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Feb 21, 2012

The end of baseload? It may come sooner than you think

One of the principal architects of Germany’s push into renewable energy technologies believes the country could achieve 100% renewables by 2030, writes Giles Parkinson of RenewEconomy.

One of the principal architects of Germany’s push into renewable energy technologies, Hans-Josef Fell, believes that the country could achieve 100% renewables in its electricity sector by 2030 — and may do it quicker. The rest of the world could follow soon after.

Fell, a Greens politician and architect of the the feed-in-tariffs that have helped the country already produce 20% of its energy from wind, solar, biomass and geothermal sources, and pushed it to the forefront of clean energy technologies, says the growth of renewables will continue at an exponential rate. This is partly because of the growing cost of conventional fossil fuels, and partly because of their inability (apart from gas) to balance the intermittent nature of renewable energy generation.

In an interview with RenewEconomy, Fell says a 100% renewables electricity grid in Germany may be 40-50% wind, 30-40% solar, with the rest coming from other sources. Balancing this generation, however, would be the key challenge.

“This is not possible with baseload, because you cannot switch them on and off very fast,” he said. “It was possible with gas-fired power stations, but peaking gas stations these were also emissions-intensive, and European countries such as Germany had to depend on gas imports from Russia. He said new smart grid technologies and storage, where costs would also rapidly decline, would provide the answer.

Fell is effectively echoing the scenarios painted by Australian researchers David Mills, and from Mark Diesendorf and Ben Elliston at UNSW — along with preliminary work by the IEA, which suggests the concept of baseload and peaking power — the current model for electricity grids worldwide — will be replaced by a system of flexible and inflexible energy sources.

The ability to provide dispatchable, cost-competitive energy, will largely decide the fate of the 100% renewable goal, and of gas. Fell says there is clearly resistance from the conventional electricity energy, which sees its business model at risk, and which he says is fighting with “lies and misinformation.”

The cost appears horrendous. Fell puts it at $US100 trillion over 20 years, if the world was to transform to an entirely 100% grid by 2030. It’s an academic number — based around work done by Stanford and Davis universities in the US, but he says the world would be paying double that if it continued with conventional fuel sources. And he says while feed in tariffs might cause higher energy costs initially, these are quickly absorbed by the “merit order effect”, and will deliver further benefit as the cost curves of falling renewable energy sources and rising conventional sources intersect, as they have already done with onshore wind and coal and gas in Europe.

Here are some edited highlights of the interview with Fell.

Q: How has the renewable energy debate evolved in Germany?

A: In Germany it began at local level, and after successful introductions in villages and towns it came to the national level with the introduction of the Renewable Energy Act into Parliament in 2000. I wrote the draft for that act, which was introduced by the Social Democrats and the Greens. We set a target for renewable to double shares from 6% to 12% by 2010. We were told this target was unrealistic and unachievable. But in 2011, we have already 20%. The feed-in-tariff has driven high investment and so much innovation — in wind power and biogas and solar PV, that costs have dropped down very fast and solar PV is now as cheap as grid electricity.

Q: But there has been a lot of criticism about the FiT and its costs.

A: This comes from the conventional energy producers because they fear for their business models, and they make a lot of misinformation. In reality, in Germany the wholesale price of electricity is going down. When we have a lot of wind and sun, we can close down the most expensive electricity generation, and we get a price which is cheaper than without renewables. Now, new investment in wind power is cheaper than new coal-fired power station, and it will continue to fall. With oil and gas and coal and uranium, the prices will rise and rise and rise.

Q: So you say that the business model of the conventional producer is under threat?

A: There is a fight in Germany between the old economy with nuclear and coal-fired power stations, because they fear for their business, so they fight very hard. We had the discussion in Germany that when you phase out nuclear, then our need for cheap energy means we will have to buy cheap nuclear power from France and the Czech Republic. The reality is otherwise. We have had a big cold winter, and France did not have enough from nuclear, so they bought electricity from Germany. We have so much that we can export it to France and help them in a cold winter so they don’t get a blackout.

And we are not at the end of the innovation process. Look at the semiconductor and information technology industries, where prices have been dropping down very very fast in the past 20 years, like laptops, mobile phones, etc. PV is like semiconductors, the PV price will go down very fast in coming years. Solar will become the cheapest energy that we can have in the world.

Q: So how quickly do you think we can we move to 100% renewables?

A: In Germany, we could achieve 100% renewable by 2030 at existing rates. We have now 20% in 2010. In 2020 with increasing rates — and these are exponential, we could have 50%, and in 2030 we could have 100%. It is possible but it must be supported by a good political framework, with reduced FiT tariffs, privileged grid access, and other regulatory changes.Q: What does a 100% grid look like?

A: We can organise it in different ways, but we need all sources. Perhaps it could be 30-40% solar, 40-50% from wind. Then comes the task to balance high fluctuations from wind and solar as the weather changes. This balancing is not possible with baseload, because you cannot switch them on and off very fast. Gas power stations can switch on and off very fast — but natural gas brings emissions in carbon, and we are dependent on Russian natural gas. We have to learn how to do without it. We should switch to biogas and green gas — perhaps we can use wind power, when we have too much, to make hydrogen and use that to produce electricity.

Q: So you are saying that the current model of baseload and peaking power will be replaced by flexible and inflexible energy sources.

A: Yes, and we can also call it a smart grid system. Balance with other energy sources and a lot of storage in hydro pumps, and batteries and other energy. It is beginning now, we are learning with the grid operation, we need to do it in such a way that it can be done in time and in a way that frequency and voltage is stable. That very important, but new technology, such as inverters for PV, can bring this about. Balancing is critical, otherwise won’t see enough investment.

Q: How quickly can world follow?

A: The world can follow in same period, if they want to. At Stanford University, they pointed out that information technology — via mobile phones and laptops — did not take 100 years or 50 years. Professor Mark Jacobsen (the Stanford engineer) said the world can achieve 100% renewable by 2030. It is possible on technology, and it is also cheaper to go to 100% renewables than to go on with conventional. He estimated it would cost $100 trillion over 20 years. That seems a lot, but it is only half of the estimated conventional fuel bill over the same time, which on 2008 prices is $200 trillion.

Q: Does this message get through to politicians?

A: There is a lot of criticism from old companies, nuclear, natural gas, coal and uranium. They fear of their business, and this fear is right. With 100% renewables, there is no baseload energy business. And they fight very strongly with misinformation and lies, and a lot of the media brings this argument. But on the other side, people in Germany see the reality — they see the benefits in new jobs, which in Germany has gone from 30,000 in 1998 to 370,000 today — and they see they can reduce their own energy bill with solar energy at home and biofuels in the car. In Germany, 80% of people support the switch to renewables, even in the short term it means a higher price.

Q: Will it be only in the short term?

A: Yes, in the short term it is little bit higher — but we have already achieved reduced prices on the electricity market. Last year, the cost of the Renewable Electricity Act was €12 billion. At the same time, we avoided €11 billion by not buying oil, gas, coal and uranium. And savings from other costs, such as waste management, took the total savings to €17 billion

Q: What is your assessment of policies in Australia?

A: You have wonderful research for renewables in Australia, at ANU, Sydney University and elsewhere. Research is very important but without market introduction it is not so useful, and you do not have enough deployment. You need a good feed-in-tariff. But you do have a carbon price, which balances a bit the high external cost of fossil fuel production, so it balances a little the uncompetitiveness of renewables.

The main thing is that Australia is the biggest exporter of uranium and coal — most investors believe that when uranium and coal prices rise, it is good for their business, because they have a bigger income. But I believe that this is not stable in future. It happens already in Germany, the higher the coal price is rising, the more coal-fired power stations they close, because they are uncompetitive with renewables. The higher they go, the less coal other countries will buy from Australia. I see most new investment in coal is a stranded investment.

Q: That message is not getting across.

A: That’s because they believe it will go on., but it will not go on. The oil price will be the leading price for all energies. Peak oil is already here, the IEA says it is. In coming years we must fear declining oil production. This will lift price very high, and that will increase pressure on people, banks and nations. The only chance to come out of this economic crash is to go renewables.

Q: Some would say those are the words of an ideologue.

A: I often hear this argument, you are Green politician, you have no sense of the economy, you are unrealistic, a dreamer, and so on. I hear this all my life. I see now all my forecasts have become reality, and for renewables they will go much faster because the price will drop down very fast.

Q: You said that 100% renewables in Germany is possible by 2030. How quickly will it occur in reality?

A: I personally believe it will come sooner, because of the problems of the conventional energy sector. We will see in the middle of this decade, oil price is about $200 a barrel. This will lead to much more investment in renewables.

Q: What about CCS?

A: CCS? No chance on an economic level. You must understand that new investment in coal power production without CCS is already not competitive with wind power in Europe. To have CCS you need one third more coal. How should it be competitive with renewables? There is no chance. We see it in Europe at the moment, all projects are cancelled.

Q: You are forecasting then a massive amount of stranded assets. That will be difficult to manage, politically and economically.

A: It is difficult to manage because most politicians and managers are going with with the old thinking of conventional energies. This will lead to stranded investment and possibly economic crisis, and not only in energy system. The IEA highlighted in its report that subsidies for renewables were $52 billion and fossil fuels more than $400 billion, and this is growing because of rising oil prices.

Governments want to give energy consumers a stable low but this costs them more as fossil fuel prices rise, and ruins their budgets. We have seen what happens in Greence, and now Italy. Energy costs play a bigger role that is often assumed. Rising oil prices are also leading to rising food prices, and to the transport sector.

Q: Are you optimistic about how all this pans out.

A: Yes, I am optimistic about the increasing rate of renewables and decreasing fossil fuels. I’m pessimistic if this comes fast for problems of climate change. It can happen quick enough when we can organise the political framework, when new actors can promote this. I think these new actors will come from the finance industry. I see hopeful movement there. A lot of them see now that investment in renewables is most secure investment — they want high profit and secure investments. When they want to organise a strategy to have private money go to climate protection rather than climate polluting, then we have a chance in the world. The finance industry will go to the politicians and demand a feed-in-tariff, and it will come.

*This article was first published at RenewEconomy

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71 thoughts on “The end of baseload? It may come sooner than you think

  1. Geoff Russell

    Have a look at:
    http://www.sma.de/en/news-information/pv-electricity-produced-in-germany.html

    pick a day. I chose 17th February, a few days ago. Peak PV output was 3.3GW, and
    at 4.30pm it was just 1.4GW. This is just 6 percent of the 24 GW of installed PV in
    Germany. You can’t balance energy which isn’t there. Nor can you store it.

    Now look at IEA data up to 2009:

    http://www.iea.org/stats/pdf_graphs/DEELEC.pdf

    Half of the renewable output is hydro and biofuels and waste … which have little potential
    to grow. Look at the graph. Does it look like exponential solar/wind growth? Back when I
    did mathematics exponential growth looked rather different. The mild winter accounts for
    most of the fall in 2009.

    So Giles, did you ask Fell a single hard question?

  2. Mark Duffett

    We have had a big cold winter, and France did not have enough from nuclear, so they bought electricity from Germany. We have so much that we can export it to France and help them in a cold winter so they don’t get a blackout.

    The imputation that renewable Germany bailed out nuclear France is highly misleading to say the least. Germany having enough electricity to export to France during the recent cold snap had nothing to do with solar and wind, but everything to do with Germany’s much greater reliance on gas (mainly Russian) for direct heating (reuters.com/article/2012/02/06/france-britain-imports-idUSL5E8D62B620120206), as opposed to near-universal use of electric appliances for space heating in France.

    Moreover, the French demand peak during the instance being referred to occurred at 7 pm (connexionfrance.com/France-freeze-ice-Sochaux-hydro-wind-power-13438-view-article.html), so the contribution of German solar to meeting that was zero. In all probability, over 90% of the German electricity exported to France during this exceptional event was generated by fossil, still-operating nuclear and hydro. I say ‘exceptional’ because, again contrary to what has been implied, the flow of electricity between Germany and France is overwhelmingly in the other direction since the former began their nuclear powerdown.

    How the whole situation can be construed as a win for renewables is beyond me.

    If Fell has been so misleading on this score, what are we to make of his other assertions?

    “PV is like semiconductors, the PV price will go down very fast in coming years.” – what is the basis for this? Stuff grounded in physical reality, not extrapolated curves.

    “…increasing rates – and these are exponential…” – evidence? On the contrary, it’s the grid management difficulties that start to increase exponentially once you try to get unreliable renewables penetration above 20-30% on a long-term basis. See how Danish non-hydro renewables’ contribution is flattening out around this level.

    “new technology, such as inverters for PV, can bring this (100% renewables, no baseload) about” – evidence?

    All up, it’s a hell of a lot of wishful thinking to be betting the climate on.

  3. Blaggers

    Bring it on!

    This is what i want my tax dollars to heavily subsidise.

  4. 2dogs

    And waiting to Crikey City Superheros with vastly superior “knowledge” to poo poo this idea in 5. 4. 3. 2.

  5. Whistleblower

    This is all hype and little substance. Any serious analysis of this type would be underpinned by quanitative analysis indicating the source of baseload power, the technical requirements to provide baseload power in periods of low solar and wind activity, and the cost per kilowatt hour of electricity in 2030 to meet all of the country’s needs.

    Personally I’m not opposed to renewable energy, I think it is probably the only way that humanity will survive in the long run. However proselytising without evidence is merely pandering to prejudice, rather than dealing with the facts.

    Current and foreseeable storage technology cannot meet baseload power requirements of a modern economy no matter what the green lunatics are claiming.

    By all means have pious pie in the sky targets, but please underpin them with solid quantitative analysis. There is no doubt that the cost of solar arrays is falling, but it should also be noted that they have a 20 year life cycle and require replacement, losing 1.5% of output each year. Wind power is transient, and each cycle of energy storage and re-release causes a significant power loss.

    If as forecast fossil fuel costs for oil, gas and coal will increase significantly, renewables will become more economic by comparison. However what is not sufficiently recognised is that with a significant increase in the cost per kilowatt hour of energy, living standards must fall to the extent to which efficiency cannot offset the cost increase. Furthermore our societies are critically dependent on 24/7 energy availability, and unless base load power can be guaranteed our whole economic system will fail.

    Ongoing reliance on transitory forms of energy will involve a significant degree of risk currently effectively managed in our power systems using renewable energy, and contingencies to address this issue will need to be more carefully analysed than has been addressed in this articles.

  6. Roger Clifton

    So the proposition is to balance the intermittent supply from renewables with storage to create 100% renewables electricity. Considering that in the German winter, there can be many cold, still, grey days in a row, this “storage” has to be able to provide something of the order of 200 GW for several days without being topped up.

    If that energy was stored in familiar lead-acid batteries, which can hold about 1 kWh, about 20 billion of them would be needed, so clearly this politician is promising German voters the coming of a completely new technology. It would be revolutionary. If Germany can produce such a technology at reasonable cost, renewables would become practical all over the world and we all could resume the march towards a zero-carbon future. But whenever will that come to pass ?

    Until then, it would be foolish to permanently disable their nukes. Astute politicians would promise the fearful an eventual shutdown, but would delay the event until the day that adequate zero-carbon technology becomes available at similar cost. Perhaps that is exactly what he is doing.

  7. Mark Duffett

    So, 2dogs, you’d prefer discussions on the most critical issue facing our civilisation to be based on something other than “knowledge” (vastly superior or otherwise)?

    Rather than poo-pooing the predictability of the put-downs, a more constructive question might be why they’re becoming predictable. I’d suggest it’s because the same crap keeps getting put up – and the concerns raised in response are never adequately addressed.

  8. Microseris

    Of course we will go 100% renewable its just a matter of when. May be longer than we think and this article suggests, but it will happen.

    In the movie 1987 Wall Street, Gordon Gecko had a new fangled $4,000 mobile phone the size of a brick that had to be recharged every 30 mins. I remember my first car phone in the early 90’s. Who could forsee the technology developments over the past 25 odd years.

    The dig it up and burn it crowd are dreaming if they think we are currently at the high point of scientific endeavour.

  9. Mark Duffett

    @Microseris yes, Moore’s Law yada yada yada. So you’d know the old saw that if cars had developed like computers, we’d all be driving things that cost $10, got from 0-100 km/h in three seconds and went 5000 km to the litre. A lot of proponents assume that renewables will develop like computers. But what if they’re more like cars? I’d argue they are.

    Sure, breakthroughs are possible. But again, do we want to be betting the climate and a good deal else on that?

  10. Brian Williams

    In the early 1980s I lived in Stuttgart while studying at the Vaihingen campus of the University, and I can confirm Roger Clinton’s assessment of the ‘still, grey days’. The locals were very friendly though, so we did manage to stay warm at night.

    The idea that any part of Germany could fully contribute to a ‘green’ replacement of current base load at that time of year is laughable, and could only be proposed by a climate change zealot who also believes that hell will soon freeze over (as indeed it would, if it were to rely on wind/solar power to keep the temperature up for all the resident sinners)

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