It’s important to understand that while Germany is installing and using more renewables, Germany is also seeing an increase in the use of fossil fuels. Specifically, two lignite-fired power plants went up in 2012, two more are slated for construction, two hard coal-fired power plants were constructed last year, five more are coming within the next couple of years or so, and two are awaiting approval and licensing. In fact, lignite production skyrocketed in 2012, coincidentally around the same time Germany shuttered several of its nuclear power plants. Ironically Germany is attempting to step away from nuclear power because of its perceived (but largely unfounded) danger, but coal-fired power plants emit radiation in the form of radioactive fly ash, which is also released into the environment. Not only that, the emission of radioactive fly ash delivers 100 times more radioactive waste into the environment than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy. That’s not particularly “green”, is it?
The problem with Germany’s renewables push is that industry is mostly exempt from its feed-in tariff program, which pays renewable energy producers a fixed amount of money to provide electricity under a long-term contract. This means that the cost of renewables is going directly onto the bills of households in the form of a surcharge. In 2000, the price of residential electricity was around $0.18/kWh and in 2013, the price was $0.38/kWh and will likely continue to rise. In comparison, residential electricity prices average out to about $0.13/kWh in the United States.
Consumers and policymakers in the United States should absolutely be aware of the increasing challenges of fast growth and high shares of renewables. Deployment of renewables has impacted Germany’s system quite a bit; renewables are the reason for grid variability and strain.
The most important thing to remember is this: Large-scale deployment of renewables does not translate into a substantial displacement of thermal capacity from baseload power plants. The variability of solar and wind energy means grid operators are constantly having to intervene and restore balance back to the grid from thermal power plants to ensure that supply and demand are equal at all times. Because renewables are deficient in storage, grids can’t handle the surplus of energy and baseload power plants are forced to go offline because, for whatever reason, renewables have higher priority when it comes to distribution. Shutting a plant down only to restart it when demand rises is expensive and creates significant issues for the utilities that operate them.
Renewable sources of energy are great, but until they have meaningful storage capacities, wind and solar power will never translate into baseload power.