German solar power producers have set a new record in solar energy production by pumping 14.7TWh of electricity into the power grid during the first six months of 2012. That’s 4.5% of the total power production during that period.
So, can we get anywhere close to achieving this here in the UK? And if so, how? In the first of a series of articles focused on the PV sector, James Woollard, managing director at Evergreen PV, takes a closer look at the situation.
Earlier in the year German solar power plants also announced that they produced a world record 22GW of electricity, equal to 20 nuclear power stations at full capacity, through the midday hours of a Friday and Saturday May weekend, which met nearly 50% of the nation’s midday electricity needs.
That’s right – half of all of Germany was powered by electricity generated by solar plants. Last year Germany decided to phase out nuclear power by 2022 – renewable energies are set to generate 30% of the electricity by then, and 80% by 2050.
Germany is pretty much single handedly proving that solar can be a major, reliable source of power – even in countries that aren’t all that sunny. And it’s the result of two main factors – Fukushima and a Feed-in-Tariff.
Now, the German government started to cut off nuclear power long before the Fukushima disaster happened in Japan, but the event did show how important it is to rely not only on ‘classical’ energy sources. So the country made a promise to shut down all of its nuclear plants, and replace them with clean sources.
Germany, similar to what we’ve done here, also instituted a Feed-in-Tariff system, which requires utilities to buy solar power from producers, large and small, at a fixed rate. So basically anyone can buy solar panels, set them up, plug them into the grid, and get paid for it.
The German Feed-in-Tariff does make electricity more expensive, as the cost of subsiding that higher fixed rate is absorbed by all electricity consumers. But to be fair, Germany doesn’t really mind. In the wake of Fukushima, a poll showed that 71% of the German public said they’d pay €20 more per month for clean, non-nuclear power. Essentially, Germany, and its people have agreed that producing non-nuclear clean power is worth shelling out for.
The truth though, is that solar PV is actually both viable at scale and cheap. For example, Spain is installing large scale capacity at a basic cost of $0.03/Kwh next year.
Over here in the UK, there has been some drop in demand for solar, as a result of our Feed-in-Tariff cuts, but I believe that’s more to do with a lack of consumer confidence. There have been a lot of mixed messages around solar, solar panels, and solar investments.
Germany is a powerhouse of engineering, technical know-how and a willingness to invest in future technologies. Given the fact that in Bosch and Siemens, Germany has two of the world’s major power conversion specialist manufacturers, I think it eminently believable that Germany will achieve a very high proportion of its electricity generation needs from renewables.
Solar is relatively predictable and the next step is to develop energy storage. Energy storage will obviously add cost, but as is starting to be realised, solar is not expensive and is getting cheaper all the time. Add energy storage, and solar is not just an alternative, it is the best solution. And we can make it happen. We just need to want it more, but we’ve got to act now. Germany has chosen solar, because the people want it, and we need to be the same.
It is solar that is bringing prices down now in Germany due to merit order effect on peak prices and we can choose to do the same here, or not. We can choose to bring prices down or not. We can choose to bring down emissions or not. We can choose to move away from importing energy or not. We can choose to be controlled by energy companies or not. We can choose to replicate Germany.
It is not a debate about what is possible, it is a debate about what we want, and what world we want to leave our children.
The fact remains that Germany has achieved something remarkable here, and its experiment need not be anomalous. We should be striving to replicate its success – Germany has proven that solar power isn’t just some daydream, but an engine that can power the world’s most industrious and advanced nations.