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It’s Not About Where Your Solar Panels Came From, It’s Where They Are Going That Counts

One of the most infuriating things about reading advice for people wanting to reduce their carbon footprint is the colossal lack of perspective people some folk have when it comes to cutting emissions.

There’s people unplugging their phone chargers but not their DVRs.  Worrying about where their food comes from, rather than what type of food it is.  Or recycling their plastic bags rather than just getting some reusables.

You see, perspective is quite important if you want to make sensible decisions.

The lifecycle emissions of solar panels

There’s a really interesting new study out that compares the carbon footprint of solar panels manufactured in Europe and China.

The basic result shows that because Chinese manufacturing is less energy efficient, and reliant on coal fired electricity, the Chinese panels have a bigger carbon footprint.  In fact the footprint of Chinese panels is double that of European ones, as you can see in chart from the study below.

solar panel origin

Looking at this graph it is tempting to think that we should all be buying European (RER) solar panels rather than Chinese (CN) ones.  Or that ‘you’d better buy locally‘ like with your vegetables.  That’s certainly the message I’ve seen in how this paper was covered around the web.

And you know what, the local vegetable analogy is perfect.  Because if you focus on food miles you’re only looking 10% of the total foodprint.  And with solar panels their origin is even less significant.

Let’s get some perspective.

Where are your solar panels going?

When it comes to carbon emissions the most important factor about solar panels is not where they are made but where they are deployed.

If the solar electricity they product displaces coal fired electricity it will save 30 times the extra footprint of Chinese panels, 14 fold that difference if they displaces natural gas, and nothing at all if it displaces hydro or nuclear.

Looking at the data above the estimates for multicrystalline silicon are about 32g CO2-e/kWh for European panels and 68g for Chinese panels.  For some proper perspective lets compare these two to the average carbon intensity of consumed grid electricity.

consumed

Can you see the solar panel emissions?  They are the lines down at the bottom (click to enlarge). The 36 g difference between Chinese and European panels is a drop in the ocean.

I find it baffling that anyone could worry about where their panel comes from without first thinking about what electricity their solar will displace. This graph shows the average grid intensity, which although it is a good guide doesn’t always tell you the full story.

In coal heavy places solar does tend to eat into coal emissions, like it has done in Australia.  But if the grid is more mixed if often displaces the sources with high marginal costs and greater flexibility, so for example in Germany it has largely impacted natural gas. Lastly if you live somewhere with a huge hydro resource (Brazil) or nuclear dominance (France) the carbon benefit of solar is minimal.

Carbon tariffs on solar panels? Seriously?

As a bit of a carbon wonk I quite liked the European vs Chinese solar panel study.  I always enjoy an interesting lifecycle analysis. But one of the conclusions left me cold.  Here it is:

We propose a break-even carbon tariff model for the international trade of silicon-based PV modules, indicating an appropriate carbon tariff in the range of €105–€129/ton CO2.

Don’t get me wrong I see how you could jump to proposing a carbon tariff, particularly given some of the solar panel dumping China has been doing, but surely the authors must appreciate the colossal irony of a imposing a carbon tariff just on solar panels?

For a quarter of a century Europe and the US have been outsourcing heavy industry (an its emissions) to China.  The result is the Europe’s consumption footprint is 20% bigger than its terrestrial emissions, while for the US it is 10% larger.  In China’s is 21% less, because a quarter of its emissions result from producing the world’s stuff.

Look at the map below from Consumption based accounting of CO2 Emissions by Steve Davis and Ken Caldeira showing the net export of emissions embodied in products.

exporters

Given that Europe has a net carbon debt to China of 300 Mt CO2 each year, while for the US this figure 400 Mt CO2, the idea that we should put a carbon tariff on just a few megatonnes of solar panel emissions is pretty surreal.  I’m all all for a global carbon tax, but one just for solar panels is a lot more about protectionism than it is about environmentalism.

We can’t spend decades filling our homes with cheap goods made in China, from cheap labor and un-taxed dirty energy, and then decide we need a carbon tariff just for solar panels (a technology that helps to cut carbon).

Let’s take a look at what solar power looks like in the real world.

The solar boom is Made in China

In my endless reading of energy and environment blogs there is no subject that people get more excited about the beginning of the solar boom we have seen in recent years.

Again and again I see people using this remarkable ‘Swanson Effect’ chart from my old colleagues at BNEF to explain whats going on (this is the first time I’ve used it as I prefer to look at total system cost).

swanson effect

Due to this incredible drop in prices the installed capacity of solar has increased more than ten fold in the last 6 years.  Why is solar so cheap you ask? Why are all your electronics so cheap?  China.

In the graph below I show the world’s top 10 solar manufacturers for 2013.  The ones in red have the majority of their manufacturing based in China.

top solar manufacturers

That’s right.  Seven of the world’s top 10 solar manufacturers are based in China.  Sharp and Kyocera are in Japan, while First Solar was in Ohio and Malaysia last time I looked.  There are no Europeans in the Top 10, the REC Group is its leader at 14th.

The beginning of the solar boom we are seeing at the moment may have started in Germany, but it’s made in China. Without cheap Chinese panels a great share of current installation simply wouldn’t exist and few people would be getting so excited about solar. If you wan’t to buy something European then grab yourself a quality inverter from SMA, Xantrex or PowerOne.

And remember, with some horribly bastardized words from the wondrous Ella Fitzgerald:

 It’s not where your solar panels came from that matters, it’s where they are going that counts

Lindsay Wilson's picture

Thank Lindsay for the Post!

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John NIchols's picture
John NIchols on Jun 7, 2014 7:03 pm GMT

 

   “the product displaces coal fired electricity” Well, it does ‘displace’ coal in some areas of the country, some of the time, but it more likely displaces natural gas, with less emssions than coal.  This “cherry picking” of generation” makes it appear Chinese imports generate less carbon dioxide.  

 

“Displace” is the correct word to use because solar replaces little, if any, units of reliable generation.

 

Germany learned this lesson the hard way this past winter.  For one week, Germany did not generate any wind or solar energy, which forced reliance on coal fired generation. 

 

Read about this event here – http://www.thegwpf.org/content/uploads/2014/06/Energy-Security.pdf

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Jun 8, 2014 10:59 pm GMT

N,

You make a good point regarding the lifetime of solar panels in the real world.  Agreed, that’s a potential Achilles heel for LCOE analysis. More about that in a minute.  

You are also as guilty as any of the RE boosters that you’re criticising when it comes to tossing around unquantified generalisms.  You refer to the fuel consumed to deliver modules over “vast distances” without giving any indication of what that amount actually might be.  So let’s do some rough calculations.

According to Wikipedia, the Emma Maersk, representative of latest container ships, has a cargo capacity of over 150 thousand tons.  At 20 knots (~normal cruise, not max speed), it burns 1,660 gallons of heavy fuel oil per hour. I believe that works out to about 1,800 ton-miles per gallon, or 4 gallons per ton of cargo across the Pacific.  

Common silicon solar modules weigh in at about 10 kilos per square meter, so figure 100 m^2 / ton, or 25 m^2 per gallon of fuel oil across the Pacific.  25 m^2 of solar modules would have a peak rating of some 3 – 5 kw.  Energy content of fuel oil is ~40 kWhr (IIRC), so we’re talking roughly ten hours of peak output to repay the energy cost of fuel for trans-Pacific shipping.  

Allow another 10 -20 hours to repay the fuel cost for rail transport across the country (~ 1/3 trans-Pacific distance, but several times the fuel consumption per ton-mile).  30 peak equivalent hours is about one week in most locations.  Not entirely negligible, but unless I’ve botched the calculation, your concern about the prohibitive energy cost of long distance shipping seems unfounded.

Now, about lifetimes.  That’s a legitimate concern, especially in light of trends in electronics over the past two or three decades.  With proper encapsulation and sealing and no moving parts, electronics used within their specified envelope should last indefinitely.  But products become obsolte and are thrown away so rapidly these days, that if some components are sub-spec, no one may notice.  Skimping on qualification testing is a common way to cut corners for manufacturers desperately trying to keep their heads above water in a hyper-competitive environment.  They can often get away with it, and the alternative may be bankruptcy.

Poor to non-existent QA was behind batches of solar panels from stressed Chinese manufacturers that began failing after only a few years.  That was in the news a while back.  I believe the problems had to do with corrosion from improperly sealed panels, or panels sealed with sub-standard materials.  When new, the panels looked and performed just fine.  In most cases, there’s no way for an individual buyer to know if the cheap solar panels they’re buying are really up to spec. Companies placing very large orders can afford to monitor shipments and send sacrificial units for destructive analysis at a qualified lab, but many don’t bother.  So the advice to homeowners and small-volume installers is “know your source”.  Go with a known reliable supplier, even if it means paying a bit more.

What can be said is that the processes that are used to build solar panels are standardized and backed by a handful of large chemical companies and equipment manufacturers.  If followed correctly using certified materials, the panels produced should be good for their advertized 20 – 30 year lifetime.  But if the producer has substituted cheaper materials from 3rd party sources, all bets are off. 

That’s another reason, rarely mentioned, why utility-scale solar farms are a safer way to go than many decentralized roof-top installations — like the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art example that you cited.  Fans of distributed generation will hate that statement, but that’s reality.  Utilities can afford to run QA testing, the local installer most likely can’t.

Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on Jun 8, 2014 11:11 pm GMT

As of October 1, 2013 the PV system was alive and well.  At that point the data computer appears to have gone down as evidenced by the fact that the meteorological data also ceased at the same time.  The DAS is external to the inverter and therefore offers no further insight as to the operation of the solar array.  See data portal here.

Second, your comments about taking the money out of artists pockets is incorrect.  The system is actually part of a work of art.  So it likely put money INTO the pockets of an artist.

Some additional background:

The MoCA solar array is viewed by many as a success story.  Among other things it was an early adopter of a variety of US technologies validating them in their early commercial years.  In particular, Solectria, a US  / Massachusetts based inverter company is alive and well and internationally competitive.  It got considerable early business from MA projects which helped incubate it.  They are headquartered in an economically depressed part of Massachusetts further bringing some relief to that depressed region of Massachusetts.  Heliotronics, the data provider is a MA company.  And the solar module provider, Schott Solar developed a great deal of solar module technology that has been fed forward to other module manufacturers.  The Schott modules are about as close to indestructible as any ever developed.  Industry insiders generally anticipate lifetime on the order of 30 – 50 years for Tier 1 modules.

It is likely that the PV system is fully operational.  The data, that the public has access to, is provided by SunViewer(TM) software.  A PC at the site feeds the data to the Heliotronics server.  That server then provides it on a user friendly display.  You have incorrectly interpreted the data.  This appears to be a computer maintenance issue not a solar array issue.  It appears that data stopped reaching the server on October 1, 2013.  The server is still up as evidenced by the fact that other Heliotronics sites have data – see for example, data from this array that goes back to 2005. That was less than a year ago, not two years ago as you claim.  You, or anyone else, can go to the site and observe that the system stopped sending data on that day.  Not only power but also temperature and irradiance stopped being sent up to the server.  Data system problems of this type do not generally correlate to PV system problems.  I suggest you call Mass MoCA or BPVS to inquire about the status of the solar array.  They can check the inverter and it is likely working just fine.  

 

 

Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on Jun 8, 2014 11:12 pm GMT

Deleted duplicate comment

 

 

Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on Jun 9, 2014 12:25 am GMT

The MoCA array is fully operational.  As such you have presented no valid data to support your contentions about short lifetime of solar modules. 

”  You want me to call a museum to check on what you report is “likely.”  Um…um…um…  “

I think that would have been a responsible thing to do.

However it is pretty evident that you are not so interested in facts that do not support your story line.  So I did take a moment to call the company that maintains the MoCA array and confirmed that as of the last time they checked on it, less than 2 weeks ago, the MoCA array was alive, well and fully operational.  The owner verified that indeed, the reason for data being out is due to a PC that is down and had nothing to do with the array.

Your fixation on the cost of this array is kind of weird.  Due to its integration into a piece of artwork it was never intended to demonstrate cost optimization.  However, today’s solar arrays are much much less costly than cost optimized arrays of that time.  In fact, in just the last 4 years installed costs of utility scale PV has dropped by a factor of 2.  Further, the tier 1 modules are quite good quality as they use good  QA and improved materials, as Roger pointed out.  I have spoken to module mfg. engineers who have been frustrated that their marketing departments will not disclose the expected lifetime of the modules.  The marketing people feel that few would believe them.  As such, LCOE estimates for solar are probably pretty conservative at this point. 


Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on Jun 9, 2014 3:01 pm GMT

 

But aren’t most “local installers” big outfits like SolarCity who buy panels in bulk and assess the quality? In fact, many of those installers take the risk on equipment and charge the customers for the generated power.

 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jun 9, 2014 6:16 pm GMT

Clayton and N Nadir, although the Heliotronics SunViewer software is no longer operational at MoCA it is possible to retrieve historical data about the performance of the system here.

The system began operation May 18, 2007, and its last day of recording solar data was Oct. 1, 2013, when the system went “dark”. There’s no significant dropoff in the performance of the panels between these two dates so it’s reasonable to assume they’re still generating energy and the logging problem is some software or connection issue.

Over 2,313 days the array generated 296.89MWh of energy, which works out to a power average of 5.33kW. For an array with a 51.6kW nameplate capacity, this works out to a capacity factor of 10.33%. The cost of the installation was $700,000 but it also included an “interactive display”. If we allocate a rough figure of $50,000 for the display and a commission for artist Michael Oatman’s arrangement of the solar panels (breakdown not provided), and assume the system will be functional for 20 years, the price of the museum’s solar electricity comes out to $.70/kWh.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jun 10, 2014 5:31 am GMT

I cringe whenever I see that Swanson effect graph, (which purports to show dramatic reductions in the cost of solar power), and is often used to “imply” the fiction that there is something magical about solar power than makes it more ameniable to cost reductions than other abundant energy sources with little or no fuel cost (e.g. nuclear and wind).  No doubt it is extremely misleading to those who are not sufficiently familiar with the electronics industry to understand that prototypes always cost (at least an order of magnitude) more than production units.

This report (Tracking the Sun II) from Lawrence Berkely National Labs has data from the early days of solar power which puts things in better perspective.  I would claim that we should ignore costs from before US cummulative installed PV reached 50 MWatts, in order to have something we can compared to other sources; this threshold was reached around 2003.  Also we should use installed system cost as Lindsay suggests (capacity weighted average):

  • year  –  US installations for the year – price
  • 2004 – 44 MW @ $8.2/Watt
  • 2006 – 90 MW @ $7.9/Watt
  • 2008 – 197 MW @ $7.5/Watt

Then we can jump forward to 2013, with data from the SEIA:

  • 2013 – 4,751 MW @ $4.59/Watt residential, and $1.96/Watt for utility.

Note that the 2013 costs are pushed down (for the amount installed) by the very large (30 GW) Germany investment.

So the implication that solar costs have come down by a factor of 80 is pretty far off the mark.

Lindsay Wilson's picture
Lindsay Wilson on Jun 10, 2014 10:00 am GMT

 

I find it baffling that in California (which is probably the biggest US market?) they were still paying $5.48/watt as of Q4 2013.  Considering the installations average out above 5 kW someone must be making a killing on all the soft costs.  They really should be doing better.  The Germans are less than half than in the residential sector

http://www.californiasolarstatistics.ca.gov/reports/quarterly_cost_per_w...

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Jun 10, 2014 5:34 pm GMT

Nathan, Clayton, this exchange between you is excellent. Some quibles with your comment, Clayton. You say:

Germany had a larger program and was able to standardize more effectively so they drove soft costs down much more rapidly than we have.”

Partly true. A bigger part of the reason is – in my opinion – that the German authorities simply removed any and all prudence and good governance from their “energiewende.” Their strategy was literally to flood their own electricity system with essentially free (for the buyer) solar installations, after which they attempted to manage the fall-out in terms of integration costs as they went along. 

Clearly, by practicing this type of extreme solar laisse faire subsidy binge, unencumbered by even the slightest oversight or planning on which systems go where, how and when, is going to bring impressively low soft costs. But the hard integration costs of such extravagance cannot be wished away. And these costs are huge, in Germany. However, Germany is a rich country which decided to simply absorb these costs nomatter how big they could (and would) become.

Concerning your mention of the Chinese handling of their solar PV industry, I presume you know that billions of dollars in bad debts have accumulated in the industry. Some analysts have estimated that Chinese modules prices today would be double if all these bad loans would have been repaid. As it is, these bad loans were simply loaded onto the Chinese population. But that doesn’t mean they were never there. Solar enthousiasts simply ignore it, but US and EU authorities are not blind, which is why especially the US installed heavy import tariffs on Chinese PV imports. The US authorities were wise to parry this economic warfare. They know the difference between blatant, extraordinary levels of state-subsidy and a genuine ‘learning curve’ for solar PV manufacturing, and what the Chinese accomplished is more of the first and much less of the second.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Jun 10, 2014 7:01 pm GMT

“…baffling that in California … paying $5.48/watt as of Q4 2013 … Germans are less than half…”
That amazes me too. I always thought that USA was a country with high efficiency levels.

Is it because the big utilities manage politics in USA, so they create artificial hurdles, etc?
The grid is a natural monopoly.
So why is the grid not separated off and brought in the hands of a 100% state owned and controlled company, just like in NL? So then new utilities can start (only have to ask connection to the neutral grid operator) and real competition emerges (price, type of generation, etc).

Here we get one electricity bill with specifications from the utility (free choice, e.g. one that deliver only nuclear electricity, etc) and from the grid (monopoly).
Such structure prevents also that utilities try to charge artificial high costs to connect rooftop solar, etc. It also gives me choice as rooftop solar owner from/to who to buy/well my electricity.

Why such outmoded monopoly structures in USA?

Clayton Handleman's picture
Clayton Handleman on Jun 10, 2014 8:57 pm GMT

Joris,

I agree with much of what you are saying.  My comment was pointing out the results of the German program in terms of installation costs.  I have always felt that Germany and Spain were too agressive with their programs and could have achieved a lot of their results at much lower cost.  Also, the cold turkey elimination of Nuclear power made no sense to me.  If the people wanted that then an orderly phase out should have been planned. 

I am kind of time crunched so can’t offer all of the comments I would like.  But I will offer a couple more.

The US solar resource is considerably better than that of Germany.  So the fact that the German grid is functioning at all with the very high penetration is very promising in its implications for the near and mid term build-out of US solar.  This is particularly true in the Southwest where high irradiance combined with limited cloud cover offer capacity factors in the 25% range and high predictability in terms of generation availability.

Your comment about China is interesting.  They have a different system, more of government based investment.  In other words, the government plays the role of VC and the population has to absorb the risk whether they want to or not (BTW, the US used to do a good bit of this as well).  Here, only those who chose to invest would eat the losses in failed PV companies and indeed do.  However, SunPower offers a good case study in module cost reduction and they seem to be remaining competitive with the Chinese.  So I am encouraged and optimistic that the PV module companies will be able to profitably produce PV modules at today’s prices.

To summarize, I would have liked to see a less ugly path to where we are.  I wish the US had not left most of the heavy lifting regarding demand to Germany.  I also would have preferred to see China being less predatory so that more US and European solar companies remained in the game (though I wonder if maybe they didn’t need a kick in the behind).  But all in all, unless Germanies grid really collapses under the weight of the oversized feedin tarrif and / or China ramps its predatory approach back up, I think the world is a better place in terms of having more energy options.  I am thrilled to see grid parity looking probable for moderate penetrations (~10% capacity penetration) of PV in many areas.

 

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Jun 10, 2014 11:38 pm GMT

German Energiewende is careful monitored, with specific target setting per year for solar.

The Feed-in-Tarriff (FiT) goes down 1% per month this quarter, as the past 12months saw ~3GW new installations. At July 1, the situation is reconsidered using the new installation for the then past 12months.
If new installations are less than 2GW the FiT goes up.
If new installations are more than 3.5GW the FiT goes down with ~1.5%/month, etc.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jun 11, 2014 2:56 am GMT

I have a family friend in California who recently “went solar”, who I think might be fairly typical.  She got an unsolicited call from a third party solar ownership company.  They offered to put a solar power system on her roof, that they would own.  All she had to do was agree to buy the power, which was being offered at a rate that was lower than she was paying at the time.  She said yes without shopping around.

So, yes, I think the installers are making a killing.  The retail power cost there is very high, particularly for heavy users (they have a tiered system with costs up to 39¢/kWh, I think).  So they can save people money (at the expense of other rate payers) without offering agressive pricing.

My understanding is that their high prevailing power costs is because of locked-in costs from past “regulatory experiments”, which enriched energy trading companies like Enron at the expense of ratepayers and investers in regulated utilities. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jun 11, 2014 3:46 am GMT

Bas, real competition will emerge when the U.S. Investment Tax Credit expires in 2017, solar costs 30% more than it does now, and ratepayers run from it like the plague.

Which are better, artificially low or high electricity prices? And is there a monopoly larger than the government  in the Netherlands?

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Jun 11, 2014 8:16 am GMT

Bob, thanks.
Yes, NL government has no competition in NL.
The law assigned the state owned grid monopoly (Tenant) to deliver grid services for the lowest possible cost, so cost-price based without a profit target.

But the board memebers made Tenant an international company by buying major part of the German grid. Because running an international company implies far more salary.
And then they started making losses with the German part of the grid (German bundesamt decides about grid tariffs). Losses that we, Dutch citizens, have to compensate…

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Jun 11, 2014 10:45 am GMT

Thanks for your comment, given your time constraint. I still have some issues. You write:

So the fact that the German grid is functioning at all with the very high penetration is very promising in its implications for the near and mid term build-out of US solar.”

I talked about the German grid and the atomausstieg with an energy expert from the EU Commission during the course of work in an EU sponsored energy research project I am involved in. In private (not inside the working group), he answered my question about what he thought about the German atomausstieg/energiewende by saying something like the following.

“I believe that the German energiewende as it continues on its current course will cause an unprecented blackout across central and Northern Europe at some point within 5 years, and that this event will be so severe that mobile internet will fail for consumers across the region as backup power runs out within hours. I believe that such an event is the only thing that will bring reality to the German Energiewende and potentially reverse the atomausstieg.”

So much for the succes of the German energiewende. Much like a man falling from a high rise building, all seems just dandy until he hits the ground. Sigmar Gabriel has recently stated flat-out (German language, use a translater if need be) that the Energiewende is on the verge of failure.

You also say: “So I am encouraged and optimistic that the PV module companies will be able to profitably produce PV modules at today’s prices.”

I agree with you. At todays prices. Which prices are affordable only under heavy subsidies which typically include paying no energy taxes for consuming solar electricity and paying nothing for the right to ‘store’ solar electricity ‘on the grid’ for use during periods with no sun.

Finally, you write:

But all in all, unless Germanies grid really collapses under the weight of the oversized feedin tarrif and / or China ramps its predatory approach back up, I think the world is a better place in terms of having more energy options.  I am thrilled to see grid parity looking probable for moderate penetrations (~10% capacity penetration) of PV in many areas.”

Of course you realise that a penetration of 10% is not moderate at all. In Germany, such a penetration can only be reached by installing solar capacity equal to peak power demand, which means that solar power will cut into baseload generation every time the sun comes out, causing technical and financial mayhem for those generators. Should we really be thrilled about this? Cutting into baseload generation like that will increase the cost of nuclear and of carbon capture and storage as well (because CCS requires large capacity factors to minimise the added costs). And for what? So 10% of our electricity can be semi-clean PV electricity?

Despite our differences, I think I agree with you more than I disagree. Its just that I believe that solar will always remain a niche energy source, due to its intermittency and cost. As such, I see it as more of a risk than an opportunity. It’s a risk because the non-technical public can be (and is, in fact!) easily fooled into arriving at the utterly wrong conclusion that “we have solar energy so we can close all our nuclear power plants and we don’t need CCS”. This threat is clear and present, I believe.


 

 

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Jun 11, 2014 8:13 pm GMT

“Sigmar Gabriel has recently stated … that the Energiewende is on the verge of failure.”

He made that statement at the meeting of PV-solar installers association, as he want them to cooperate with his plan to install a new law. That law charges solar panel owners to pay the Energiewende levy (6cnt/KWh) also for the KWh’s they produce and consume themselves.

Those PV-installers have substantial political influence in Germany. They also employ ~150,000 people. 

Gabriel wants to increase the share of off-shore wind (now ~1.5%) towards 5% (already far less than his original ambition of 20%). But off-shore wind is expensive, so he needs money. But;
– Merkel promised her voters that the Energiewende levy would not rise much more (before going down in ~2023).
– at least 3 states oppose his plan as they want all those wind turbines within their own state (Gabriel should have started with negotiations with their presidents. As e.g. Sleeswijk-Holstein can delay the execution of his plan, making those even more expensive, etc.).

Gabriel did his best to succeed with his law as he needs the money for his off-shore plan.
He also needs the tax to prevent uncontrolled escalation of new solar installations when solar becomes cheaper even if the FiT is zero (which may occur in a few years).

He compromised that rooftop solar (<20KW) and all existing solar would be exempted, etc.
But the Bundestag rejected his law.
So I think his plan to raise the share of off-shore wind went more or less asleep.

His predecessor (Altmaier) was a smart politician, but a bad manager as he didn’t prevent the escalated solar installation rates (in 2011 and 2012 each ~7GW new solar while the scenario states <3.5GW). Gabriel is a good manager, but he had already several quarrels which make him ineffective in the end.

“German energiewende as it continues on its current course will cause an unprecented blackout…”
Everybody wrote the same when Merkel closed 8 NPP’s after Fukushima in 2011.
I don’t see any sign for that.
The average whole sale price is this year lower than ever (below €35/Mwh). A sign more than enough generating power is available.

” paying no energy taxes for consuming solar electricity and paying nothing for the right to ‘store’ solar electricity ‘on the grid’ for use during periods with no sun.
German rooftop households get 13cnt/Kwh for the electricity they feed into the grid, and have to pay 29cnt/KWh for all electricity they consume for the grid. That 16cnt/KWh for ‘storing’ seems to me more than enough.
Joris, regarding the Dutch situation you may have a point if it continues. I think the regulation will change in few years as our government always does.

If you think that households should pay a tax for the electricity value they create and consume themselves, than a household that saves energy by installing better isolation themselves should also be taxed for that. Same when you paint your house yourself as that implies more unemployment compensation for house painters, etc.

 

 

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Jun 13, 2014 8:41 am GMT

“German energiewende as it continues on its current course will cause an unprecented blackout…”

Everybody wrote the same when Merkel closed 8 NPP’s after Fukushima in 2011. 
I don’t see any sign for that.”

The signs are there nevertheless. While renewable energy is only a small fraction of German energy use, the problems are already increasing. It will only get worse. Up till now, the German grid has remained stable because uneconomical old (fossil) power plants were returned to service from cold shutdown.

http://www.germanenergyblog.de/?p=14903

Interventions by the transmission grid operators pursuant to Section 13 para. 1 German Energy Act (EnWG), i.e. grid switching (Netzschaltungen), redispatch and countertrade measures, increased by 43.1 % to 7,160 hours in 2012 (2011: 5,030 hours). They comprised a total volume of 2,566 GWh and occurred mostly in the grid areas of Tennet TSO GmbH and 50 Hertz Transmission GmbH. Transmission system and distribution system operators also resorted to measures in accordance with Section 13 para. 2 EnWG, i.e. curtailments and the activation of cold reserve power plants.

 

Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on Jun 14, 2014 1:24 am GMT

It’s even easier than that. It should be locally produced  and used. So if they are made in China use them there. If they are made in the USA use them in the USA. Also how efficient are they. My fvorite is Sunpower with the highest output per meter of any panel made in the world. Also best in high heat like the Sunny Phoenix area.

Jonathan Cole's picture
Jonathan Cole on Jun 14, 2014 2:53 am GMT

Where the solar panels are going is actually extremely important in a way not mentioned in the article. Start with two identical PV panels. Install one in Dusseldorf and the other one in Madrid. The warrantied life of the panel is 25 years. In that time its mode of failure is mostly due to UV energy degrading the materials of the panel. However, there is also plenty of UV even in the cloudy weather so the degradation is only a bit faster in very sunny places.

Over the course of its life the solar panel in the more southern climes with lots of clear skies is going to put out a significantly more electricity per dollar of investment. If we wanted to have a rational policy to maximize solar and reduce emissions, we would be creating much greater incentives in Spain than in Germany. But not incentives that the installers can use to fleece their customers. Rather, incentives to reduce energy use provided by solar.

This would mean tax credits based on the certifiably more efficient equipment, when coupled with a less subsidized solar energy system. This would spread the subsidy wealth to the equipment and appliance manufacturers, incentivizing them to come up with ever more efficient equipment. Since roughly 50-60% of all energy is wasted (according to Livermore Lab calculations), it is this waste that could be rapidly attacked to quickly reduce emissions.

Also, the people in the solar business do not necessarily serve their customer’s best interests. Instead they serve their own profit motive. The solar installation business in many ways is as corrupt as the oligarchy utilities. They are selling people more than they need, by using the phony sizing method that simply replaces the utility electricity with solar electricity. It is actually much nmore advantageous for the customer to get a complete evaluation that substitutes energy efficient equipment at the same time that the solar is installed. This reduces the cost of the solar energy system and and the owner’s cost of energy. The reduction in expenditures on solar when coupled with installation of new energy efficient equipment is the best deal for the owner, but not for the solar installer.

This sustainable solar/efficiency investment is the best way to reduce energy costs and emissions. So do not expect the installers to be heroes. They are just as greedy as the utility companies.

Jessie Henshaw's picture
Jessie Henshaw on Jun 14, 2014 3:19 am GMT

I’ve felt the same thing, many times, that “One of the most infuriating things about reading advice for people wanting to reduce their carbon footprint is the colossal lack of perspective some folk have when it comes to cutting emissions.”

I’m afraid as sharp as you are even you show some lack of perspective here too, is why I bring it up.    The economy is truly one big huge energy use multiplying machine, is the problem.   It’s continually doubling its need for energy, and at a rather stable “rate of coupling” to GDP growth.   The second bit of bad news is that expanding renewable energy has been growing only as fast as total energy use… and so has fossil fuel use.   So our effort of the past 40 years has not actually substituted renewable for fossil fuel use…   AND…. (what’s worse), both continuing to provide multiplying amounts of energy for powering our consumption economy.     That’s all revealed in the direct data from the IEA – Earth GDP Energy Budget

I have a number of other “perspective” problems I could point out, generally about how our solutions seem actually to be inadvertently designed to sustain our multiplying problem,… but maybe just start with the critically most important part of the earth GDP energy budget problem, that there is a very long established constant “coupling” of energy use and GDP…    The following is written in hopes that people might understand how the OECD and UNEP arrived at the magical idea that energy use growing at 60% of the rate of GDP results in declining energy use, and promises GDP decoupling from other resource use too…   A definite perspective problem there!   Decoupling Puzzle – a partial answer

 

 

Leo Klisch's picture
Leo Klisch on Jun 14, 2014 2:54 pm GMT

Given the potential of a robust and broadly interconnected grid and wind,solar,geothermal,future storage,NG or biogas,biomass,CHP both large and small, demand response ,etc. , I think demand side random fluctuations as exist today could already be larger than a more distributed power system with above mentioned generation and grid.

Yes, politics plays a large role in energy policy as it does in Climate Change. In the US at least, due to EPA regs, nuclear may have the upper hand over coal, but witch ever generation source can economically coexist with the above mentioned more distributed sources will be invested in.

Leo Klisch's picture
Leo Klisch on Jun 14, 2014 3:11 pm GMT
How much carbon dioxide is produced per kilowatthour when generating electricity with fossil fuels?

You can calculate the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) produced per kilowatthour (kWh) for specific fuels and specific types of generators by multiplying the CO2 emissions factor for the fuel (in pounds of CO2 per million Btu) by the heat rate of a generator (in Btu per kWh generated), and dividing the result by 1,000,000. 

Below are the number of pounds of CO2 produced by a steam-electric generator for different fuels using the above formula and the average heat rates for steam-electric generators in 2012 for calculating the amount of CO2 produced per kWh:

 

Fuel Lbs of CO2 per Million Btu Heat Rate (Btu per kWh)  Lbs CO2 per kWh Coal         Bituminous 205.300 10,107 2.08   Sub-bituminous 212.700 10,107 2.16   Lignite 215.400 10,107 2.18 Natural gas 117.080 10,416 1.22 Distillate Oil (No. 2) 161.386 10,416 1.68 Residual Oil (No. 6) 173.906 10,416 1.81

Last updated: April 17, 2014

“If the solar electricity they product displaces coal fired electricity it will save 30 times the extra footprint of Chinese panels, 14 fold that difference if they displaces natural gas, and nothing at all if it displaces hydro or nuclear.”

Lindsay, with CCNG at around 60% efficiency, would not natural gas be in the neighborhood of 8 fold compared to lignite coal in the above chart?
Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Jun 14, 2014 4:40 pm GMT

“The increase in coal in Germany is purely for export…”
The opposite happened. Less coal!

Even during the last 6 years in which Germany closed 8 of its 17 NPP’s:

This shows electicity production changes.

Realize that the new coal plants have ~10% better efficiency compared to the old ones (40-45% versus 30-35%). So ~25% less coal was burned to produce 1KWh electricity.
Hence CO2 emissions went substantial more down than this graph shows, thanks to the many new installed flexible coal plants that also emit far less toxic due to the low temperature burning process.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Jun 14, 2014 4:59 pm GMT

These days the sun, wind, clouds, consumption, etc are highly predictable thanks to many sensors and excellent, still improving computer programs.
So grid management can adjust the power needed days ahead already rather accurate (within few percent).

That implies that less spinning reserve and grid reserve is necessary than in a grid with 20 power plants of 1GW. Because power plants can fail within a second, and then 1GW from the spinning reserve plant has to be transported to the consumers of the failing power plant.

While the failure of some of the >100,000 small generators (small PV installations, Wind turbines) will have little effect on the grid, so little spinning reserve needed. Especially since predictions of production/consumption for a few hours in advance are accurate within ~1%, and grid management can switch off excessive electricity of wind turbines (and solar) within few seconds.

Lindsay Wilson's picture
Lindsay Wilson on Jun 14, 2014 7:28 pm GMT

The numbers I used are from the IPCC metastudy, so its the average of existing tech.  Also you are only looking at the combustion number.  Mine is for consumed electricity.  So it includes all the upstream fuel emissions plus the losses, typcially 6-8% on a decent grid.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Jun 14, 2014 9:29 pm GMT

  “Solar pv DOES NOT INHERENTLY PRODUCE ANY CARBON!”

Well, yes and no.  Not directly, for the energy it provides.  However, in practice, it does produce some CO2 for the energy it DOESN’T provide.  

Specifically, the variability in power delivery due to clouds requires that PV be backed up by dispatchable power — which currently means fossil fueled.  But to be able to quickly ramp output from a fossil fueled plant, the plant must already be operating at partial output.  At partial output, nearly all existing thermal plants are less efficient and emit more CO2 per unit of energy than they would operating at full output.  

So PV systems do “produce” carbon emissions.  What they “produce” is the difference between the nominal reduction in CO2 emissions and any actual reduction.  The nominal reduction is figured on the basis of what the fossil-fueled plant would need to deliver the energy supplied by PV, if the PV were not present.  The actual reduction is the difference in emissions between the no-PV scenario and the PV scenario, allowing for the higher specific emissions from the backing sources operating at partial capacity.

Depending on the location and the options available for backing, the actual emissions reduction from adding PV can be negative: the emissions from the fossil-fueled + PV can be higher than from the fossil-fueled system alone.  That’s not the normal case, but it’s possible. Locations subject to frequent partial cloudiness are most susceptible.

There are two potential solutions to this “indirect emissions” problem.  The first and most obvious is energy storage.  Make the dispatchable backup for irregular PV a stored enegy system that has no carbon emissions.  The issue there is the cost of the storage system.  Rather than building new and expensive energy storage capacity as an integral part of PV system deployment, it’s much more expedient for utilities to rely on dispatch of existing fossil-fueled resources.  Especially if accommodation of PV is politically driven and proponents aren’t about to call the utility on the inefficiency  They don’t want to admit that the approach is inefficient, since it would reflect negatively on PV.

The other solution is to deploy newer and more advanced fossil-fueled plants that have been designed to ramp quickly and to operate efficiently at partial loads.  Thus, the “flexible” coal-fired plants that Germany has been building.  Or the new flexible CCGT technologies that gas turbine manufacturers have developed.  The issue there is the high cost of such deployment in a shrinking overall market.  It means retiring perfectly operational plants and building new ones at a time that the service market is contracting.  That’s expensive.  Who gets stuck with the bill?  Plus, it does effectively lock in a high level of fossil-fueled generation for decades to come.

There’s actually a third solution that is far superior to either of the above.  It’s hypthetical at present because it hasn’t been tried.  But it’s “superior” in a very literal sense: it puts PV arrays 20 km overhead, floating on tethered stratospheric platforms.  No clouds, no weather, no dust to contend with, and the available solar resource, per area, would be about twice what it is at even good dirtside locations.  The delivered power would be steady and perfectly predictable.  In fact, the tethered platform allows for a very efficient form of gravity energy storage.  So not only would the stratospheric array not require backup for irregular output, its platform could economically provide the backup for other sources of variability in supply or demand.

Readers can find more about that solution here.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jun 15, 2014 2:14 am GMT

If economics are taken into account (and it is hard to imagine it won’t be), then once wind and solar provide more than about 30% of grid power, the only new energy sources that can be added to the grid are fossil fuel.  Baseload sources like geothermal won’t be competitive, and non-dispatchable sources (e.g. more wind or solar, or even customer-controlled combined heat and power) will be a bad fit to the new grid.  Energy storage will require multiple miracles to be cost effective.  Even biomass and waste-to-energy plants have high capital cost, and therefore are not suited to operation at low capacity factor.

Wind and solar will drive us to fossil fuel lock-in.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Jun 15, 2014 9:26 am GMT

German scenario studies show that until 80% renewable, the extra costs due to integration, storage, etc. are futile. So the German Energiewende targets 80% for now*)

That implies that there is no economic issue until the share of wind+solar is 65% (Germany has little dispatchable renewable, such as hydro, etc). The system costs (integration & storage) are estimated to be <$10/MWh.

*)
Discussions rage under German scientists that the 2050 target can be enhanced to 90% or 95% without much extra system costs.  But no clear detailed scenario (incl. costs) yet.
So last autumn Merkel agreed to enhance the target for the share of renewable from 50% to 55%-60% in 2030, but refused to enhance subsequent targets for 2040 and 2050.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Jun 15, 2014 9:43 pm GMT

The difference between ‘nominal’ reduction and ‘actual’ reduction has been studied in Germany. It showed that that difference is very small, even if PV-solar produces a substantial share (~20%) of all electricity.

Those new flexible coal-fired plants have a far better efficiency (old; 35%, new 45%) over a wide range of their capacity.
So the replacement alone implies already ~20% less CO2 emissions, and far more reduction regarding the toxic emissions (>90%) due to the low temperature burning process of the new plants.

“…retiring perfectly operational plants and building new ones at a time that the service market is contracting…”
Taking into account that the new plants:
– have >20% higher fuel efficiency;
– need significant less personnel to operate & maintain them;
– have the capability to burn also mixtures of waste, biomass, etc. which give the plants a future;of the new plants;

I estimate that the decisions of the German utilities (private companies) in 2005-2009, to start planning and building those new plants were right.
Even without renewable, the new plants deliver a better P&L situation, while also saving the environment and climate.

Leo Klisch's picture
Leo Klisch on Jun 15, 2014 9:56 pm GMT

Right, so when you say “existing tech” you also mean the average of existing generation(coal,gas,nuclear) of the regional grid your using from?

I suppose if one wanted to complicate matters a little more you could look at what the running average is over the 30 year life of the panels rather than current generation emissions.

Leo Klisch's picture
Leo Klisch on Jun 15, 2014 10:08 pm GMT

If high quality racking,electrical components,etc. are used, new panels and the labor to reinstall them should make the second life cycle cost significantly less for roof mount and even better for ground mount. And in 20 to 30 years the ratio between replacement cost and the cost of power may be much better.

Lindsay Wilson's picture
Lindsay Wilson on Jun 15, 2014 10:23 pm GMT

The grid stuff is based on national data, efficiencies vary a lot by age for all fossil fuel stuff as you can imagine.  For my generalisations in the text I’m talking about the average for coal and gas from a metastudy of lifecycle analyses.  You can always complicate matters.  These posts are generally written within a day so I can’t get into doing too much original data, I find the best I can

Lindsay Wilson's picture
Lindsay Wilson on Jun 15, 2014 10:32 pm GMT

Comparing baseload and intermittent is a problem. Perhaps less so at current penetrations but yes each is limited by its inherent intermittency.  The website Shrink That Footprint is my site.  I provide people interested in their own emissions with an unending pile of data, they can make up their own mind.  Personally I see the lack urgency surrounding climate action in the world as nothing short of remarkable.  The typos are my own sadly.  It was a speedy coversion of a different chart, hence the scaling error.  Anyone vaguely literate in the data knows is kg/kWh.  I’ve corrected the original.  All this aside I don’t think it detracts from the value of the post

Leo Klisch's picture
Leo Klisch on Jun 15, 2014 10:41 pm GMT

True, but if the EPA regs stand, and it seems that Warren Buffet thinks they will since he’s investing $30 billion in renewables over the next decade,then until 2030 utilities will be allowed a controlled amount of CO2 emissions. For good or bad it seems that the investments will be mostly in renewables and gas to control carbon emissions with the odd nuclear and/or higher efficiency or CCS coal plant with existing fossil stretched out as long as legally possible.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jun 15, 2014 11:31 pm GMT

Advanced machine automation will be required to mass produce, install, do the same with storage (possibly as same unit with panels) and recycle (old parts) similtaneously. It may not be even romotely possible yet to cover and maintain the 2% of land required to power a happy ten billion person planetary civilization…but that possiblilty is becoming more real. The only obsticals are the same people who are against nuclear (yes, go figure!).

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jun 16, 2014 12:20 am GMT

I didn’t even realize that silly people would want to place a carbon tariff… on solar panels! Thanks for the good (and obvious perspective). Hopefully, since we are sooooo concerned with the “evils” of raw material extraction (except with coal, of course) China will further advanced the solar product until it and its storage is integrated on the same unit. Only then will I truely believe in the promise of the renewables (but will also continue to shed the light about meltdown proof nuclear as inventor Alvin Weinberg pushed).

Besides, who wants expensive panels?

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jun 16, 2014 12:22 am GMT

Those little black lines which denote the amount of CO2 emitted for solar panels (and nuclear, etc) is what counts… which is hardly anything at all, nevermind any other typos.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jun 16, 2014 1:17 am GMT

Nuclear and solar does not produce any excess CO2 emissions? Actually, until all fossil fueled components are replaced, nuclear, solar and wind will incure some emission (but still much less than FF’s themselves). The EROI with nuclear is said to be about the same as wind, about 6 months, and solar PV, about 3 years. I’m not sure if the 2/3rds fossil fuels wasted to heat in the generation to electricity is considered in those EROEI estimates, but wind and solar doesn’t last as long, so nuclear (especially if the closed cycle is re-developed) would be better.

All clean energy will have undesirable issues such as China making solar with toxic materials, dams breaking, wind turbines and CSP killing birds and nuclear fission products (recycle the spent fuel already!). We just have to learn to better manage these things so they don’t kill)! Compared to FF’s these issues (even the petty nuclear ones) are trivial, just as “waste to fuels” is already so trivial as not worth mentioning…

However, I agree with the original premise, there is NO reason to “tax” solar panels! 

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Jun 16, 2014 8:29 am GMT

Wind and solar will drive us to fossil fuel lock-in.”

That they will.

Which seems to be exactly the reason why at least some fossil fuel providers are more than happy to fund advertising campaigns telling us to “Go solar!

 

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Jun 16, 2014 8:31 am GMT

What is the target amount of solar power that Germany is intending to use at night and during cloudy days?

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Jun 16, 2014 11:51 am GMT

The first step:
Since a year Germany gives an investment subsidy of 30% to small rooftop PV-solar owners that install batteries. The program is a great success.

It is expected that resulting economy-of-scale and technical progress, will deliver great pricefalls in the costs of batteries before 2020.
Similar as what happened to the costs of PV-solar.

So those batteries will become economic beneficial without any subsidy..

Geoffrey Styles's picture
Geoffrey Styles on Jun 16, 2014 8:07 pm GMT

Lindsay,

You’re certainly right that the emissions savings from solar depend on what they displace, with appropriate caveats about where the backup power to integrate them is sourced. However, they must also depend on location in another important way, in terms of the aveage insolation at the site. The easiest way to think about this is on your chart comparing lifecycle emissions from China- and European-manufactured PV, per kWh.

That calculation necessarily assumes a side-by-side comparison in a location with a set number of average peak-sun hours per year. Install them somewhere with fewer peak-sun hours, shrinking the denominator of the comparison, and the footprints of both would be higher than shown. The converse would also be true.

So installing these cells in a location with both a broad mix of grid power and poor annual insolation, like the UK or Germany, is even less effective than your second chart suggests, compared to a sunny, coal-heavy location like Australia or parts of the US southwest. 

Lindsay Wilson's picture
Lindsay Wilson on Jun 16, 2014 10:18 pm GMT

Kind of splitting hairs isn’t it.  In high insolation you’ll get 40g for Chinese panels, in low insolation maybe 80g.  That doesn’t change this displacement so much, more the efficacy of the investment.  Also it invariably integrates better in sunny places due to better load matching with AC

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Jun 16, 2014 10:43 pm GMT

  “The difference between ‘nominal’ reduction and ‘actual’ reduction has been studied in Germany. It showed that that difference is very small, <..>”

Quite right; the difference in Germany is very small, precisely because Germany was willing and able to eat the cost of those marvelous new coal-fired power plants.  That was the second of the potential solutions I mentioned above for dealing with the problem.  But it’s a very expensive solution, and it locks in a lower but still substantial carbon emissions rate for the overall system.  It makes it harder — a larger financial hurdle later on — to get to zero emissions.

If RE advocates were up-front about the cost of their version of “green energy”, I wouldn’t have (much) of a problem with it.  “This is what we propose for X megawatts of green power capacity: (1) build X megawatts of nameplate capacity of wind and solar; (2) decomission X megawatts of existing power capacity; and (3) replace it with X megawatts of fancy new fossil-fueled generating capacity, whose already high specific capital cost is approximately doubled by the fact that we’ll only be running it at half capacity most of the time.”

In developing nations that are ramping up generating capacity, step (2) isn’t needed.  But in most developed nations, the approach would roughly triple the cost of electricity.  In Germany, consumers have apparently accepted that, but it would be a hard sell elsewhere.  

If it were actually a solution for the carbon emissions problem, it might be worth it.  But it isn’t.  Since it relies on a substantial continuing level of fossil fuel resources, CO2 levels would continue to rise.  It delays the crossing point for a given level by a few years.   There are much better alternatives.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Jun 16, 2014 10:59 pm GMT

According to this report, Germany’s per-capita carbon emissions rose 1.2% in 2013 over 2012.

The report includes the following:

Commentators say lignite’s increased share of Germany’s energy mix, which rose to 25% last year, means the country will fail to meet domestic carbon reduction targets and tarnish the progress made towards low-carbon energy.”

Geoffrey Styles's picture
Geoffrey Styles on Jun 16, 2014 11:35 pm GMT

Well, since it affects not just the lifecycle emissions of the PV array, but also how many total tons of CO2 it displaces, that hardly seems like hair-splitting. The result depends on both what kind of power is displaced and how many total kWh it generates over its lifetime. The same PV array in California will generate roughly 2x the kWh as one in the UK.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Jun 17, 2014 9:08 am GMT

The German electricity market is a free market. Just like the air-lines, etc.
So private companies concluded that the interest of their share-holders was served best by replacing the base load plants, by more efficient flexible plants (old:35% new: 45% efficiency).

I think they may have done that even without renewable, as the new plants produce against substantial lower cost price. As those new plants are also better situated (at the lignite mine, so no transport costs), they even compete fully depreciated nuclear plants out of the market now!

“…It makes it harder — a larger financial hurdle later on — to get to zero emissions…”
The investment risk is a shareholders risk. The utilities that invested in those new plants hardly invested in renewable.

Agree that the major incumbent utilities in Germany contributed to their own demise with this policy. They wrongly judged that the Energiewende would become a failure.
It offers chances for new 100% renewable utilities like this one of Schönau.

Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Jun 18, 2014 10:10 am GMT

I didn’t even realize that silly people would want to place a carbon tariff… on solar panels!”

I don’t think its that silly, perhaps.

For a typical solar panel based on silicon installed in Germany, the energy produced by the panel is about 6 times the energy that is consumed to manufacture, install  and service it. Hence, if this consumed energy is generated from coal, it follows that the carbon intensity of the solar panel is on the order 1/6th of the carbon intensity of coal-based electricity. Given that coal has a carbon intensity of about 1000 grams/kWh, the carbon intensity of Chinese coal-based solar PV electricity in Germany is on the order of more than 150 grams/kWh give or take. This is a significant carbon footprint that cannot be simply ignored.

Besides carbon there are other environmental aspects such as sulphur and nitrogen-based gaseous emissions from power generation. In China, these non-carbon polutant emissions profiles of many coal power plants is absolutely horrific (although the Chinesea are working hard at implementing state-of-the-art systems to reduce these emissions). In the course of one of my consultancy projects I’ve calculated the indirect NOx emissions of typical Chinese solar panels installed in Northern Europe, and I discovered that the NOx intensity of (Chinese coal-based manufacture) solar electricity can be up to three times higher even than the NOx intensity of a natural gas or coal power plant.

That is not to say that Chinese solar PV systems are fundamentally unsustainable and a poor choice for consumers (at least, not for this particular reason), but it is simply to say that the Chinese electricity supply is currently still so poluting that it is undermining to some extent the green credentials of their Solar PV technology exports.

So yes, I believe that the indirect polution caused by the manufacture of PV panels is a real concern and needs to be transparantly dealt with if we are to make any environmental gains on the back of implementing this technology. If it means that solar panels need to become more expensive in order to pay for using clean(er) energy to manufacture and implement them, then so be it! That cost cannot be simply ignored IMO. We need a complete accounting of environmental costs and benefits. Solar PV is not exempt from this.

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