Germany has some of the dirtiest and most expensive electricity in the European Union. How is that possible, you ask, given that Germany also has the most wind turbines and solar panels in the EU? It is possible because wind turbines and solar panels cannot run an electricity system. They are mostly for show. Their sheer inefficiency and unreliability makes them by necessity very visible all over the country: to get even minuscule amounts of electricity from wind and sun, you have to overbuild wind turbines and solar panels. Lots of people see them.
Many people mistakenly believe that because they see so many wind turbines and solar panels, this must mean there is a lot of wind- and solar-generated electricity running through the wires. In reality, wind and solar, in spite of the gargantuan amounts of money Germany has poured into them, produce relatively insignificant amounts of actual electricity. Hence Germany’s embarrassingly high carbon emissions from electricity: since wind and solar can’t cut it, Germany is building more and more coal-fired power generation stations.
The inefficiency and unreliability of wind and sun as electricity sources also makes them extremely expensive. This is for two reasons.
- Overbuilding is one obvious reason: you have to either buy or rent the land on which they sit, and that of course isn’t free.
- Plus, you have to pay the companies that own them a higher rate than you pay the companies that run coal and nuclear plants.
And why is that? Because wind turbines and solar panels are… inefficient and unreliable. I know this sounds like a tautology, but bear with me.
A wind turbine rated at two megawatts will, over the course of the 8,760 hours in a year, produce mo more than 40 percent of those two megawatts.
That is to say, you are dreaming in technicolor if you think you will get 2 MW of power in every one of the 8,760 hours in the year. Sometimes you will get 2 MW for a few hours on end, but then you will go for many more hours at considerably less than 2 MW. Sometimes you will get zero MW for some number of hours.
The worst thing is, you can rarely tell with precision which hours will give you your 2 MW. And you can never tell more than four hours ahead of time.
In these circumstances, if you are a company that makes its money selling wind power, you must have a government guarantee that if and when you do get power our of your wind turbines you will fetch a very high rate. Otherwise you couldn’t stay in business, let alone earn a profit.
[stextbox id=”info” caption=”How did I get the Germany CO2 data?”]All CO2 estimates in this article, and in the chart above, are based on estimates of CO2 output by different types of combustible fuel generation.
Generation fuel type output in Germany is given in the OECD publication Electricity Information 2013, p. IV.323.
Germany burns four types of combustible fuel to make electricity. These are: natural gas, coal, oil, and biofuels/waste.
I assigned a top-level emission factor to each of these types. This method is crude and does not account for power conversion technology or operating conditions of each generator, or different characteristics of fuels within the broad categories. But each factor is in a generally accepted ballpark. (For an example, see the International Energy Agency (IEA) publication “CO2 emissions from fuel combustion, 2012 Edition.” On page 41 of that publication, there is a text box that lists average implied emission factors of various combustible fuels for power generation.) I am confident that the emission estimates given here are generally accurate.
Here are the CO2 emission factors I assigned to the four types of combustible fuels that Germany uses to make electricity:
- Natural gas = 550 grams per kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electric power generated
- Coal = 900 grams per kWh
- Oil = 700 grams
- Biofuels and waste = 700 grams
Solar panels get an even worse return in terms of power produced per watt of installed capacity. Solar panes are not quite as unreliable as wind turbines. You at least can be utterly certain you will not get solar-generated electricity at night. You at least know that all of your production will occur during the daytime, actually during certain hours of the daytime, when there is sunlight at a good-enough angle to strike your panel and generate a current.
But that is as good as it gets. You cannot be certain that there will be no cloud cover. If there is, then you have to wait for the next sunny day to get your electricity. This almost-comical inefficiency translates into prices for solar-generated power that are even higher than those for wind.
Germans are realizing this every time they have to pay their power bills. As you can see in the chart to the left, Germany power rates for households are very high. Only Denmark has higher household prices for electricity.
The truly depressing thing is, German electricity became dirtier in 2013, even more so than in 2012. That is because more nuclear power plants were taken offline. Look at the chart “Germany power generation and CO2 emissions” again. See how CO2 trended up when nuclear started trending down after 2010? Well, nuclear trended down further in 2013. According to the Iron Rule of Power Generation, when a 24/7 source of electricity comes out of a grid, another 24/7 source will take its place.
Wind and solar are obviously not 24/7 sources. But coal is. That is what has taken nuclear’s place in Germany.
But German households are still paying top dollar for all those wind turbines and solar panels. This must be galling, especially in light of the fact that, in December, the coldest and darkest month of the year, German wind turbines stood still essentially for days, according to this Die Welt article. I can’t imagine that German solar panels generated much power either. Germany, whose southernmost point is more than 47 °North, is very dark in December.
Talk about money for nothing.