Courtesy of the Did You Know blog, with over 65,000 likes and 27,000 shares. This meme claims that Germany produced so much renewable energy on May 8 that it needed to pay people to use it. Without context, this meme is extremely misleading, as the reality is much less compelling.
May 8, 2016
The first thing to point out about May 8 is that it was a Sunday. This means there was much less energy being used compared to a weekday, where businesses and factories are consuming lots of electricity. The sun shone brightly over most of the country, and the winds were strong, bolstering the output of electricity from its wind and solar plants. According to Quartz, at 1 pm 55 Gigawatts out of 63 GW were being supplied by renewable energy sources (wind, solar, hydro and biomass). This means 87% of the country’s electricity was briefly being supplied by these sources. Not for the whole day, just for a brief time. This combination of wind and sun on a weekend seems to be quite rare, as the previous record of 78 percent occurred on July 25, 2015 (a Saturday), almost a year prior.
Did Citizens Get Paid to Use Energy?
Hardly. It’s true that energy prices went negative briefly, but this is not a good thing. Common sense tells us electrical companies aren’t in business to pay others to use their electricity, so what’s going on here? To understand, we need a bit more background on Germany and renewable energy.
Since Germany is a modern, industrialized country, they need electricity on demand. When it’s dark they want lights, when it’s hot they want air conditioning, and when it’s time to work they want electricity for their businesses. Because wind and solar power are notoriously unreliable, they can’t be counted on to power their society. On a calm, cloudy day (or at night), they might get almost zero from these sources. To get a better idea of their fluctuations, look at the picture below.
Because Germany needs a reliable source of energy on demand, they need backup sources of power that are able to power the country when the sun isn’t shining, or the wind isn’t blowing. While solar and wind might work on May 8 at 1 pm, what about January 8 at 7 pm? Clearly, a modern society needs sources that can provide electricity at all times. These reliable sources come primarily from fossil fuels and nuclear, which provided 70% of Germany’s power in 2015 (55% fossil fuels, 15% nuclear).
It’s very inefficient and expensive to shut down and restart coal and nuclear plants, which means they aren’t able to coexist well with the fluctuations of wind and solar. In fact, it’s so expensive that power companies will often choose to keep their plants running and pay others to take their energy, rather than incur the costs of starting and stopping their plant. This is commonplace in Germany, and what happened on May 8.
While it sounds good to say “Germany produced so much electricity they paid others to use it”, in reality other countries must adjust their fossil fuel plants to accommodate these excesses. For example, Poland and the Czech Republic needed to invest in new technology to accommodate Germany’s surges. If every country had similar surges, there would be significant problems, and much inefficiency. Additionally, this excess power is usually given to commercial and industrial entities, often in other countries, not German citizens. As reading the comments for this meme shows, the average German citizen did not get paid to use this electricity!
If you’re wondering why the coal plants, and not the renewable plants are the ones giving away their electricity, the answer lies in various German laws, like the feed-in tariffs. By law, renewable energy has priority over traditional power plants, so if surges exist, it’s coal and nuclear which must curtail their production, no matter the cost or inefficiency. If solar and wind ever produce too much electricity, the generators would simply be taken off line, they would not pay others to use that energy. Contrary to this meme’s claim, renewable output did not exceed demand, nor will it ever most likely.
Feed-in tariffs essentially guarantee producers of German renewable energy that their product will be bought at subsidized (meaning above market value) rates. Because they cost more and couldn’t compete with coal or nuclear in the marketplace, the government keeps them in business by ensuring they are paid above market rates for the electricity they produce. Often these contracts are decades long, and the rates vary on the type of energy. For example, solar producers get paid the most, as it’s more expensive, while wind producers get a little less.
What Do Germans Pay For Electricity?
Far from getting free electricity, German citizens pay some of the highest energy costs in the world. They pay about 3 times the amount Americans do, and “energy poverty” is a term used to describe the negative effects this has on its citizens, particularly the poor. This is largely a result of the taxes and fees imposed, which are necessary to pay for Germany’s large, but inefficient renewable energy initiatives. In 2013, Germans were forced to pay $26 billion for renewable energy that had a market price of around $4 billion.
While it’s true that some people (probably industries in foreign countries) were paid to take German electricity on May 8, this is not indicative of cheap or more abundant energy, or even of the ability of renewables to power Germany. It resulted from the inefficiencies of running baseline power, a system that is necessary as long as wind and solar continue to be unreliable. In effect, this “free” energy was really an expensive result of having more electrical generators than is needed.
While some might applaud Germany for leading the world in renewable energy production, the fact remains that their fossil fuel use has actual increased recently, as they’ve turned away from nuclear power, yet can’t escape the need to have a reliable source to power their modern society. Their Energiewende initiative is ambitious, aiming to produce 80% of power from renewable sources by 2050, but since their hydro and biomass sources are not expected to increase significantly, this means wind and solar will have to pick up most of the load. As we’ve seen, these sources are highly problematic for the grid to rely on. The future is still unclear if they can find an efficient way to mix the fluctuating nature of wind and solar with the steady (and necessary) nature of fossil fuel, nuclear, hydro and biomass energy.