Courtesy of HeartMath Institute, although this meme, and related news headlines, have been circulated in many forms.
There is a sliver of truth in this meme. On Monday, June 9th 2014, Germany generated 23.1 GW of solar electricity, which equaled 50.6% of its total electricity demand. However, the caveats to this almost equal the amount of solar panels in Germany, so it provides a good opportunity to both refute this meme, and learn the reality behind so-called renewable energy sources powering industrial societies.
Here are the main caveats:
- This happened between 1-2 p.m.
- It was a national holiday, so most businesses and stores were closed, meaning there was much less electrical demand.
- The 50% number refers to total electricity, not total energy use. Many miss this distinction, but it’s important. A modern society uses much more energy than just electricity. Cars, trains, planes, heating, construction, agriculture, etc. all run primarily on fossil fuels. The MP couldn’t find reliable information on Germany, but electricity is roughly only half of a nation’s energy use (see graphic).
- Therefore, Germany produced about 1/4 of their total energy from solar. Between the hours of 1-2 p.m. On a hot June holiday.
Analyzing Germany’s Solar Power
Going beyond the immediate facts about this meme is useful to get the full context of Germany’s energy production and use. For example, it would be useful to know how much solar and wind contribute to their energy production over the entire year, not just an hour in the midday summer sun. In 2013, only 7% of Germany’s energy came from solar and wind. At any given point in time, they might receive 0% from those sources (like on a calm night). Looking at this graph you can see how volatile these “renewable” sources are. (Source: European Energy Exchange AG Transparency Platform Data (2013))
Think about how it important it is for a modern society to have energy on demand. Whether it be for air conditioning on a hot day, hosting a large sporting event, or lifesaving hospital services, it’s essential to have energy available whenever we want it, not just when it’s sunny or the wind blows. The solar power created at 1 p.m. can’t power the grid at 5 p.m. Look at those graphs above and imagine a modern society basing their entire energy grid on those up and downs! No matter how many solar panels a country has, it can’t rely on them for power, which is why Germany doesn’t rely on them. Despite spending record amounts on wind and solar, Germany has actually built new coal plants in recent years. In 2013, Germany actually got more electricity from brown coal than at any time since 1990. How could this be, when they’ve got all this new solar and wind power? Because that power can’t be relied on, and they need a reliable source of power to do the heavy lifting in their modern society. Ironically, when the wind does blow, that can even be a problem. Too much electricity for a grid is also a problem, and sometimes wind turbines have to be shut down, or worse. On high production days they sometimes need to pay neighboring countries to offload their excess electricity to preserve their grid, which gives a whole new meaning to subsidized energy.
The only way solar and wind could ever be relied upon is if there were a massive storage system to store the power for those calm nights, or cloudy days. However, batteries have always been incredibly expensive. The latest and greatest technology, the new Tesla battery, costs $29,000! Just imagine the cost for a battery storage system to power a city or nation, on top of the high expense to build the solar and wind infrastructure. Which brings us to the last bit of context, the cost.
What are the Costs for Germany?
The reason Germany is touted so much, is because they’ve launched the biggest effort ever to switch to “renewables”, with their Energiewende program. Either a profound, earth saving endeavor, or a giant, unnecessary boondoggle, depending on who you ask, the giant scope of the plan can’t be denied. As with any government program, estimating the final price is a shot in the dark, but by their own energy minister’s admission, it could cost $900 billion by 2020, and over $1.1 trillion in total. This, from a country about 1/4 the size of the US. It’s hard to pin down the costs for electricity in Germany, as it seems increased taxes and fees get imposed frequently, but they already pay the highest electricity prices in Europe. Compared to the US, they pay about double. A good article about the costs from a German newspaper can be found here.
Fortunately for them, Germany is one of the wealthiest nations in the world. While paying substantially more for energy lowers their standard of living, it was already quite high due to over a century of industrial progress and innovation, powered primarily by fossil fuels (and a hardworking, industrious population). They can, perhaps, afford their experiment in “going green”, although that can’t be said for most of the world. There are still 1.2 billion people with no access to electricity. These people aren’t even able to afford the relatively cheap fossil fuels yet, let alone the expensive hopes of wind and solar. If we care about human flourishing, it needs to be acknowledged that nothing contributes more to that than energy consumption, and if anything, we need memes celebrating the use of the most efficient and sensible energy sources to power our world. In the MP’s opinion, these are currently fossil fuels, nuclear and hydro.