German system put to test

Germany’s electricity supply almost completely collapsed earlier this year due to a lack of wind and sunshine for renewable energy, and was “saved” by coal, gas and nuclear plants, according to a European scientific report.

In the second half of January, dark and cloudy periods resulted in little wind or sunshine, so that Germany was powered by conventional sources – lignite (brown coal), black coal, gas and nuclear power.

“On the morning of January 24, a nearly total collapse of the German electricity supply took place,” the report, written by a team of physicists, said.

“It could have had consequences throughout Europe and was only avoided by putting into operation all possible fossil power plants in Germany, including the oldest and dirtiest ones.”

The recent report, “Hidden consequences of intermittent electricity production”, was written by Professor Jozef Ongena (European Physical Society), the late Professor Istvan Marko (Catholic University of Louvain), Raymond Koch (Plasma Physics Laboratory, Brussels) and Anne Debeil.

The report’s observations come as Australia debates the role of renewables in its energy future, which is likely to determine whether a modern technology coal-fired power station is built in the Latrobe Valley.

The article, which focused on Germany because it is the most advanced and extensive renewables producer in the world, noted that sun and wind make up 65 per cent of Germany’s renewable sector.

Installed wind capacity is 50,000 megawatts (46,000MW onshore and 4000MW offshore) and solar 41,000MW.

However of the installed onshore wind power, only 8000MW was produced on average over the year – a capacity factor of 20 per cent (18 per cent including offshore wind). For solar, the capacity factor is about 10-11 per cent.

The report said the January energy shortfall highlighted the need for massive back-up of non-renewable power systems or storage.

In the 10 days between 16 and 25 January, the difference between the renewable energy produced and Germany’s power needs varied between 50,000MW and 60,000MW.

“German electrical storage systems could not have supplied this large amount of energy, as the total storage capacity of Germany is about 40 Gigawatt hours (mainly hydro),” the authors said.

“The missing electrical energy represents thus 300-360 times the German electrical storage capacity.”

Including also the 12 dark and windy still days in December 2016, the missing energy would increase to about 800 times existing storage.

Such long low intermittent renewable power production intervals were not an exception in Germany or Europe.

The report noted there were also intense periods of sunlight and wind when there was excess renewables production.

The power was then exported to neighbouring countries, but this would have to change when intermittent production in other European Union countries increased in the near future.

More excess production in Germany as renewables increased would lead to negative prices and additional costs to the German taxpayer.

The report said the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions using intermittent renewables in Germany was low. Initially, the demise of the old and polluting communist East Germany industry (1991-2000) led to a reduction of about 20 per cent.

Since the new energy policy (Energiewende) was introduced in 2000, the reduction in CO2 emissions was in the range of a few per cent.

During this period, the cost of renewables was “staggering”: between 250-300 billion Euros, and an estimated 600-1000 billion Euros up to 2023.

The large investments meant Germany now had the second highest household electricity prices in Europe after Denmark, a big wind producer.

The report said a similar pricing trend was visible for industry, although prices had been kept lower to keep German industry competitive.

“Nevertheless, future plans include a strong reduction of the subsidised costs to the industry. This is a threat to electricity-intensive industries in Germany,” the authors said.

Despite renewable investments, Germany remained the second biggest producer of CO2 in Europe after Poland, which relies nearly exclusively on coal.

CO2 production per kilowatt hour figures are Poland 810, Germany 503, England 496, the Netherlands 432, Belgium 253, France 92, Sweden 43 and Norway 4.

The report discusses in some technical detail various storage options: pumped hydro, compressed air, flywheels, chemical energy and electromagnetic energy batteries.

It concluded that storage required for a 100 per cent renewable system was not feasible with current technologies.

The report is available at