“4,000 subsidies for renewables”

Sometimes, Der Spiegel misconstrues issues so well that even experts have trouble understanding what is meant. Instead of a full rebuttal, Craig Morris takes a look at the two main claims in a recent article.

Renowned for getting it wrong on Renewables: Der Spiegel (Photo by Wolfgang Meinhart, GFDL)

Renowned for getting it wrong on Renewables: Der Spiegel (Photo by Wolfgang Meinhart, GFDL)

The author says that Germany’s Renewable Energy Act (EEG) – the most popular energy law in the world, which has been copied in more than 50 countries – is a “bureaucracy monster: German bureaucrats have come up with over 4,000 different subsidy categories for renewable energy.” One of those bureaucrats, of course, was the late Hermann Scheer, winner of the Right Livelihood Award (the Alternative Nobel Prize). So where you read “bureaucrat,” think “brilliant mind.”

The estimate of 4,000 subsidies sounds bewildering, and you probably imagine a catalog of regulations that only an expert can navigate. In reality, the form you need to fill out for a solar roof on your home is one page long (here’s one as a PDF). You can bring it down to your local savings bank, and they will process it for you. If you file today and have already found a local installer, you could have your small array completed next week.

What Der Spiegel calls a “bureaucracy monster” is in reality a streamlined system. In comparison, it can take 4 to 6 months in the US to get a simple homeowner rooftop array installed. The situation is so bad in the US that some companies praise themselves for guaranteeing installation within 90 days. Our colleagues over at the Institute for Local Reliance recently wrote about how German homeowners can get a solar roof within eight days.

Only one feed-in tariff will apply for a PV array of your size when you connect it to the grid. Your bank/installer will know the number, which is also published on this official Network Agency website (alongside countless solar blogs) as an XLS file. A roof array smaller than 10 kilowatts installed in November gets paid 14.07 cents per kilowatt-hour – see, wasn’t that easy?

The same holds true for wind and biomass, for which distinctions are made by system size. Furthermore, the rates generally drop over time. The result is perhaps an historic pileup of different rates, all of which continue to be paid for 20 years starting on the day of the grid connection. Maybe there are now 4,000 different feed-in tariffs, but complaining about that is a bit like complaining that Medicare sets different prices for some 4,200 types of medication (zip file) – some would argue that comprehensive coverage is a feature, not a bug.

And then there is the claim that renewables in Germany “have not reduced CO2 emissions in Europe by a single gram” because of emissions trading. Of course, since carbon trading sets a limit, you could just as easily have argued the opposite – any reduction in carbon emissions in Germany will not reduce carbon emissions in Europe, but merely make more emissions available elsewhere.

In reality, the rise of renewable electricity in Germany has helped bring down demand for carbon allowances – one reason why the carbon price is now closer to €5 than the €50 hoped for. European politicians could take the opportunity to lower the amount of carbon allowances thanks to the success of renewables, but they recently chose not to do so – with the German government unfortunately also blocking stricter emissions. Last week, however, there was new of a breakthrough in backloading. Clearly, the problem is not that renewables cannot reduce carbon emissions, but that European politicians must let renewables reduce the amount of carbon allowances.

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of German Energy Transition. He directs Petite Planète and writes every workday for Renewables International.


Craig Morris (@PPchef) is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende.

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