Green power

Published : Mar 11, 2011 00:00 IST

Germany's policies prove that renewable sources of energy are a viable option.

recently in Germany

IN September 2010, the German Federal Environment Agency announced that by 2050 the country would be in a position to meet all of its electricity requirements from renewable energy sources as opposed to the present 16 per cent.

This did not come as a surprise since Germany has always considered renewable energy sources a viable option and not gimmicky alternatives. The country has been using renewable energy technologies since 1990. And given the current status of the technology, Germany is probably the first and only major economy in the world to use renewable energy to its full potential. It has about 13 million square metres of roofs and fields covered with solar panels and more than 21,300 wind turbines.

Government policies have largely been supportive of the initiatives. In the last two decades, solar photovoltaic (PV) installations have grown by more than 15,000 per cent, installed wind capacity by more than 2,000 per cent and biomass capacity by more than 500 per cent.

Federal Minister for Education and Research Prof. Dr Annette Schavan told Frontline that Germany's success story stemmed from a larger set of economic, security and environmental policy considerations. For instance, concerns over rising import prices of oil, regulatory obligations of the European Union and a growing awareness among the electorate about the environment helped policymakers redirect their political energies towards renewables.

German law has consistently supported renewable sources of energy. The 1991 Electricity Feed Act was the first legal regularisation for renewables. Essentially, this placed an obligation on the grid operator to purchase electricity generated by renewables at a per kilowatt hour rate (what is called the feed-in tariff). This law was replaced in 2000 by the Renewable Energy Sources Act. The 2000 Act is different from the 1991 legislation in that it obliges grid operators to give priority to the purchase of energy from renewable sources. The Act also applies a user pays' principle so that those who consume more electricity pay at a higher rate.


The Act has been responsible for making Germany a world leader in the PV industry. Perhaps the greatest impetus to the industry came from Germany's commitment under the Kyoto Protocol to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 per cent between 1990 and 2020. Germany has promoted international policy action to address climate change. At the domestic level, the country has affected changes to curtail its own production of greenhouse gases. E.U. policies push member-states to increase their use of renewables. The more technologically developed ones (such as Germany) are expected to make higher use of them.

There are people in Germany who ask what will happen after the oil age. At the current rate of consumption today's oil reserves will last about 40 years. What after that? says Dr Heiner Metzner of the Institute of Solid State Physics at the Friedrich-Schiller University in Jena. Memories of the oil-based energy crises of the mid-1970s and the Green movement have given a boost to renewables. At the University of Jena research is on to improve the technology, efficiency and pricing of solar cells and to explore other materials such as cadmium teleroid to replace silicon.

Opposition to renewable sources was inevitable. The goal of integrating renewable energy into the national economy could be achieved only if the use of conventional sources was reduced. In Germany, this meant cutting down on coal extraction, and the initial resistance to renewables naturally came from the coal industry. It was only after the industry extracted its share of subsidies that a key amendment to the Renewable Energy Act was allowed to be passed in 2003. While the subsidies did benefit the coal industry workforce, it came with the disadvantage of extending the life of many mines. Matthias Seidel, the sales manager of Europe East of Roth & Rau AG, which supplies equipment to the PV industry, said it was not very competitive because it is dirty and inefficient coal that was being produced. Coal-based power plants contribute about 40 per cent of the country's greenhouse gases.

Strong opposition to renewables also came from the nuclear lobby. In the early 1980s, nuclear power dominated research and development in energy and about one-third of Germany's electricity supply came from nuclear reactors. The previous government, under Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, had committed to a complete phaseout by 2020. This was reversed completely by the new energy plan released in September last year.

Ironically, while the new energy plan is favourable to renewables it also extends the life of 17 nuclear reactors by an average of 12 years.

The present coalition government, under Chancellor Angela Merkel, insists that nuclear energy will serve as a bridge technology that will actually help Germany achieve its renewable energy goal. To soften the blow, Merkel has promised subsidies for wind, solar and biomass technologies, adding that part of the profits from nuclear stations will be routed towards building up renewables.

Annette Schavan said she saw nuclear energy as renewable, efficient and climate-friendly since it didn't emit CO {-2} but agreed that it was a huge responsibility. Nuclear energy was included in the new plan with the promise that it would help Germany achieve its target of reducing CO {-2} emissions by four-fifths by 2050. As far as the disposal of nuclear waste was concerned, the Minister said, At the moment nuclear toxic waste disposal is still a matter of dumping at a site. We are just hunting for dumping sites.

The nuclear and conventional energy lobbies also hard-sell the fact that energy from renewables is more expensive. They argue that the customer ends up paying higher prices and the government pays subsidies. For instance, critics of wind energy (which contributes the highest mega wattage among renewables) say that Germany's entire power grid will have to be rebuilt to route power from offshore wind turbines to the rest of the country. The nuclear lobby is using the price factor to denounce the renewables industry. While renewables have proved to be technologically and environmentally sound, finance remains a hurdle. It is estimated that the transition from conventional to green energy will take about 3 trillion. Conversely, what the renewables industry has in its favour is that it has provided about 300,000 jobs in the last decade.

Subsidies, which kick-started the industry, are now a millstone. Solar power has been heavily subsidised in Germany, which is why the industry has been witnessing a boom. But the new energy plan is trying to put the brakes on this industry. Those who own and operate solar panels receive a fixed tariff for every kilowatt hour of power they produce. The tariff is higher than that of conventional energy. It was meant to encourage production, but no one had foreseen the extent of the solar boom.

Enthused by guaranteed returns, thousands of homeowners and farmers installed solar panels, with the result that in the last decade the government paid between 60 and 80 billion in subsidies. This met just 1.1 per cent of the electricity requirements of the country. If the installation of solar panels continues the subsidies paid out will also increase. The government is trying to slow down solar farms in its new energy plan. The challenge before the solar energy industry then is to bring down costs.

At a high technology site in Freiberg, machines with long limbs perform break dance-like motions as they lay out solar wafers and cells by the thousands. This is SolarWorld AG, the world's largest manufacturer of solar panels with an investment of 500 million in its core business of PV technology. The plant has an annual wafer capacity of one gigawatt, proof of the huge demand for solar power.

SolarWorld aims to reduce production costs by 30 per cent every year. At present, one solar wafer costs 5 and one solar cell costs 10. Solar panels to cover an average-sized roof needs many of these, and the cost of installation is high for most people.

It is to the credit of German policymakers that the subsidies have encouraged householders to install solar panels. The glitch seems to lie in the fact that subsidies have been given to research and not to production. This is perhaps the gap that needs to be bridged.

The economics of production also seems to be opposed to the need to scale up. One of the things that prevents the price from coming down is the continuing use of silicon. Silicon is a common mineral, but as Matthias Seidel explained, it is market economics that keeps the prices high, otherwise it's possible to make a wafer for less than five euros. Roth & Rau are equipment suppliers for the PV industry. The demand for photovoltaics the world over is great. In 2001 we made machines that produced 1,600 wafers per hour. In 2010 this went up to 2,400, said Dr Bernd Rau, senior vice-president.

In Bremerhaven, which Britta Rollert, public relations manager of the Fraunhofer Institute for Wind Energy and Energy Systems Technology IWES, describes as the windy edge of Germany, there is an annual budget of 20 million set aside for research in wind technology. About two to seven million of this income is from industry, proving just how seriously businesses take wind energy. In fact, India-based Suzlon is a client of the rotor blade testing site of the institute.

Researchers such as Isabel Koprek at the Fraunhofer Institute have come to the conclusion that the future of wind energy lies offshore where the wind is 40 per cent higher than on shore. The costs are high. Increasing offshore farms can cost as much as 75 billion over the next 20 years. Offshore wind farms are possibly the most expensive in terms of construction and maintenance.

Special engineering and a completely new grid system account for enormous costs but the interest being shown in them is proved by the investment. The new energy plan has promised to invest 5 billion through low interest loans. Both, the Swedish government and the European Investment Bank have invested heavily in offshore wind farms in Germany.

But wind energy scientists have some old battles that seem unwinnable. Public antagonism to wind turbines persists. Dr Arnoldus van Wingerde, head of the competence centre for rotor blade at the Fraunhofer Institute, said, People say the turbines make a noise, that birds are killed, that there is suction from the blades, the turbines are ugly there are always objections and not always valid ones but I say look at the benefits.

Thomas Neumann of DEWI, the German wind energy institute, said the latest turbines give five times more energy than they did ten years ago. Research has also come a long way from the traditional four-bladed windmill. Three-bladed turbines have been found to give optimum performance, reaching speeds as high as 200 kilometre per hour. The three blades also reduce noise, as does the proper placement of turbines (turbulence is generated when one turbine is placed in the shadow of another).

Storage problem

One insurmountable problem in the field of energy has been storage. Wingerde said, Theoretically you can store wind energy in batteries but practically you cannot because of the number and size of batteries required. To a great extent, the problem of storing energy has been overcome by the ingenious system of using a lake as storage what is referred to as a pumped-storage plant. In Norway, when wind energy is strong, it is used to pump water to heights where it is stored in a lake. Then, when the wind drops, the water from the lake is released and hydro power is used to generate electricity.


Biomass is an energy source that is not as well known as solar or wind energy. The most important source of biomass in Germany comes from waste wood. At RWE Innogy Cogen's biomass utility in Berlin-Neuklln, waste wood is broken into chips. This combined heat-and-power plant (which is Germany's biggest cogeneration plant) delivers heat to about 50,000 inhabitants of the neighbouring region and generates 200 MW of electricity for the main grid. The plant prides itself on its climate friendly principles. The main fuel is wood chips from waste wood. So not only is waste wood being recycled but using wood as fuel is also considered being CO {-2} neutral. The chips are delivered by boat and offloaded alongside the plant so that transport costs are kept low. Not bad all this is from 250,000 tonnes of wood chips. We call it green electricity, joked Stefan Lhr, the plant manager. One offside to biomass is that it is interfering with food prices as farmers tend to cultivate wheat and corn more since they can be used for both food and fuel.

The energy form that has been most ignored is geothermal. The Schorfheide forest north-east of Berlin used to be the hunting grounds of Prussian royalty. It is now part of a biosphere reserve and in part private land. Pointing to the in situ research well in a clearing in the forest, Ernst Huenges, Director of the International Centre for Geothermal Research at Gross Schonebeck, explained: We are on a learning curve for geothermal energy. Extolling the virtues of geothermal energy, he described it as decentralised, cheap, use local energy and produce almost zero carbon emissions. It is also efficient because every 100 KW hour put into a pump gives 30 MW of geothermal heat. But despite a high coefficient of performance of 100:1000, sustainability and reliability are two questions that geothermal researchers struggle with.

The fear that geothermal exploration can trigger seismic activity was countered by Huenges who said Italy, which first used this resource 100 years ago, had not experienced seismicity-related problems. Although the project gets federal funding, Huenges said geothermal exploration faced political hurdles. You put in millions of euros to dig a well and its life could be about 30 years. Can the cost be justified? I think so but many do not, he said. German know-how is being shared with countries such as Indonesia where geothermal energy is being tapped profitably.

Indonesia has seven operational projects, one of which has been connected to the national grid since 1983. Forty more sites are being explored. Dr Nenny Saptadji of the geothermal department at the Institut Teknologi in Bandung, Indonesia, told Frontline that Indonesia had an energy potential of 28 GW. She said the added benefit of geothermal energy was the low CO {-2} emissions. India is planning a project in the sub-Himalayan region.

Renewable energy structures and equipment are visible all over Germany. Wind turbines have the most dramatic presence. They cover vast areas of land stretching into the distance in some regions. In the sea, they loom like Don Quixote's giants.

Solar panels with their ubiquitous blue reflective surfaces are almost an integral part of the architecture of homes and commercial buildings. Sometimes they are laid out over entire fields, slowly rotating like sunflowers, following the path of the sun. Apart from demonstrating the high level of acceptance renewable energy has in Germany, the structures prove that renewable sources can be a successful solution to the increasing energy demands of the world.

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