How Germany Became a Solar Superpower
By Sara Thompson
As the Obama administration and EPA roll out the Clean Power Plan, many expect it to become a model and tipping point for other nations trying to cut carbon and generate more clean power in the future. But in some ways, America is late to the party by about 25 years.
While our country continues to squabble over every energy debate and infrastructure advancement, European countries have always been a few steps ahead. Some countries, like Germany, have made amazing strides in harnessing the free and clean energy provided by the sun — despite not having such a sunny climate.
Breaking records in solar energy production
Back in June of 2014, Germany reached a significant milestone and national record by satisfying more than 50 percent of its electricity demand with 23.1 gigawatts of solar power– which was half of the entire world’s production at the time. In fact, they broke three national solar records that week. With 35 GW of solar PV capacity, the country actually generated more solar energy the week before, hitting 24.24 GW, but because of demand variances they were able to achieve this impressive feat with less.
In addition to solar, more recently, Germany reportedly satisfied 78 percent of its electricity demand with renewable sources. Wind and solar generated 40.65 GW of power as of July 25. When combined with 4.85 GW from biomass and 2.4 GW from hydropower, their total renewable power production reached 47.9 GW, which occurred at a time when peak power demand was 61.1 GW.
It’s important to note, however, that Germany’s level of renewable energy production on that red-letter day isn’t constant or even common. In 2014 overall, renewable energy accounted for approximately 31 percent of Germany’s electricity consumption. Solar power in particular contributed about 6.9 percent, which is still nothing to shake a stick at.
How does the U.S. compare?
Near the end of last year, the U.S. had 18.3 GW of installed solar capacity with an extra 1.7 GW of concentrated solar power. With that, the latest reports say we’re generating just 0.54 percent of total electricity consumption. Renewable energy as a whole satisfies about 13 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
This disappointing comparison is understandable when you consider the fact that the U.S. consumes eight times more energy than Germany — we consume 4,686.4 terawatt hours per year in the U.S. versus 582.5 in Germany. All things considered (politics, national support, and the ratio of rooftop to utility-scale production), it’s practically apples and oranges.
How is Germany doing this?
Germany isn’t exactly known for its year-round sunshine. Just for reference, the sunniest regions of Southern Germany typically get between 1,600 and 1,800 sunny hours per year, whereas Yuma, Arizona, (our sunniest region) usually gets 4,300 sunny hours a year.
So, how can you explain how Germany became the world leader in solar energy? It’s a combination of strong public support and political will to pass the necessary regulations to start on the path to solar domination.
At the risk of oversimplification, it started almost 25 years ago. In 1991, German politicians passed the Erneuerbare Energien Gesetz, or Renewable Energy Sources Act.
One of the biggest challenges solar-proponents faced in those halcyon days was the cost barrier. This meant that politicians and the public had to accept some tough and aggressive actions in order to get the ball rolling. For one, the law guaranteed a market for solar energy, requiring utility companies to insert renewable energy producers into the national grid and to buy their power at a fixed rate that guaranteed a modest return over time. The fixed and slightly inflated price helped offset its high cost.
While guaranteeing a market for solar energy may have had its risks, there was a significant benefit as well. Knowing that the industry was being firmly backed by the German government, investors confidently dove in the market with long-term investments, which helped financially stabilize those companies.
Germany faces plenty of challenges in the solar game. With the rise of China’s solar manufacturing base, German companies are having a difficult time competing with their lower costs.
But anything worth doing comes with challenges that need to be faced with creative solutions, not throwing hands in the air in surrender. When you look at the growth rate of solar energy in Germany, it has nearly tripled in the last 10 years. Even though the German government has been dialing back solar incentives, traditional power companies are scrambling as energy prices continue a downward trend. Utilities trying to recoup those losses through higher energy charges only encourages German consumers to seek clean energy alternatives.
Will the Clean Power Plan help the U.S. drive renewables as well or better than the Erneuerbare Energien Gesetz? Share your thoughts on Twitter!
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