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Coal rescues Germany from its renewable energy folly

Institute for Energy Research

Germany had to turn to coal this past winter when freezing temperatures made its solar and wind units inoperable and it plans to import from neighboring countries to back-up its renewable electricity in the future.

Germany’s millions of solar panels are blanketed in snow and ice and its 30,000 wind turbines are doing nothing as the freezing weather has no wind resource to keep the turbines operating. Instead, the solar and wind units are drawing power from the grid powered mainly by coal to keep their internal workings from freezing up. Despite Germany being the poster child of Europe’s renewable future, the country’s Energiewende—transition to wind and solar power—is not working. The Germans have found that dependable, dispatchable coal can work in any weather and is the savior during these cold months. The plan is that Germany will have to rely more on natural gas from Russia, coal power from Poland and nuclear power from France, importing power along huge cables, instead of building a huge fleet of batteries to back up its intermittent renewable power.

However, for this unreliability of wind and solar power during this year’s snowy and icy winter, German consumers paid $38 billion ($30.9 billion euros) in subsidies for its renewable energy growth in 2020, despite the financial needs of other sectors of its economy afflicted by the coronavirus pandemic. The renewable energy subsidy is paid directly by consumers in their electricity bills, helping make German residential retail power costs the highest across the European continent and 3 times higher than those of the United States. Americans need only triple their utility bills to get a sense of the burden Germany’s system places on its citizens. The U.S. economy is about 5 times the size of Germany’s, to compare relative expenditures for similar practices. The subsidy only raised renewable energy’s share of Germany’s electricity mix by 3 percentage points—from 43 percent in 2019 to 46 percent last year.

Source: Bloomberg

Over the next two years, the German government plans to take a third off the costs that consumers pay by using some of the nation’s budget to share the burden. The costs of the subsidy, known as Renewable Energy Law aid, are expected to peak in 2022-2023 before stabilizing. Germany switched to auctions to expand wind and solar capacity in 2017, abandoning the system of guaranteed feed-in tariffs for all new renewable projects to reduce the increasing expense burden.

Joe Biden needs to use caution on his plans for a 100 percent carbon free electricity sector by 2035 and his carbon free U.S. energy sector by 2050 as Germany—the first country to take on the 100 percent carbon free electricity future in Europe—is failing in its ability to keep the lights on using solely carbon free power. Solar and wind power achieve less than half of the energy carbon sources achieve, despite massive subsidies.

Europe’s Power Grid Avoids Blackout

Extremely cold weather caused power demand to surge across Western Europe on January 8 and the continent’s electricity network came close to a massive blackout. Europe’s grid, which is usually connected from Lisbon to Istanbul, split into two as the northwest and southeast regions struggled to keep the same frequency. The problem originated in Croatia due to a fault at a substation that caused overloading on other parts of Croatia’s grid. It led to the equivalent of 200,000 households losing power across Europe. Supply to industrial sites was cut in France and Italy.

Source: Bloomberg

As Europe replaces large coal and nuclear stations with thousands of smaller wind and solar units and as sectors electrify via intermittent sources due to policy edicts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the possibility of blackouts is likely to become more frequent.

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