prominent examples are calls for a nuclear FiT in Europe, or programs to support new coal fire stations in Germany! These are just the tip of the iceberg of a structural change that has already started.

Millions of Batteries in Buildings — Utopian?

Considering the two technological developments I talked about earlier, it is very easy to show that it’s just a matter of time until the combination of energy storage for homes with rooftop solar energy and/or small-wind becomes viable and even profitable.

Today, there are still about 6.4 million oil tanks in homes and buildings all over Germany storing energy in the form heating oil. Installing such a tank costs several thousand Euros today. So, why shouldn’t independent power producers start putting up new forms of energy storage in the same numbers as soon as it makes economic sense?

How would 6 million home storage systems change the energy system? Well, 6 million 10 kW / 25 kWh would mean a distributed storage system with 60 GW maximum output/input and 150 GWh of capacity. That’s already enough storage for 10% of the current daily consumption, more than enough to power all German households through the night. It’s also coming a long way to fill the gap between renewable baseload power (hydro and biomass) and variable sources like wind and solar.

That 10-kW/25-kWh battery is not fiction by the way. It’s quite similar to the battery pack that powers the Nissan Leaf right now, Just one battery that will soon reach production volumes in the hundreds of thousands as factories in Japan, Europe, and the US crank up production by 2013.

It’s true that the $15,000 price tag for the battery is too high right now. But, since all kinds of competitors are investing in this market, economics of scale, innovation and optimization will certainly reduce the cost of such batteries in the coming years. In the case of multi-kWh batteries, this development is a lot more obvious than what happened with the price for solar cells just 7 years ago. The fall of prices surprised many analysts back then. Today, prices for solar cells are 70%-80% cheaper than what they were in 2007, putting the cost of solar systems well below $2 per Watt in Germany.

I know that there are many ifs, but I think and hope that this vision for a rapid change of the energy system will start to unfold in a overwhelming and visible fashion before this decade ends. What do you think?

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Written By

is a close observer of the scientific, political and economic energy debate in Germany and around the globe. Inspired by the life's work of the renewable energy advocate Hermann Scheer, Thomas focuses on spreading information that showcase the possibilities & opportunities of a 100% renewable energy system. Though technology is key for this energy shift, he also looks at the socio-economic benefits and the political, as well as structural barriers.


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