Thu Mar 12th, 2015 at 02:56:50 AM EST
It's an all too common story across the world: a government tries to boost its green credentials with a support scheme for renewables, but when it proves an unexpected success and established power companies see a serious market share threat, the nascent industry is choked to death one way or another. Stark examples include the ceiling for total wind power introduced in Austria and Hungary about a decade ago, or the end of the support scheme in Bulgaria just recently. Under the cover of austerity, the transition to renewables can be killed even when they already reached a high penetration, as demonstrated by the example of Spain's retroactive elimination of subsidies.
So is it possible to create a momentum for renewables that carries on even when facing opponents with the worst intentions?
One can argue that Denmark comes close: while Anders Fogh Rasmussen's government did manage to bring new wind power installations to a near-stop over a decade ago, that was only temporary as they found the two big utilities became supporters and off-shore wind took off. Now, looking at the latest numbers from Germany, I see something similar at work.
In Germany's case, one half of the story is that there have been repeated attempts to kill the boom for specific renewables with a major change to the federal support regime, only resulting in a stronger-than-expected boom for another renewable:
- A 2004 revision throttled on-shore wind but allowed photovoltaics to take off.
- A 2009 revision throttled rooftop PV but on-ground PV took off, then
- the 2012 revision had the opposite effect.
- Then in 2014 PV was choked for real, but now on-shore wind had a record year (4.75 GW added, almost 50% more than in previous record year 2002), benefiting from the new market premium support scheme (which actually costs more than a feed-in rate, but don't expect any priests of the Church of the Efficient Market to understand that).
- The wind industry already expressed fear that this boom will be killed by yet another rule change. However, should that come to pass, off-shore wind is just taking off, with several projects entering or finishing construction phase.
The second, less obvious half of the story is what's happening on the power market. In the last few years, there was an ugly pattern that saw a rise in coal power production (even if much less than hoped for by the energy giants). Power companies got approval for new coal plants with the argument that they would be needed to replace nuclear before renewables could expand. Renewables, however, didn't wait with expansion, thus the rise in total coal output led to ever higher net exports. So what's the situation now?
A week ago, AG Energiebilanzen e.V., the non-profit institute compiling energy statistics for Germany's power sector, released preliminary figures for power generation by mode in 2014 (click on the diagram under "STROMMIX" if you want to see the table with the numbers). I used the numbers back to 1990 to create two diagrams. First, the absolute numbers:
Annual electricity power generation in Germany, by generation mode
Second, percentages, from which you can also see the export/import balance (the part above 100%):
Annual electricity power generation in Germany as percentage of total consumption
- The market share gain of renewables in total remains inexorable and rapid.
- In 2014, in spite of the addition of new coal power plants, and a new record in net exports, all four fossil fuel modes (brown and anthracite coal, gas, oil) saw a decrease in total power production, and all but one (the dirtiest and most exclusively baseload: brown coal ~= lignite) even a market share reduction.
- Traditionally, anthracite coal, and to a lesser part gas, is used to provide intermediate load (the scheduled part of load-following generation, as distinct from true peak load). Intermediate load is mostly about balancing the diurnal variation of consumption. However, demand for this has been reduced severely by PV. This has some weird consequences: for example, the operators of the Irsching gas plant in Bavaria (built in 2010 only) threaten closure because they couldn't sell a single kWh on the power market and have only produced for network stabilisation, but not enough to operate at a profit. (The operator's threat is of course a way of asking for higher support.)
Before we celebrate, 2014 coal power production is still above the 2009 lows, and with Angela Merkel's and Sigmar Gabriel's Grand Coalition government, there is no danger of legislative reaction to increasing demands for a coal exit. Still, one can hope that, even as nuclear phaseout is to continue, a major expansion of off-shore wind will start to do to brown coal what PV did to anthracite coal and gas.