by Jerome a Paris
Tue Jul 31st, 2012 at 06:05:43 AM EST
"THE quieter the evening, the more you hear it," says Wilfried Bockholt, mayor of Niebüll in North Friesland. He mimics the sound of a 55-metre-long rotor whirling round a windmill's mast. He is a driving force behind the "citizens' wind park", but he has mixed feelings. A region famed for broad horizons is now jagged with white spires. "They alter the landscape completely," he laments.
Wind is noisy and ugly. Thus, originally (not) starts the Economist's most recent piece about the energy transition currently taking place in Germany.
I'd note here that the writing is technically sloppy, as I'm not sure what a 55-metre-long rotor is - is is the blades that are 55m long, or the overall rotor's diameter? In either case, it could have led to more interesting notes: in one case (a 55m rotor), it means the turbines are in the 600kW range and the wind park was built more than 15 years ago (which is plausible given the location), and it might have led to some interesting conclusions on the long term reliability of wind turbines, and the economics of such a wind farm today. In the other case (55m blades), we are talking about top of the range 3+MW turbines installed very recently, and it might be worth discussing the fact that such industrial-scale turbines are being installed by a "citizen's wind park" ie a cooperative effort, owned by local people who benefit directly from it.
But no, wind is noisy (which, by the way, is certainly not true of new turbines) and ugly. The stage is set.
North Friesland's wind boom is part of Germany's Energiewende (energy transformation), a plan to shift from nuclear and fossil fuels to renewables. It was dreamed up in the 1980s, became policy in 2000 and sped up after the Fukushima disaster in March 2011. That led Angela Merkel, the chancellor, to scrap her extension of nuclear power (rather than phasing it out by 2022, as previous governments had planned). She ordered the immediate closure of seven reactors. Germany reaffirmed its clean-energy goals--greenhouse-gas emissions are to be cut from 1990 levels by 40% by 2020 and by 80% by 2050--but it must now meet those targets without nuclear power.
The rest of the world watches with wonder, annoyance--and anticipatory Schadenfreude.
So, a 30-year industrial policy is mocked because a few nuclear reactors are closed a few years earlier than expected? And no mention of all the people who are watching with jealousy that industrial - and environmental - policy can still be made to happen on such a scale over such a long period...
Rather than stabilising Europe's electricity, Germany plagues neighbours by dumping unpredictable surges of wind and solar power.
Hmm - if anything, neighbors have welcome the stop of nuclear plants as an opportunity to sell more electricity to Germany, at a higher price. Neighbors, like Germany's utilities, have been moaning about wind's impact on prices (it brings them down, not up), but that would not fit with the narrative of costly subsidized energy so that point is conveniently ignored...
And, during the cold snap this winter, it was actually German solar that helped Germany remain a net exporter to nuclear-rich France (hint - nuclear plants don't really help during demand peaks, by definition they provide no peak capacity)...
Again, wind and solar are intermittent, which is not the same thing as unpredictable. Wind and solar can actually be predicted much better than demand, so variations fall within the parameters of what the system already has to cope with on a daily basis... A lot has been made about the fact that grids are now encountering more "alerts" (ie situations requiring active intervention by network control centers), but here's another factoid: grid engineers are actually enjoying their work for the first time in decades: they have real engineering challenges to deal with, and they are finding ways to solve them. Developers and others tell me about National Grid (the UK grid operator)'s excellent responsiveness to their queries and even their willingness to come up with new ideas on how to manger the grid.
To many the Energiewende is a lunatic gamble with the country's manufacturing prowess. But if it pays off Germany will have created yet another world-beating industry, say the gamblers. Alone among rich countries Germany has "the means and will to achieve a staggering transformation of the energy infrastructure", says Mark Lewis, an analyst at Deutsche Bank.
What do you mean, "will have created"? Has the writer taken the time to look at how big the industry is already?
Much could go wrong. Wholesale electricity prices will be 70% higher by 2025, predicts the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. Germany must build or upgrade 8,300km (5,157 miles) of transmission lines (not including connections to offshore wind farms). Intermittent wind and sun power creates a need for backup generators, while playing havoc with business models that justify investing in them. Hans-Peter Keitel, president of the Federation of German Industry, likens the Energiewende to "open-heart surgery".
Given that wind's main impact on power prices (thanks to the merit order effect, also called the "cannibalisation effect" by RWE) is to bring them down, it usually turns out that most studies noting or predicting higher power prices have, at root, "interesting" assumptions about gas prices. The gross cost of the feed-in tariffs in Germany is inversely proportional to the assumptions for the price of natural gas and could indeed lead to such increases and if gas prices are assumed to remain very low over very long periods. Conversely, high future power prices can also be caused (as in practice in recent years) by increasing gas prices and if the merit-order effect of wind is not taken into account!
Saying that renewables are expensive in comparison to currently ultra-cheap US natural gas (because that's usually the assumption behind low gas prices in Europe: domestic shale gas + LNG imports from the US) is a rather big assumption to make, and certainly one worth mentioning...
In May Mrs Merkel sacked the environment minister, Norbert Röttgen, after he led her Christian Democrats to a disastrous defeat in a regional election. His successor is Peter Altmaier, a canny parliamentarian who will share responsibility with the economy minister, Philipp Rösler. In fact Mrs Merkel has taken charge herself. She convenes energy summits with leaders of the 16 states, and promises to incorporate grid operators' plans into federal law by the end of the year. But even she admits the Energiewende is a "Herculean task".
The plan will require two transformations, one micro and one macro. The first is an unruly, subsidy-fed explosion of wind, solar and biomass power, a "strange mixture of idealism and greed," as one energy boss calls it. The second is the effort to pull this into a system providing reliable and affordable electricity.
People following incentives in oil&gas is "the market at work" - but in renewable energy it's an "unruly subsidy-fed explosion" as if regulations and taxes (or lack thereof) in one case were good and in another case evil. But never mind, let's keep on repeating that renewable energy is subsidized, and let's forget about the externalities caused by the other sources of energy...
Protagonists of the micro version see themselves as democratising economic and political power. The renewable-energy law entitles anybody who puts in a solar panel or a windmill to sell surplus power to the grid, receiving a generous "feed-in tariff" guaranteed over 20 years. This gives renewable electricity priority over conventional power. Not surprisingly, renewables grew ten times faster than the OECD average from 1990 to 2010 and now account for 20% of electricity output (see chart). The government's target is 35% by 2020. Germany gets more electricity from renewable sources than any other big country.
The feed-in tariffs in Germany are not "generous" (that word is yet more propaganda), they are actually quite stingy - they are not inflated (compared to what happens in most other countries, which is a rather big difference when you are looking at 15-20 years of revenues and, compared to other support mechanisms (like the market-based "green certificates), they are demonstrably cheaper to finance, which makes renewable energy much cheaper to produce in the long run. They are simple, easy for small players to understand (and thus harder for big players to game) and have been highly stable. Solar tariffs have been a bit harder to fine-tune, given the rapid technological progress in that sector, but it can be argued that Germany has done a pretty decent job over all of avoiding windfall gains to developers without killing the sector as has happened in other countries - and that comes from having a clear long term policy (support the sector and make it competitive), people that understand its economics (and not just one side of the issue as too many journalists, influenced by partial lobbyists, seem prone to) and, yes, a sense of purpose.
The return on capital can top 20% a year in the best spots. But do not confuse harvesters of sun and wind with electricity plutocrats. "One important goal is to break the monopoly" of the four big power companies that dominate the market, says Hermann Albers, president of the Federal Wind Energy Association. Municipal utility companies plan to boost their share of electricity production from a tenth to at least a fifth by 2020. More than 100 municipalities want to be "100% renewable".
The number of "energy co-operatives" has risen sixfold since 2007, to 586 last year. Solar parks have migrated from farms and family houses to apartment blocks. "Roof exchanges" match owners with investors. Niebüll allows only wind farms in which residents can buy stakes, lest landowners become local fat cats and others rebel against the project. In 2010 over 50% of renewable-energy capacity was in the hands of individuals or farmers, according to trend:research, a consultancy. The big four had just 6.5%.
This is perking up sleepy regions. Farmers are likelier to remain on the land. Services, from consultants who guide investors through the subsidy jungle to specialist windmill repairmen, have taken root in towns. The taxes paid by Niebüll's wind park are one of the town's main sources of revenue; in smaller settlements they may be almost the only local source.
The micro-level works almost too well. Schleswig-Holstein plans to generate three times as much renewable energy as it consumes and to export the surplus south and west. Southern states are keen to produce their own renewable power, too. Bavaria talks of self-sufficiency. The states' windpower targets add up to double the federal government's goal of 36 gigawatts by 2020.
For a couple of paragraphs, the real story of renewables: it's been largely done at the local level, and that is even more true in Germany than anywhere else in the world . There is a reason why the support policies are so popular - a lot of people see it happening, and indeed make it happen, on their doorstep (or on their rooftops).
But that makes it work "too well"...
Solar power, which consumes half the total subsidy but provides just a fifth of renewable electricity, is racing ahead of target. The Energiewende raises costs, unsettles supply and provokes resistance at grass-roots level. The system coped with the first influx of renewable energy, says Rainer Baake, who heads a lobby group called Agora Energiewende. But the next 20% will require a transformation.
Yes, solar had more progress to make, so early tariffs were quite high - but the story here is how production prices (and thus the tariffs needed for new projects- have tumbled down - as was hoped for - with a few years of consistent supportive policies that accepts the costs in the difficult period when the sector begins to be big enough to matter (and its cost to be visible) but not yet mature to be competitive enough. Germany seems to have gone through that period - and it should be noted that Germany's tariffs have benefited the whole planet as solar technology is now cheaper for everybody - in effect, countries like the US or the UK are free-riders of Germany energy policy.
One fight is over who will pay. The most energy-intensive consumers are shielded from the feed-in tariff, leaving ordinary folk, including pensioners and the unemployed, to foot the bill. The nuclear shutdown pushed up industry's electricity bills relative to its competitors, argues Annette Loske of VIK, which represents big consumers. The political assault on their exemption undermines the confidence they need to invest. An even bigger worry is supply interruptions, which can disrupt factories even if they last for fractions of a second. VIK says they have risen 30% in the past three years. The odds of outright power cuts have jumped.
Again, the merit order effect is ignored. Large users have no reason to complain about the energy transition, and polls show that the population remains massively supportive of the system (but hey, let's try anyway to pit "pensioners and the unemployed" against renewables - funny to note when the Economist cares about the unemployed and the pensioners...)
As to supply interruptions, a rise of 30% is meaningless - from what base, to how many clients, in what circumstances? This is a good exemple of a malicious meaningless statistic.
Renewables can depress wholesale prices, eg, when the sun creates a midday jolt. This discourages investors in the flexible, gas-powered generation needed to provide backup for windless, cloudy days. "The market dynamics are completely destroyed," says Peter Terium, boss of RWE, one of the big four. There is talk of paying generators to offer capacity, not supply power. But such payments would add another subsidy distortion to the market.
Oh, the merit order effect finally discussed? Nope, this whole paragraph means to create more confusion through, yes I'll say it, outright lying (I will not believe incompetence in the Economist, not yet).
1- first, the merit order effect is not just a "midday jolt" - it's an effect that takes place throughout the day and depresses prices on a large scale;
2- the biggest losers of such effect are not the flexible plants, it's the exact opposite: it's the other "price takers: nuclear plants, coal-fired plants, and base load gas prices. All of these (the core business of the big utilities) see the prices they get mot of the day go down, and they lose income.
3- The flexible plants - the gas peakers and hydro - will actually make more money as they are asked to support the system balance in new ways as renewables take a bigger part of the system. There is a known business model for peakers, functioning a few % of the time only, and it applies even more now.
4- Capacity payments are not a "subsidy" - they are a payment for a real service to the grid - the ability to provide MW on demand and on short notice. This can be paid through high peak prices or other service agreements at the behest of the grid (for "spinning reserves"), but they are a physical requirement of the system which needs to be paid for. Having renewables in the system has made the need more explicit, but it's not new. And one should note that nuclear is largely unable to provide that service...
So that paragraph packs a mass of lies or confusion - on purpose?
The 20 billion national-grid plan is another macro-project meant to channel micro-level exuberance. It assumes that the biggest need will be to supply northern wind power to southern and western consumers. Yet if so, perhaps renewables should be tempered elsewhere. "We have to synchronise infrastructure and renewables", by allowing new wind and solar projects only where the grid can take delivery of what they produce, says Stephan Kohler, head of the German Energy Agency. Upgrading the grid, to beyond Germany as well as within it, would reduce waste and the risk of instability.
But the vision is contested. Expansion of the grid has been thwarted by bureaucrats' inertia, politicians' foot dragging and activism by those who hate transmission masts as much as they do nuclear power. Even upgrades to existing lines can mobilise opposition, as in Quickborn, south of Niebüll. Hard-core decentralists deny that power must be transmitted over long distances. "You can put the grid development plan directly in the bin," says Matthias Willenbacher of Juwi, a big builder of solar and wind projects. Bavaria's aspirations encourage such hopes. When the federal government tried to speed up cuts in the feed-in tariff for solar power, several states put up a fight, forcing a partial retreat. The renewables lobby, like the industrial one, demands stable investment conditions. Solar power will be competitive without subsidies by 2020, the solar lobby insists.
Germany is groping for a mix of top-down direction-setting and bottom-up buy-in for its Energiewende to work. The federal government may limit foes of transmission projects to one court challenge. But consultation with citizens is vital, reckons Mr Matthiessen. TenneT, which operates the grid in Schleswig-Holstein, wants to extend the wind park idea to the transmission network, offering stakes in a line along the west coast. But Mr Bockholt, Niebüll's mayor, sounds a warning: Schleswig-Holstein's plans to harvest its wealth of wind will soon "reach the limits of what is tolerable".
Oh, evil greens blocking the hard work serious people put in making the crazy ideas of the greens work...
Yes, the grid needs to adapt. Yes, it's messy, but yes it's actually happening - but no, not overnight, and thankfully it does not need to happen overnight...
It is hard to think of a messier and more wasteful way of shifting from fossil and nuclear fuel to renewable energy than the one Germany has blundered into.
Hmm, let's see:
- the UK's wasteful ROCs, and the desperate efforts by its current government to put in place a FiT which does not look like a FiT (and will thus be more complicated, more expensive and easier to game by the big players)?
- The US's absurd stop-and-go PTC policy, which has already killed the wind industry 4 times in the past 10 years?
- The various brutal cuts in solar tariffs across Europe, which have damaged local industries without fully preventing windfall effects?
It's actually hard to find a more coherent, cheap and effective policy than the German one, for renewable energy.
The price will be high, the risks are large and some effects will be the opposite of what was intended. Greenhouse-gas emissions are likely to be higher than they would have been for quite a while to come.
As one would note "citation needed"...
But that does not mean the entire enterprise will fail. Politicians cannot reinvent the Energiewende on the run, but they can stay a step ahead of the risks and push back against the costs--and they are beginning to do so. In the end Germany itself is likely to be transformed.
What costs? Again, let's pretend that it's all been negative to date, that the German wind manufacturing and solar installation industry don't exist, that wholesale prices are no higher than the neighbors', and that there's actually a large chunk of carbon-free kWhs produced by the system. It's a "costly" policy.
Sad to read all that in that magazine.