In many utopian science fiction novels, the Earth solves its energy problems and clean energy is able to the power the planet at no cost to anyone. But not even the most optimistic of authors have predicted a future in which customers of energy companies are actually paid to consume energy. And yet on Sunday 8th May that’s exactly what happened to citizens in Germany. On this wonderfully sunny yet windy day the energy companies had such a surplus of energy that they paid people to take it off their hands.
Too much energy
It’s amazing to think that as the world’s supplies of fossil fuels dwindle and energy costs around the world are rising, Germany simply had too much. This unexpected turn of events happened because the day had the ultimate conditions for generating clean energy. The clear sky allowed bright sunshine to hit solar panels, while strong breezes ensured that wind and hydroelectric plants were working at full capacity.
Together these green sources of energy were supplying an amazing 54.6GW of power. Given that Germany only consumes 68.4GW of power, it shows exactly how little need there was for any other form of energy production. However, those fossil fuel plants continued functioning, so there was an enormous surplus in the system. Because of this, the cost of energy in the country reached lows of -€130 per MWh.
This made news around the world – and for good reason; it showed the unbelievable potential of renewable energy. But how did this all happen? The fact is Germany is in the midst of an energy revolution. Known as Energiewende (which translates as ‘energy transition’), the government has put a focus on improving the capacity of clean and green energy as a replacement for traditional fossil fuels. Let’s look at this revolution and how it came about.
The value of diversification
One of the most important aspects of the Germany’s energy revolution is that it wasn’t enough for them to focus simply on one source. The truth is most days are not like the 8th May – most of the time it’s either sunny or it’s windy, so if you put all of your money into wind energy, you’ll get almost no production at all when the weather is still and sunny. Instead of putting all of their eggs in one basket, Germany has diversified, but they’ve done it on a scale unlike any other country.
In 2014, Germany led the world in solar capacity with more than 38GW. When you consider that this isn’t exactly a country that’s renowned for its scorching temperatures, it’s even more impressive. In context, Germany’s capacity is more than the United States, the UK, Spain and France combined. In parts of 2014 Germany managed to supply more than 80% of its electricity purely through solar power.
Instead of just sitting on this remarkable achievement, Germany put money into other renewables too. Its wind capacity was even higher than solar, at 39GW. And the country is also a leader in biomass energy as well as hydroelectricity. It was this broad range of energy sources that allowed it have such an incredible day of production.
Joining up government policies
It wasn’t always this way. Back in the year 2000, Germany’s net generation from renewable energy sources was just 6%. By 2014 that figure had risen to 30%, and it’s still rising. But that was only achieved by the government joining up their policies are moving toward a final end goal. There are more than 370,000 people employed in the renewable energy sector in the country – most of these are thought to have been created due to the Renewable Energy Sources Act.
And the success of this Act has come because Germany’s government saw that different administrations would need to work together over the years in order to achieve the goals that it had set itself. Energiewende could not have happened if it wasn’t for the government recognising that the future was just as important as the present. Germany’s current energy targets look to 2050 and even further because the country knows that is a challenge that will span generations.
Setting difficult goals
This planning across administrations is still in effect today. In 2010, the targets for Energiewende were set out in a policy document – and those targets were even more challenging and ambitious than the stringent regulations that the EU had put in place on renewables. The German government paper set out that renewable energy should make up 35% of total electricity production by the year 2020. At the time this target felt enormous, but by 2015 Germany was already getting 33% of its total from renewables, which means it is more than on target. The next target is for 2050, which Germany is hoping to achieve 80%.
The same paper set targets for greenhouse gas emissions. The government wanted to see a reduction of 40% on the figure from 1990 by the year 2020 and by between 80 and 95% by 2050. Once again these seem unachievable but Germany has pushed on to try to ensure that they really can do it.
Is the current system flexible enough?
So far, so good for Energiewende. But it should be noted that the events of 8th May aren’t necessarily a good thing. That’s because it is clearly not sustainable to have energy companies pay their customers to use their product, as much as it would be preferable from the customer’s perspective.
It happened because older power plants like those that run on coal and nuclear power aren’t able to shut down quickly. That means that even though there was too much energy in the system; they couldn’t turn off the power and they had nowhere to store the extra power. So it simply had to be pumped out at a cheaper rate.
This is perhaps the greatest weakness in the current German system – it is simply inflexible. The next thing that Germany needs to put money into is its energy storage system so that it can account for spikes in energy generation while preparing for dry spells as well.
Written by Mike James, an independent content writer in the property industry, with input from BSW Energy