While Germany is breaking world records for the amount of sustainable energy it uses every year, German energy customers are breaking European records for the amount they pay in monthly bills. Surprisingly, they don’t seem to mind.
In the first half of 2014, Germany drew 28 percent of its power generation from renewable energy sources. Wind and solar capacity were hugely boosted, now combining to generate 45 terawatt hours (TWh), or 17 percent of national demand, with another 11 percent coming from biomass and hydropower plants.
This proves that Germany’s controversial Energiewende policy is on target to meet highly ambitious goals by 2050 -- as much as a 95 percent reduction in greenhouse gases, 60 percent of power generation from renewables, and a 50 percent increase in energy efficiency over 2010.
All well and good, but the economics of renewable energy don’t usually allow for such a smooth transition. As part of the Energiewende, the costs of associated subsidies have been passed on to German customers, who pay the highest power bills in Europe.
Fifty-two percent of the power bill for retail businesses in July 2014 is now made up of taxes and fees. The average bill for a household has reached 85 euros a month, 18 euros of which is the renewable energy levy. The reaction to such fees should have been furious.
It hasn’t been. A 2013 survey revealed that 84 percent of Germans would be happy to pay even more if the country could find a way to go 100 percent renewable.
So how can this model of high targets, high fees and high public support find traction in other countries? The answer is, with difficulty.
Germany’s national engagement toward renewable energy came after a period of prolonged public education, opening up to locally owned wind and solar infrastructure, and investment support. To be sure, other major countries are finding success in the renewable sphere, but not in quite the same way.
While renewable installations in the U.S. may account for 24 percent of the world’s total, they only accounted for 13 percent of the country’s power generation. This compares to Germany, which has more than 12 percent of global installed renewable capacity, but takes 28 percent of its power from it. Spain, China and Brazil trail behind, with 7.8 percent, 7.5 percent and 5 percent of global capacity respectively.
Brazil’s model has similarities to Germany’s, with the government carrying out public auctions for contracts and putting out favorable investment terms for foreign companies looking to set up renewable energy projects. Spain was doing well as wind became its largest source of power generation in April 2013, but economic woes have seen Madrid begin to double back on its commitments.
Political gridlock in Washington, D.C. means renewable energy in the U.S. has been boosted by state and private efforts. Arizona now has the biggest solar power plant in the world, while California has the largest geothermal plant in the country.
In Mexico, the country’s solar potential and the improving cost-effectiveness of PV technology has seen projects like the 30MW Aura Solar I crop up. But the national electricity regulator, CFE, has been slammed for taking up to six months to connect residential PV installations to the grid.
Perhaps the most ambitious plans come from China, which is busy working to transform its reputation from an energy pariah to a respected renewable leader. However, these are being mandated at a central level, with little to no attention being paid to the opinions of the Chinese public.
And there’s the rub. The German public is a willing participant in the government’s efforts, happy to face higher bills in exchange for a cleaner and more energy-efficient future, paying an average of 90 euros a month in 2013. It is true that Germans’ power bills are the highest in Europe, but the trade-off is known, increases are announced and negotiated months in advance, and surprises are few.
In the UK, which was proud of having among the lowest electricity rates in the EU, the government has been hard-pressed to explain to customers just why Scottish Power, Southern Electric, and British Gas have all raised prices, while the Labour Party has promised a 20-month price freeze if it wins 2015 elections.
The UK has left its coal and nuclear infrastructure to stagnate, reversed Blair-era commitments to renewable sources and opened vast swathes of the country to fracking exploration.
Ask them, and Germans might tell you that a pricey electricity bill might actually save everyone from a few headaches down the line.
Chris Dalby of Oilprice.com