The proportion of German electricity from ‘renewables’

Renewable is the name that has been given to technologies that convert diffuse environmental energy fluxes into forms useful in the human economy. What follows is an overview of their strengths and weaknesses, a look at the Germany’s historic production of renewable electricity, and some insights into what is needed for a society that is based 100% on renewable energy resources.

These technologies have many advantages over conventional thermal power plants that convert ‘stored sunlight’ kept in fossil fuels into electricity and heat via combustion. They:

  • Are zero emission during the usage phase of their life-cycle.
  • Do not deplete finite fossil fuel reserves during the usage phase of their life-cycle.
  • May encourage lifestyles more in harmony with the biosphere as they must be integrated over wide areas of countryside.

Renewables (diffuse environmental energy converters is a bit of a mouthful) also have some disadvantages:

  • Low power densities below those of modern living spaces (cities) (i.e. we’ll have to cover a lot of countryside in them to power current cities).
  • Non-dispatchable – they cannot be switched on and off (except hydro and some clever solar thermal systems with heat storage). I’d argue that this is more a problem with modern society’s demands, but it’s still a disadvantage for most people.
  • Currently require large inputs of finite resources (including the fossil fuels they’re trying to replace!) to design, test, manufacture, transport, install, and decommission. An energy transition will have to make each of these phases powered by renewable energy, a major (but potentially liberating) engineering challenge.

Amongst these conflicting pros and cons, one thing is clear: we will not be able to run industrial civilization, in its current form, on renewables alone. Currently the economy wastes vast amounts of energy everyday because the true costs of energy resources are not reflected in their price. People complain about high energy prices, but energy services today cost a fraction of their average price during the 20th century. Just consider how long it would take to generate 17 penny’s worth of electricity (1 kWh): 10 hours on a pedal generator! Now compare that (1 kWh is like leaving a small light all day – an event that happens all the time) with the true worth of fossil fuels: our precious fossil endowments took more than 100 million years to make.

The central message that emerges from all this: If you aim for a 100% renewable energy sector, you are better off reducing energy wastage than just building more energy harvesters.  This is well illustrated by they Germans: they have some of most advanced research centers, technologies, and policies in the world. They have pushed hard for 2 decades for renewables, yet still only a fraction of their total energy consumption comes from environmental energy fluxes. And of course, the current batch of ‘renewables’ are still based on unsustainable industrial processes: they are energy intensive and deplete non-renewable resources in their manufacture. It is not my intention to say that investment in these technologies is bad – its a crucial step towards living more in harmony with the biosphere – just that by building them we do not magically shift into harmony with the biosphere.

Here’s a graph of the growth of electricity production in Germany:

They’ve reached 17% of all electricity produced, just from the wind, sun, water and plants around them (some biomass may be imported however, a bad idea). This is impressive indeed compared with other countries. It is important to remember, however, that we’re only looking at electricity: if we assume that electricity accounts for 1/3rd of energy use in Germany, the proportion becomes onlyl 6%. And remember we’re talking about one of the most technologically advanced nations on Earth.

If the Germans had also invested heavily in energy conservation and reduced its energy demand, its share of renewable energy would be far higher. Again, the best way for organizations to support renewable energy is to first reduce their energy demand.

This post shows that in terms of moving away from fossil fuels, Germany has come a long way but have much further to go. The rest of the world is lagging considerably in terms of per capita renewable energy production, but many have the advantage of lower per capita energy consumption, which will make the shift away from fossil fuels easier. In conclusion, that the best way to reduce your dependence on fossil fuels is not to put solar panels on your roof, but to improve the efficiency of your energy uses.

Data is from here: http://www.volker-quaschning.de/datserv/ren-Strom-D/index_e.php

The spreadsheet I used to make the graph is available here:  http://ubuntuone.com/1lR0G8sM2x6uarXygfhix3

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