After surpassing 80 percent renewable electricity for a few hours last year, Germany may have briefly reached around 95 percent on May 8. But the news is not only cause for celebration – a boundary has also been crossed. We are now entering the hard territory. Craig Morris explains.
On Monday, both Agora Energiewende (a Berlin-based think tank) and Clean Energy Wire (an associated communications team) announced that renewable electricity “probably” covered more than 90 percent of power demand at 58 GW for a couple of hours on Sunday. Yet Agora’s press spokesperson was notably circumspect: “It is far from certain the share was above 90 percent.” He was cautious for good reason. By the end of the day, Agora’s website showed a much different estimate of power demand peaking at 68 GW.
In contrast, Fraunhofer ISE’s Energy-Charts.de estimated peak power production of around 63 GW, but 8 GW was for export, putting domestic power demand at 58 GW – less than Agora’s initial estimate. Essentially, it’s too early to tell – by the time this post is published, you may want to check both Agora’s website and Fraunhofer’s to see how things have developed. These data are live and take a few days to settle – and they don’t become official after more than a year.
Whatever the share of renewable electricity was on Sunday, let’s clear up some confusion: First, we are only talking about electricity, not energy. The power sector makes up only around 20 percent of the German energy demand. And renewables made up only 15 percent of total energy consumption last year in our best estimate (no official estimates will be published for a while).
Second, Germany did not get 95 (or whatever) percent renewable electricity for the entire day, but only for a few hours. And third, Germany did not, a Quartz.com put it, have “so much renewable energy on Sunday that it had to pay people to use electricity.” It had so much baseload running below the must-run level that it had to pay people to consume electricity. Wind and solar will never cause negative prices on their own. (If you’re not sure what “must-run” means, read this first.)
Germany’s power plant fleet cannot easily produce less than 20 GW at any time. On Sunday, these conventional plants were pushed down below 16 GW from around 11:30 AM to 4 PM. As the must-run level is approached, power prices dip into the negative.
The next data I can share with you are, fortunately, already certain: the intraday trading prices for this electricity on Sunday. The lowest price was -32 cents per kWh, though the average at the time (between 2 and 3 PM) was -15 cents. To understand how low that is, consider that the average price is currently around three cents, down from around six cents eight years ago.
Conventional power plants in Germany were thus willing to pay lots of money for wholesale buyers to take electricity off their hands. And yet, only 8 GW could be exported; at least twice as much is physically possible. Demand in neighboring countries was simply too low (France also had slightly negative intraday prices briefly on Sunday; see the previous link above).
The real news is therefore not that Germany may have reached a record-high level of renewable electricity, but that its base load power plants are in real trouble. Proponents of decarbonization in the Anglo world like to claim that nuclear is a good complement to wind and solar for low-carbon power supply. Germany on Sunday is a good example of why that is not true. (Actually, every country is all the time, but we can’t even make such a comparison above in the US for a lack of published visualizations.)
A lot of attention is paid to power storage, and the need for it is admittedly on the horizon. But there is another issue that must be attended to first: getting rid of baseload. The nuclear phase-out serves this purpose extremely well. By removing its remaining eight nuclear reactors, Germany will reduce the must-run level considerably.
You may wish – for the sake of the climate – that Germany would close its coal plants first, but they at least are more flexible than nuclear, as I recently illustrated here. As a result, Germany may not reduce its carbon emissions as much as we would all like in the midterm, but inflexibility has to go first unfortunately when the long-term focus is on solar and wind. The early retirement of baseload power plants precedes the need for power storage. At “only” a 20 percent share of solar and wind power in 2015, Germany clearly already needs to retire baseload.