Solar so good for Germany

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 November, 2011, 12:00am


Reiner Metzger thought it a smart investment two years ago when he installed a four-kilowatt-peak (kWp) solar panel - made in China - on the roof of his Berlin home.

By law, he can sell the solar electricity to German power plants at a set rate until 2029, and looks to make a small fortune in 20 years.

'These solar panels generate about 3,600 kilowatt-hours (kWh) a year under German weather conditions,' said Metzger, an editor, who paid Euro10,000 (HK$104,000) for the panel. 'And I can expect Euro28,800 profit in two decades.'

His parents can earn more than three times that figure with a bigger, 17 kWp solar panel module set atop their farmhouse. It is expected to produce Euro122,400 worth of solar power in the same period.

Small power producers like Metzger, who are guaranteed a subsidy for their efforts, have in part helped Germany make the painful transition from nuclear dependence to being a global leader in renewable energy use.

The German Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG) allows citizens to sell solar power to plants at 40 euro cents per kWh, and German households need only pay 20 euro cents per kWh to light up their homes.

With such incentives, it's no wonder that Germany leads the world in terms of solar panel and wind turbine installations, with the percentage of renewable sources (such as wind, biogas and hydroelectricity) in its energy mix rising to 20.8 per cent in the first half of this year from 18.3 per cent in 2010, according the German Association of Energy and Water Industries (BDEW).

Power generated from solar panels alone has grown 75 per cent since last year and now contributes 3.5 per cent of Germany's total energy use.

These leaps have given Chancellor Angela Merkel's government the confidence to phase out nuclear plants by 2022, a decision made two months after Japan's Fukushima disaster in March.

The plan entails a green-energy revolution that the federal government expects will account for 80 per cent of total energy consumption by 2050. Neighbouring Switzerland and Belgium also decided to end nuclear power by 2034 and 2025 respectively.

The move may delight environmentalists, but some experts warn it is not an easy change to make.

Colette Lewiner, an analyst at Paris-based consulting firm Capgemini, described Germany's decision to shut down its eight nuclear plants as 'radical and emotional', with dire consequences for the European Union.

'This decision that deprives the European network system of 8,000 megawatts [MW], impacting the European electricity grid balance, was taken with no consultation at the [EU] level,' she said in a report. 'This winter's issue: the German nuclear plants' immediate closure is threatening European electricity's security of supply.'

She noted in the firm's annual European Energy Markets Observatory report that Germany, which used to sell power to France, had begun buying electricity from its neighbour's nuclear plants at a rate of more than 2,000 MW per day after the closure of the first reactors. Last year, Germany exported 10 per cent of its power, according to the BDEW, a national lobby representing 1,800 utility firms.

To replace nuclear energy, the nation set targets for onshore wind power generation of 45,000 MW and offshore power generation of 10,000 MW by 2020, and for solar power to generate 52,000 MW within a decade, according to industry groups.

But Claudia Kemfert, head of energy, transport and environment at the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), says the country will be forced to use more fossil fuel after the shutdown of its eight oldest reactors, driving it further from its carbon emissions target of 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020.

'In Germany, 20 per cent of electricity production is coming from nuclear [energy] and that's why utilities have planned and installed new, 20-gigawatt (GW), fossil-fuelled power plants to fill the energy gap,' Kemfert told the South China Morning Post.

Experts have also warned that Germany could emit an extra 400 million tonnes of CO2 over the next decade due to the nuclear phase-out.

Even if green energy contributes 35 per cent of its total energy supply by 2035, Germany still faces hurdles. It has limited storage options for unstable wind and solar power sources and its national grid is insufficient to transport power from northern and eastern Germany to large industrial centres in the south and west.

Further, it will not be immune from nuclear disasters since it is surrounded by reactors - 58 in France, six in the Czech Republic and one planned in Poland along the German border, 275 kilometres east of Berlin.

Such problems may be music to the ears of China, which has been unwilling to follow in Germany's footsteps and give up nuclear energy. It regards the energy source as a cheap and clean technology that will help it meet decarbonation targets.

Beijing has already begun the world's most aggressive reactor-construction programme, with up to 86 GW of nuclear power planned to stream into the national grid by 2020. China operates 14 nuclear reactors with a total capacity of 10.9 GW; 27 reactors are under construction and another 27 planned to be built, according to the World Nuclear Association.

Other countries such as the United States, France and Russia have also confirmed their commitment to nuclear energy.

Zhang Guobao , former energy chief of the National Development and Reform Commission, earlier told state media that the government could not afford to abandon nuclear energy.

'[Merkel announced [Germany] would phase out nuclear power by 2022 because Germany has a powerful Green Party, which is strongly against nuclear power,' Zhang told the 21st Century Business Herald.

'I don't think wind and solar power can fill the energy gap for a world with increasing population and decreasing fossil fuels. Nuclear power is necessary and inevitable, [though] China spares no effort to boost renewable energy,' Zhang said.

He told China Economic Weekly that although China led the world with its heavy investment in green energy, renewables would be unable to meet the huge demand of a country with 1.3 billion people.

Gu Zhongmao , a veteran energy expert from the China Institute of Atomic Energy, said that, as a fast-developing country, China found it nearly impossible to meet rising energy demand with only fossil fuels and renewable energy.

'Nuclear energy has a much more stable and bigger energy output than wind and solar energy. Generally, reactors produce four times more electricity than wind turbines under the same installed capacity,' Gu said.

But Sylvia Kotting-Uhl, a spokeswoman on nuclear policy for Germany's Green Party, said countries that would not commit to going nuclear-free were being irresponsible to future generations.

Nuclear power production is like flying a plane with nowhere to land, she says, pointing out the burden of dealing with nuclear waste, which takes several decades to cool down after a plant's closure.

'Radioactive waste has to be prevented from penetrating the biosphere for hundreds of thousands of years,' she said. 'So far, no country in the world can find a permanent disposal site for radioactive waste that can resist natural disasters and geological change for one million years. It exceeds the bounds of human imagination.'

Under its phase-out plan, Germany will finally have to deal with about 29,000 cubic metres of highly active waste and another 290,000 cubic metres of low- and medium-grade waste.

Kotting-Uhl said nuclear power was not as cheap as its supporters claimed, particularly when considering the high costs for radioactive waste disposal, meltdown risks, surveillance and harm to humans and the environment - costs only included in the public's power bills after tragedies occur.

But Gu, the Chinese energy expert, argues radioactive waste disposal and the purchase of raw materials like uranium comprise only 20 per cent of production costs, with 60 per cent spent on building reactors.

'The disposal of radioactive waste isn't too expensive, although China doesn't have any experience in terms of dealing with large amounts of radioactive waste yet,' Gu said. (China's first underground nuclear waste repository is expected to be completed by 2050.) 'Deep geological disposal has been internationally considered as a reliable method to isolate radioactive waste for more than 100,000 years.'

However, Professor He Zuoxiu , China's leading theoretical physicist, who helped develop its first nuclear bomb, has stated publicly that China is building too many reactors too fast.

'Are we really ready for this kind of giddy speed [of nuclear power development]? I think not. We're seriously underprepared, especially on the safety front,' the professor, a fellow of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, wrote in Science Times early this year.

Though its nuclear policies have raised eyebrows, China is in fact thirsty for all kinds of energy - including renewables - to meet energy demand that grows about 9 per cent a year. Beijing plans to invest 5 trillion yuan (HK$5.3 trillion) in the coming decade to boost renewable energy and has vowed to push the country's wind energy output to 150 GW and solar energy output to 50 GW by 2020.

Such steps bode well for Germany, which Kotting-Uhl of the Green Party hopes can set an example with its phase-out plan. 'Germany is now working to prove that people can still have a high standard of living and meet the emission target of climate change without nuclear plants,' she said. 'The rest of the world will look at Germany to see whether it'll work. We need one country to start and others will be encouraged.'