If it ain’t a lie it sure ain’t the truth

I have complained previously about the misrepresentations published about renewable energy. In most cases the authors just seem to be so overcome with excitement about some new milestone achievement so that they lose sight of the big picture. But I recently ran into a post from 2016 that demonstrates more clearly than anything else I have read just how foolish these articles are.

The title of the article is

The German conundrum: renewables break records, coal refuses to go away

The article opens with the following statement:

“Renewable energy sources, taken together, covered 32.5% of German electricity consumption in 2015, while lignite provided only 26%. Since 1990 the electricity output from renewables has risen tenfold to last year´s level of 194 TWh. The year-on-year increase was also the highest on record – a staggering 31.6 TWh.”

The above statement is not true but it is not exactly a lie either.

A few paragraphs later there is another statement which only confuses matters further.

“This undisputed success was, however, muted by the fact that production from lignite and bituminous coal hardly declined (a decrease of a mere half-percent or 1.4 TWh). This is a problem since the German plan to battle climate change includes renewables replacing dirty coal-fuelled sources, thus lowering greenhouse gas emissions.”

The article goes on to state that German consumption has been flat for a number of years and that in 2015 exports reached a new high of 60 TWh, an increase of … wait for it … 31 TWh – almost exactly the same amount as the increase in renewables in 2015. That is not a coincidence. The last paragraph of the article speculates that the exports are from coal-fired plants when renewables are generating a lot of electricity. That happens primarily mid-day in the spring and on windy nights.

Attributing all exports to coal-fired plants is nonsense. An electron is an electron regardless of how it was generated.

The reality is that exports take place not because Germany’s neighbours need or want German electricity – up until now they haven’t had any choice but to deal with excess power dumped onto the regional grid by Germany’s uncontrollable renewables. That situation is changing as Germany’s neighbours begin to install devices to limit the flow of electricity between countries. Upon completion of those projects it could well be that German wind producers are forced to curtail the generation of electricity. That is already happening in Denmark where wind farms are paid not to produce power.

To my way of thinking there is some irony in the fact that within the Euro zone there is free movement of people but soon electrons will have to show their passports to cross national borders.

Considering the export situation it would be accurate in the first paragraph of the article to state that renewables represented 32.5% of German electricity production. To say that it represents the same percentage of German consumption is, at best, misleading because exports increased in lock step with renewable electricity generation.

The article also implies that coal-fired generators are “hanging on” by turning to the export market. The fact of the matter is that Germany’s coal-fired plants have to keep running so that they can provide power when wind generation disappears, which happens often. Utilities would actually prefer to operate their super efficient, low CO2 emissions Combined Cycle Natural Gas plants but they can’t afford to. Given that Germans already pay some of the highest retail prices for electricity in the world (largely because of levies to support the development of renewables) there is no appetite for the introduction of more expensive generating sources.

It is clear from developments over the past several years that increasing wind capacity in Germany further is literally pointless. When winds are blowing strongly there is already far to much electricity being generated and when winds are calm Germany has no choice but to burn coal – a lot of coal.

Given that the amount of coal burnt has actually increased over the past 6 years even as Germany built out the lion’s share of its solar and wind capacity, it is obvious that Germany has not managed to reduce its dependence upon reliable fossil fuel based thermal plants. It seems highly unlikely that the planned decommissioning of nuclear plants can continue unless there is a corresponding increase in coal-fired or natural gas-fired generation which would completely blow up Germany’s CO2 emission reduction goals (see this very comprehensive review of the situation for more details).

The lesson of the Energiewende is that some solar and wind can be introduced into the grid without causing too many problems as long as reliable generating assets are all maintained. But at some point the costs of adding more renewable generation far outweigh any possible benefits.

The situation reminds me of the iconic cartoon “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”.

Getting one enchanted broom to help out with the chores is awesome. But having an army of out-of-control brooms doing the same thing just leads to a lot of spilled water. That’s where Germany is at. Just not as entertaining to watch.

For some ideas on how we actually can make the transition to a future powered by renewables check out my Sustainable Energy Manifesto.

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