While the examples of Japan, China, and India show the promise of rapidly emerging energy economies built on efficiency and renewables, Germany—the world’s number four economy and Europe’s number one—has lately provided an impressive model of what a well-organized industrial society can achieve. To be sure, it’s not yet the world champion among countries with limited hydroelectricity: Denmark passed 40% renewable electricity in 2011 en route to a target of 100% by 2050, and Portugal, albeit with more hydropower, raised its renewable electricity fraction from 17% to 45% just during 2005–10 (while the U.S., though backed by a legacy of big hydro, crawled from 9% to 10%), reaching 70% in the rainy and windy first quarter of 2013. But these economies are not industrial giants like Germany, which remains the best disproof of claims that highly industrialized countries, let alone cold and cloudy ones, can do little with renewables.
Germany has doubled the renewable share of its total electricity consumption in the past six years to 23% in 2012. It forecasts nearly a redoubling by 2025, well ahead of the 50% target for 2030, and closing in on official goals of 65% in 2040 and 80% in 2050. Some areas are moving faster: in 2010, four German states were 43–52% windpowered for the whole year. And at times in spring 2012, half of all German electricity was renewable, nearing Spain’s 61% record set in April 2012.
Efficiency and Renewables Bolster Post-Fukushima Germany
To underscore the remarkable German case, let’s review what happened in 2011, right after Fukushima. The Bundestag—led by the most conservative and pro-nuclear party, with no party dissenting—overwhelmingly voted to close eight of the country’s nuclear plants immediately and the other nine by 2022. (In a double U-turn, a nuclear phase-out agreed in 2000 was first slowed and then reinstated; nuclear output has actually been falling since 2006.) Skeptics said this abrupt shutdown of 41% of nuclear output would make the lights go out, the economy crash, carbon emissions and electricity prices soar, and Germany need to import nuclear power from France. But none of that happened.
In fact, in 2011 the German economy grew three percent and remained Europe’s strongest, buoyed by a world-class renewables industry with 382,000 jobs (about 222,000 of them added since 2004, with net employment and net stimulus both positive). Chancellor Merkel won her bet that it would be smarter to spend energy money on German engineers, manufacturers, and installers than to send it to the Russian natural gas behemoth Gazprom. Germany’s lights stayed on. The nuclear shutdown wasentirely displaced by year-end, three-fifths due to renewable growth. Do the math: simply repeating 2011’s renewable installations for three additional years, through 2014, would thus displace Germany’s entire pre-Fukushima nuclear output. Meanwhile, efficiency gains—plus a mild winter—cut total German energy use by 5.3%, electricity consumption by 1.4%, and carbon emissions by 2.8%. Wholesale electricity prices fell 10–15%. Germany remained a net exporter of electricity, and during a February 2012 cold snap, even exported nearly 3 GW to power-starved France, which remains a net importer of German electricity.
Was this just a flash in the pan? No. In 2012 vs. 2011, official data show that these trends broadly persisted.
Germany generated 617 TWh of electricity in 2012, up 0.3% from 2011. Nuclear generation fell below 100 TWh, the lowest in at least two decades. Gas prices spiked above coal, so gas-fired generation fell 13 TWh while coal-fired generation ticked up 14 TWh or 5%—still near modern lows, but boosted by a record 23 TWh of profitable power exports. Renewables added 15 TWh: they rose from 20% of electricity consumption in 2011 to 23% in 2012, passing every rival except brown coal (lignite, expected to recede in 2013). Renewable output has risen by one-third just in the past two years. And though Germany’s mix of solar, wind, biomass, hydro, etc. wouldn’t all run at the same time, its total end-of-2012 renewable generating capacity impressively rivaled the country’s 82 GW peak demand. Driven by renewables’ competition, wholesale electricity prices continued to plummet. Germany’s grid remained the most reliable in Europe. And while real GDP, damped by the Euro crisis, grew just 0.7%, electricity consumption fell 1.3%. Total carbon emissions rose 1.6%, boosted by an unusually cold winter, but emissions from industry plus power stations stayed constant, and weather-adjusted total emissions probably fell.
Germany’s Electricity Rates and Feed-in Tariff
German renewables’ dual trajectories of declining costs and rising installation rates are sending big ripples through the electricity system. Rating agencies are downgrading major European utilities because renewables—now over one-third of Europe’s generating capacity—have almost zero running cost. They can thus underbid fossil and nuclear plants, making them run fewer hours and earn lower prices, and thus slashing their profits. For example, German wholesale power prices have fallen about 30% just in the past two years to near eight-year lows, putting big utilities that underinvested in renewables under severe profit pressure.
Even so, Germans pay a lot for their household electricity, about $0.34/kWh in 2012. The household tariff includes a “renewables surcharge,” expected to amount to roughly $249 per three-person household this year. That’d be three-fifths smaller if households weren’t subsidizing many businesses, mainly large ones—exempted from nearly the whole renewables charge, allegedly to boost German competitiveness—by 3–4 billion Euros a year. Yet German industry enjoys the lower spot prices that renewables create, so it pays about the same for electricity as it did in 1978, and less than French industry pays today. This cross-subsidy from households to industry, and the size of the resulting household surcharge, have generated lively debate about how much Germans pay for their electricity and why.
The German Renewable Energy Act introduced two key policies in 2000: 1) a fixed 20-year power purchase contract (i.e. feed-in tariff) offered to most renewables, such as rooftop solar PV, which also gain priority access to the grid, and 2) a stipulation that such power purchases not draw on Germany’s public purse. That second piece is notable, because German utilities—required to pay the feed-in tariff for each kind of renewable energy fed into the grid by any producer—recover those payments via the renewables surcharge.
At the beginning of 2013, that surcharge jumped 47%, but only one-ninth of that increase was for renewables; the rest came from calculational quirks, chiefly the generous industrial exemptions. The household surcharge has been rising rapidly because home photovoltaic generation has quadrupled in four years, with 1.3 million rooftop systems producing 28 TWh in 2012—adding at least 1 GW more in 2012 than the government intended. In a German national election year, this prompted calls from various members of government to postpone or reduce payments (even retroactively) or spread the fee to more customers. Those proposals were promptly scuttled. With Germany’s firm commitment to an energy future grounded in renewables, and with clean technologies such as solar rapidly taking off, the renewables surcharge will probably remain widely supported, controversial, misrepresented, and widely misunderstood.