A recent article published by the New York Times and some respected German national media caught my eye. It related to the glut of energy that Germany experienced on May the 8th this year when their renewable wind energy systems contributed almost 78% of the total energy needs of the country due to high, unexpected and unseasonable winds. This led to a situation in which consumers were effectively being 'paid' to consume the excess, and it seemed to point to a real 'success story' for the sustainable energy sector.
But, it wasn't really. Just as soon as that story appeared, scientific reports and a detailed report by a financial expert pointed-out the shortcomings that sustainable energy systems have for consumers. In the first case, wind, solar and wave technologies are extremely unpredictable and erratic because that is precisely what nature is. Yes, there will be days when freak storms or natural conditions deliver the 'perfect storm' that creates excess energy, but as scientists and weather experts show, this only happens around 1.5% of the time. and when this happens, the excess energy must be disposed-of because it cannot be stored (a problem first noticed by Thomas Edison) without great cost. So power utilities try to shut other energy systems down to compensate for the excess, and reality shows that that is not possible in the short-term. So existing power sources tend to remain on-line and excess energy is simply 'dumped'. What a waste!
Another element that we often don't hear about is the fact that in Germany, consumers will be forced to pay €20 billion ($26 billion) this year for electricity from solar, wind and biogas plants — that is, for electricity with a market price of just over €3 billion. Consumers are being taxed 14% of their utility costs to develop these sustainable energy systems, even though there is no way that they will ever generate enough power to replace conventional generation. At current values, Germans pay almost four times as much per kilowatt hour of energy than their American counterparts and that is expensive considering they have such high sustainable energy levels!
The German energy plan calls for the addition of 25,000 megawatts of sea-based wind turbine power by 2030. However through the first six months of 2012, only 45 megawatts had been added to Germany’s existing 200-megawatt supply, and despite massive subsidies funded by the household energy surcharge, major wind projects in the North Sea are being delayed or canceled due to skittish investors. A typical 20-turbine wind farm also occupies an area of 250 acres, so in order to achieve their objective, Germany would have to cover an area six times the size of New York City with turbines.
So what is really happening? Because renewable power sources have been so unreliable, Germany has been forced to construct numerous new coal plants in an effort to replace the nuclear energy it has - and continues to take offline. In fact the country will build more coal-fired facilities this year than at any time in the past two decades – bringing an estimated 5,300 megawatts of new capacity online just to meet demand. Most of these facilities will burn lignite, a source that is strip-mined and which emits nearly 30 percent more carbon dioxide than hard coal.
With that in mind, proponents of local renewable energy need to look at international examples before assuming renewables to be the panacea to our problems. However strong the desire to implement renewable energy systems, South Africa and other African countries need to be careful of jumping into the mix because as the German experience has shown, there are massive hidden costs and a lot of 'chatter' that we really don't understand.