Germany breaks green energy record by generating 35% of power from renewables in first half of 2017 – The Independent, July 2017
Germany breaks a solar record – gets 85% of electricity from renewables – Clean Technica, May 2017
Germany just got almost all its power from renewable energy – Bloomberg, May 2016
I haven’t been to Germany in 20 years, and it sounds like I wouldn’t recognize it. According to a first hand report from a large, bald, German acquaintance who sometimes cycles there, the country is covered in solar panels – alongside autobahns, on all sorts of rooftops, and pretty much on anything that grinds to a halt for long enough. It’s the new moss. It’s a massive effort, and creates substantial adulation among those who believe this is what success looks like.
It also creates waves of imbecilic headlines, such as those above. Show these to the average consumer, as I tried 5 minutes ago (I just happened to have one handy), and the response is most likely to have a common thread: Wow, looks like Germany has kicked the fossil fuel habit. Good for them.
That average response used to drive me crazy, and I’d pull my hair out in frustration. Now however there’s none of that, largely because I’ve cut my hair very short, and because I now have two canned responses. The first is a simple hypothetical question, and the second is a beautiful picture that is worth a million words.
First the question: If you drink 40 gallons of water today, does that mean you can do without for the next six months because you’re adequately hydrated?
Of course that’s a ridiculous question, but it does a fine job of illustrating a point: What matters is getting the right quantity at the right time, when storage is not an option. Your pantry can store enough flour for you for a year, but your stomach can’t. This concept eludes most people, especially those that write the headlines above. We don’t need heaters on a hot day when the sun is shining. It doesn’t matter if they are solar powered; we can’t store that heat until it gets cold out. And we can’t effectively store power either.
At this point, someone will chime in about Tesla’s Australian battery project; however this is only slightly more than a showboating exercise. The huge and expensive battery pack is made to sound like a solution to a region’s energy shortages; in reality it would run out before a movie is over. South Australia’s grid sees summertime peaks of over 3,000 megawatts. Assuming these batteries are most useful at peak times, duh, the Tesla batteries would provide 1/30th of the grid’s requirement for a maximum of 80 minutes. Definitely a help, but it comes right back to the same problem Germany has – power supplies need to reliably be able to meet peak demand for sustained periods.
Because we can’t store power in any sort of quantity, we need to build power plants that can provide all the power a country needs, because there will be times when the intermittent sources – wind and solar, primarily – contribute nothing.
What really drives the point home is a picture – a picture of how much power Germany consumes, including short-term fluctuations, and how much it produces by various sources. Here is an example for a week:
And here is an example for a year:
See the cute little yellow blobs? That’s solar’s contribution.
The stupid headlines would be the last thing on editors’ minds if they actually looked at these pictures before writing them, but that’s not how the world works. A statistic like “Germany gets 85% from renewables” gets eyeballs, and for a fleeting moment that statistic was true. At a certain point, on a sunny summer day when demand was not huge, the combined output of renewable sources provided a sizeable chunk of the nation’s power.
All that tells you though is that, during those brief periods, the other (fossil fuel) sources did not have to contribute as much. So there was indeed a cost saving over those intervals as coal and natural gas plants were throttled back.
But that’s the only benefit. The non-renewable system still needs to be able to meet every watt of the country’s needs at any time, for instances when the wind and sun are not contributing. The gap between total renewable contributions at their lowest point and consumption at that time are what we need to focus on, because that is the demand for fossil fuels, and it happens every single day.
This of course does not mean that the renewable sources aren’t helpful and admirable. For the periods when they contribute substantially, short term demand (as in several hours worth) for coal or other fossil fuels is reduced substantially. There is a benefit in that, albeit a modest one.
Also, it is indisputable that renewables are the wave of the future, and when a proper electrical storage system is discovered and becomes widespread those sources will be far more useful. But for now, without a means to store the generated power, they are not.
In the meantime, those ridiculous headlines are creating enormous damage. The aforementioned average citizen who reads that crap – and most news information comes from headlines; that stream alone is enough to occupy one’s day without reading articles – is now prone to believe that a country like Germany can nearly get by on solar and wind energy.
There is a direct link between these bits of disinformation and well meaning but misinformed masses who subsequently think we are nearly off fossil fuels. It’s an easy connection, based on the garbage they are being fed: Germany is an industrial powerhouse; Germany can kick the fossil fuel habit as proved by these headlines; if they can do it that quickly then others are likely to as well. And thanks to other ridiculous headlines from well-pedigreed ‘scientists’ some may now believe that no one will be driving gasoline powered cars in 10 years. Obviously then, it’s game over for fossil fuels.
Hmm, about that…oil demand rose by an estimated 1.6 million barrels per day this year, and is expected to increase by almost the same next, to about 100 million b/d. And at the recent Dubai air show, orders for new passenger jets totalled $114 billion because of strong forecast global demand. Green is great, as long as I can fly wherever I want whenever I want.
But where’s the fun in those headlines?