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Is the End of Renewables Nigh as Fukushima Anniversary Nears?

In the run-up to the 11 March anniversary of the Fukushima reactor meltdown, the steady drip of anti-renewables articles in the mainstream media will become a torrent as the nuclear lobby cranks up its public relations machine. And they're taking aim at European feed-in tariffs, no doubt because of their success. Germany is particularly in their cross-hairs because of its massive development of renewable energy over the past two decades and its plan to close all its reactors for good.

I call this the "end is nigh" strategy. For example, expect to hear that Germany doesn't really produce much with all those renewables, doesn't really employ that many people building wind turbines and solar panels, and has finally seen reason and is abandoning feed-in tariffs.

Here in the U.S., we saw this approach at work this week when one of our most famous right-wing "shock jocks," Rush Limbaugh, trying to deflect a storm of criticism over his most-recent sexist remarks, launch a diatribe that building wind turbines and solar panels does not create "real jobs." That leaves one with the impression that the only "real jobs" are those involved with building, or repairing nuclear power plants — or, we should add — trying to save them from destruction.

Since the 1930s, the key to effective propaganda has been to build it around an element of truth. Thus the media and the blogosphere — at least here in the english-speaking world — are having a field day after learning that Germany's conservative ruling coalition of the CDU and FDP (with particular prodding from Philipp Rösler of the FDP) have reached an agreement to dramatically cut feed-in tariffs for solar photovoltaics (solar PV) even more than already scheduled.

With this background in mind, here are some thoughts on what to expect and how to react to the "end of renewables is nigh."

Always check with german- or english-speakers who live in Germany about what is happening in Germany. (The same can be said for news about France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal.) There is a language barrier. Though a lot can be found in english, I've found some appalling translations of german news.

Check with a German or Someone in Germany

One excellent method — one that I use myself — is to look for articles by Craig Morris at Renewables International. Morris, an American, lives in Freiburg, Germany and writes in English about renewable energy. That's a combination that can't be beaten. He knows his stuff, and writes insightful articles on the differences in how Germany and the US develop renewable energy.

Yes, the Germans Are Cutting Solar PV Tariffs

Yes, the CDU and FDP have reached an agreement. Yes, the proposed cuts are severe. Yes, they are more severe than expected. Yes, the industry is howling and there was a demonstration this week in Berlin attesting to that. These are the facts.

However, the cuts are not final until the "fat lady sings." In this case, they aren't final until the Bundesrat makes its decision. The CDU-FDP rule the Bundestag. But laws don't become official until the Bundesrat, the second chamber, rules. This is one good reason why it is important to understand the political dynamics with the help of someone familiar with the system. The Bundesrat's authority is limited, but it exists and it is there for a reason.

Just this week a politician from the CDU's sister party, Bavaria's CSU, said the cuts were too draconian.

The situation is fluid, to say the least.

Yesterday a post by Craig Morris suggests that the cuts will now be delayed to April.

Stay tuned.

Yes, the Solar PV Tariffs Do Need to Be Cut

Yes, the installation of solar PV must be reduced. 7,500 MW per year is too much for the German market. In two years, Germany has installed 15,000 MW. They now have a total of 24,000 MW of solar PV.

The target last year was 2,500 to 3,500 MW. The current proposal maintains that target. The proposed cuts are intended to slow installations to the targeted amount.

Reasonable people can disagree on how much the tariffs need to be cut to reach that target.

No, this isn't the end of the world. No, it's not the end of renewables in Germany — nor is it the end of Germany's feed-in tariff policy.

The annual targets for solar PV in Germany still represent twice the solar PV installed in the U.S. last year.

The proposed cuts only apply to solar PV.

Yes, Germany's Electricity Rates Have Increased

Despite Rösler's claims — repeated ad nauseum over here — that the solar industry is destroying the German economy, the fact remains that increases in the cost of electricity in Germany are largely due to increases in the cost of conventional fuels. While renewables have contributed, they are far from the leading cause.

Moreover, as Morris reports, surveys continue to show that Germans are willing to pay for the energy transition from fossil fuels and nuclear to renewable energy.

No, It's Not the End of the World

Regardless of the cuts, German development of renewable energy remains a remarkable success at driving down costs, especially that of solar PV. As a result of its feed-in tariff policy, Germany has cut the cost of solar PV to one-third of that just a decade ago!

German solar today is significantly less costly than solar PV anywhere in North America. And German solar PV will be even less expensive than anything on this side of the Atlantic after the new cuts go into effect.

So, no, this isn't the end of the world. It is a sign of a maturing market. 

Confusing Energy and Electricity

Some conservative academic commentators on the situation in Germany have made some truly egregious errors in their attempts to belittle what has been accomplished. These are errors so serious it calls into question their intellectual integrity, if not their competency.

The most serious error is confusing the mix of renewable resources in Germany's electricity system with that of the country's energy mix of "energy" sources. Electricity is only a part of a country's energy mix.

The Germans are good at publishing data in English on the role of renewables in both electricity and the broader energy market. This data is not hard to find.

In 2011, renewables — for the first time in the modern era--contributed more than 20 percent of "electricity" consumption. German solar PV alone delivered more than 3 percent of "electricity" consumption last year. This is a simple fact that can't be ignored.

And despite closing 40 percent of its reactors after Fukushima, Germany was still able to export 5 TWh — about 1 percent of total generation — to neighboring countries.

What's Coming Up in Subsequent Newsletters on Feed-In Tariffs

For those new to this list, let me explain that I don't cover every development on feed-in tariff policy worldwide. Feed-in tariffs have become the renewable energy policy of choice across the globe and most industry news outlets cover the day-to-day events more effectively than I alone can.

I'll continue to post links to news reports by others, such as by Craig Morris, about feed-in tariff developments around the world as I have been doing for some time.

I'll also continue post articles on what I consider are key developments in feed-in tariff policy, as well as articles or the growing role of renewable energy due to the success of feed-in tariffs in various locales. This is often best done after the political and regulatory dust settles and a new policy goes into effect.

Toward that end, I plan to post a series of upcoming articles on revisions to feed laws in several countries and regional jurisdictions.

First up will be an article by Toby Couture on Spain. Couture, a world authority on feed-in tariffs, will examine Spain's recent suspension of its feed-in tariff program, part of what I call the "end is nigh" series.

Image: Cousin_Avi via Shutterstock

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03/01/2015
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