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February 29, 2012
By: Craig Morris

Feed-in tariffs for photovoltaics | What Lomborg gets wrong

German solar power production today. The chart cuts on in the afternoon at the time this article was published, but production remained above 6000 megawatts until around 4 PM. Source: EEX

In an article published at Slate.com, Danish political scientist Bjørn Lomborg chimes in on how Germany is allegedly abandoning solar. He may not describe the situation in Germany well, but his attempt to do so certainly proves that criticism of solar still cannot do without a hefty portion of legerdemain – and a few outright inaccurate statements.


We have heard it all before. Back in March, 2010, leftist British journalist George Monbiot mistakenly claimed that Germany had decided that photovoltaics is "a waste of money" and had started "to abandon their monumental mistake." Less than two years and some 15 gigawatts of newly installed capacity later, Germany does indeed face a challenge that few other countries will reach anytime soon: its PV capacity is approaching peak power demand in the summer, as I explained last month with reference to a quite misleading article in German news weekly Der Spiegel.


Now, Danish political scientist Bjørn Lomborg has rehashed some of those arguments, which repetition has not improved. He writes that the German government is "vowing… to phase out support over the next five years” and asks, "What went wrong?" Nowhere does he explain that Germany's PV capacity of around 25 gigawatts and growing is approaching half of peak summer demand.


Instead, we read that "even members of Chancellor Angela Merkel's staff are now describing the policy as a massive money pit." The word "even" makes no sense there; Merkel's government and party has never been the driving force behind the country's feed-in tariffs. Furthermore, it is not hard to find politicians in Merkel's government and party who continue to support feed-in tariffs, including for solar, even today; Environmental Minister Röttgen comes to mind. To suggest, as Lomborg does, that there is a consensus to throw out support for solar among Merkel's staff is wrong.


Lomborg then claims that Germany's PV arrays "can generate no electricity at all… on short, overcast winter days." Actually, anyone can look up how much solar power is being produced each day in Germany on the EEX power exchange's website. I had trouble finding a day when PV produced "no electricity at all." On December 20 (one of the shortest days of the year) more than 800 megawatts of PV was produced for four hours, and production peaked at around 1,500 megawatts shortly before noon – at a time of peak consumption. At that level, Germany's installed solar capacity had the output of a nuclear plant right at a time of day when power consumption was increasing. All of that solar power helped stabilize the grid.


Today, February 22, more than six gigawatts – the output of around five large nuclear plants – of solar power was generated for seven hours, and production peaked at above 10 gigawatts for four of those hours (see chart). Lomborg cites some German physicists claiming that "solar energy cannot replace any additional power plants," but don't tell the French, who only managed to avoid a blackout during the recent cold spell because they massively imported power from Germany. 


German solar power production today. The chart cuts on in the afternoon at the time this article was published, but production remained above 6000 megawatts until around 4 PM. Source: EEX 


Unfortunately, Lomborg does not mention France's dependence on German power, claiming instead that Germany has needed power from Eastern Europe. But as Renewables International pointed out in early January, the Germans are only doing so because reserve power from Eastern Europe is less expensive than reserve power within the country, not because Germany has banked on renewables and can no longer generate enough power itself.


You see, no one (aside from critics of renewables, apparently) claims that any particular source of renewable energy is going to do the job alone. We need a mixture of renewable power sources just as we have always had a mixture of conventional sources – with the exception of France, which has put some 75% of its eggs in the nuclear basket, at least when we are talking about electricity. 


Lomborg himself conflates electricity and energy when he writes that solar power only makes up "around 0.3 percent of Germany's total energy." In fact, solar power now makes up three percent of Germany's total electricity supply, which in turn makes up around 20 percent of German energy supply – putting the figure closer to 0.6 percent. However he reached his erroneous estimate, Lomborg downplays the success of solar by talking about energy instead of electricity (solar produces exclusively the latter, but for the record, Germany now gets more of its "energy" from renewables than from nuclear.)


Lomborg’s assumption that "increased research and development" would have made solar more competitive than deployment (the approach Germany took) is surprising because Lomborg should know better as a political scientist. Solar has long been cheaper in Germany than in sunny parts of the US, for instance, and it's all because feed-in tariffs have brought down the price not only for high tech (solar cells), but also for low tech (installation systems). And the price pressure from China is only possible because Chinese firms can now purchase turnkey PV production lines from countries like Switzerland, the US, and – of course – Germany.


Then, Lomborg reiterates the hackneyed charge that solar is an expensive way of reducing carbon emissions, but Germany is a bad target for him to go after. First, Germany reduced its carbon emissions more than any other industrialized country by far, so anyone concerned about carbon emissions should be praising Germany. Second, Germany is not only a leader in solar, but also in all of the other ways that Lomborg wants to pursue in lowering carbon emissions; for instance, it has entire neighborhoods with homes so well designed and insulated that they can do without heating systems (Passive Houses), and the first neighborhoods that produce more energy than they consume (Plus Energy Homes) have also gone up over the past decade. Austria is the only country keeping up with Germany in this field. Third, once Germany has insulated all of its buildings, it still needs to figure out how to generate electricity, so we come back to solar once again.


Lomborg also seems to believe that solar does no good anyway because the EU already has an Emissions Trading System, so "emissions are already capped," and German solar simply makes it "cheaper for Portugal or Greece to use coal." Is this a problem with solar or with emissions trading? 


Finally, Lomborg states that German feed-in tariffs have "subsidized Chinese jobs." He may be right, but he fails to point out that 80 million Germans continue to out-export 320 million Americans and are even competing well with the Chinese. Germany cannot afford the kind of jingoistic protectionism that both the US and China occasionally engage in because the Germans win when free trade prevails. Sounds like the Germans get a lot of things right. And though the current government may wobble, the German public remains committed to solar – and does not mind the price tag. (Craig Morris)


Source: Renewables International The Magazine

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