Correcting fossil fuel industry misinformation about Germany’s success with renewable energy

10 September 2013 by Michael Goggin Michael Goggin
Perhaps deterred by wind energy’s success in the U.S., where last year wind energy accounted for 42% of all new power plant capacity and provided 10% or more of the electricity in nine states, U.S. anti-clean energy groups are looking across the Atlantic in their latest attempt to smear wind energy. As others have noted, this attempt butchers the facts and presents a misleading picture of what is actually Europe’s remarkable success story in reliably integrating large amounts of wind energy onto the power system.

Much like the “telephone game,” this latest attack uses technical documents that were written in German, some of which were translated and misinterpreted by European fossil fuel advocacy organizations, and then are now being re-misinterpreted by a fossil fuel-funded organization in the U.S. Working back through the layers of misunderstanding and misrepresentation and going to the original sources, as we do below, makes it very clear what is actually happening in Europe.


In reality, Germany and other European nations are leaders in demonstrating that large quantities of renewable energy can be reliably and cost effectively integrated onto the power system. In 2012, Denmark reliably obtained around 28% of its electricity from wind energy, Portugal and Spain 18%, Ireland 16%, and Germany 10%. Germany, Spain, and Portugal have sizeable deployments of solar energy as well. Remarkably, most of these countries have wind and solar resources that are 30-60% less productive than those in the U.S., and the geographic diversity of those resources is also much less than in the U.S. If these countries can lead the world in the use of renewable energy, then the U.S. can go even higher. In fact, the following table shows that many U.S. states are reliably integrating large quantities of wind energy.

 

 

Table 1: Share of Electricity Production from Wind Energy in 2012, by state

  Iowa

24.5%

  South Dakota

23.9%

  North Dakota

14.7%

  Minnesota

14.3%

  Kansas

11.4%

  Colorado

11.3%

  Idaho

11.3%

  Oklahoma

10.5%

  Oregon

10.0%

  Wyoming

8.8%

  Texas

7.4%

  New Mexico

6.1%

  Maine

5.9%

  Washington

5.8%

  California

4.9%

  Montana

4.5%

  Illinois

3.9%

  Nebraska

3.7%

  Hawaii

3.6%

  Indiana

2.8%


Wind energy makes the power system more reliable

The main lie being propagated by fossil fuel groups is that wind and solar energy have negatively affected the reliability of Germany’s power system. As the Institute for Energy Research, a group that has received significant funding from fossil fuel companies including Exxon-Mobil and Koch Industries, claims, “The intermittent power is causing destabilization of the electric grids causing potential blackouts, weakening voltage and causing damage to industrial equipment.”

As documented in the data presented here and in the chart copied below, this is simply false. As the data (presented in the chart below) indicate, Germany’s power system is the most reliable in Europe, and it has grown even more reliable as it has greatly increased its use of renewable energy in recent years. As the article points out, Germany’s reliability score is 16 times better than that of the US, and four times better than that of France. Wind energy leaders Denmark, Ireland, Spain, and the Netherlands all have very reliable power systems, and they have seen their reliability improve significantly as they have increased their use of wind energy. Of course, the vast majority of reliability problems involve power lines and have nothing to do with the energy mix being used, which makes wind energy opponents’ claims even more absurd.

Figure 1: Trends in Electric Reliability in European Countries

 

What does IER claim is the basis for its false claim that renewables are negatively affecting electric reliability in Germany? It references power quality events described in a Der Spiegel article, but that article never claims that those events were caused by renewable energy. Notably, the events discussed in that article were power quality events triggered by voltage dips lasting for only a fraction of a second.

For a number of reasons, it is extremely unlikely that a modern wind turbine would cause such a short-term power quality event. First, the vast majority of short-term power quality events are caused by nearby industrial equipment and other large electrical appliances coming on and offline, improper wiring within the building experiencing the event, or lightning strikes and other events affecting lower-voltage power lines. Power quality events are typically highly localized on the power grid, and because wind turbines are always electrically separated from a consumer by at least several voltage transformers and typically many more, it is much more likely that electrical equipment on the same circuit would be the cause of power quality deviations.

Second, as explained by NERC, the entity responsible for maintaining grid reliability in North America, modern wind turbines “may provide voltage regulation and reactive power control capabilities comparable to that of conventional generation.” (page 22) In fact, grid codes in Germany require wind plants to regulate voltage and reactive power within a very tight band, just as conventional power plants do. Modern wind turbines have sophisticated power electronics that allow the turbine to provide significant voltage and reactive power control at all times, even when the wind turbine is not producing electricity. As compellingly illustrated by the actual power system data presented in the chart below, wind turbines can significantly improve power system voltage stability, indicated by the fact that power system voltage is much better regulated when wind turbine generators (WTGs) are online than when they are not.

 

Figure 2: Wind turbines improve voltage stability on the power system

Third, the output of a wind plant does not change nearly fast enough to cause short-term power quality problems. Because wind turbines are inherently spaced out over large areas, the output of a collection of wind turbines typically changes over dozens of minutes or even hours, never seconds. These gradual changes in renewable output are netted out against the much larger changes in electricity supply and demand that are always occurring, and grid operators accommodate the aggregate variability using the same flexible reserves that they have always used to accommodate fluctuations in supply and demand. If wind energy were causing reliability problems, it would show up in the form of longer-duration outages, which is the data presented in Figure 1 above. However, those data clearly show that electric reliability is very high and increasing in countries that have been deploying large amounts of wind energy.

The simple fact is that wind energy has never caused a blackout, though most conventional energy sources have. In February 2011, Texas experienced rolling blackouts after dozens of fossil-fired power plants unexpectedly failed in the cold, while wind energy earned accolades from the grid operator for continuing to produce as expected. Large conventional power plants pose a much larger reliability challenge and cost for grid operators, because failures at these plants occur instantaneously and without warning, while changes in wind output occur gradually and are predictable using advanced weather forecasting. Wind energy helps to diversify our energy mix, making it more reliable.

Supposed “switches” at the German border are actually routine power system equipment

Another myth making the rounds among fossil fuel groups is that Germany’s eastern neighbors, Poland and the Czech Republic, are installing “a huge switch-off at their borders to block the import of green energy that is destabilizing their grids and causing potential blackouts in their countries.” This myth appears to have originated with a UK fossil fuel industry advocacy group’s translation of a German anti-wind article on the topic.

The UK anti-renewables fossil fuel industry group did not include translations of the underlying reports that reveal that the equipment being planned for addition in 2016 are not switches at all but rather commonly used tools to improve the flow of electricity on the power system, called “phase angle regulators.” Power engineers will tell you that, in any country and with any energy source, a major challenge is that electricity flows along the path of least resistance from where it is produced, which is often not where you want it to go. In the U.S., so-called “loop flows” have been a major headache for power engineers for decades. One recurring problem is nuclear- and coal-powered electricity traveling from the Midwest to the East Coast taking circuitous routes through either the Southeast or Canada, inadvertently overloading circuits along the way, even though more direct paths exist to move that power eastward. Phase angle regulators solve that problem by giving grid operators more control over where electricity flows. The use of these tools in Germany has nothing to do with wind energy (the same loop flows would exist if Germany were adding fossil, nuclear, or any other type of generation), but rather are part of a more than century-long battle to more efficiently move unruly electricity from where it is produced to where it is consumed.

Consumers are benefitting from wind energy use

The fossil-funded Institute for Energy Research also tries to propagate the myth that wind energy will cause electricity price increases. As noted earlier, wind and solar resources in the U.S. are typically 50-100% more productive than those in Germany, which means the cost of renewable energy is far lower here. In the U.S., wind turbine costs have fallen by around 1/3 over the last several years, due to improvements in wind turbine technology and the fact that a majority of wind components are now manufactured in the United States. As a result, utilities and their state regulators are finding that investments in wind lower costs for their customers.

At least 74 U.S. utilities bought or owned wind power in 2012, up 50% from a year ago. Southern Company recently made its third wind energy purchase, explaining that wind energy reduces its customers’ electric bills. Similarly, Oklahoma Gas and Electric estimates that a single wind project will save Arkansas customers $46 million. Finally, the Colorado Public Utilities Commission found that a single wind purchase by Xcel Energy “will save ratepayers $100 million” while providing the opportunity to “lock in a price for 25 years.” (Colorado Public Utilities Commission, Decision No C11‐1291)

Synapse Energy Economics recently released a report that indicates doubling the use of wind energy in the Mid-Atlantic and Great Lakes states beyond existing standards would save consumers a net $6.9 billion per year. Similarly, the New England grid operator calculated that obtaining 20% of the region’s electricity from wind would reduce electricity prices by more than 10%.

In addition, U.S. Department of Energy data confirm that consumers in the top wind energy producing states have seen their electric rates increase at around half the rate of consumers in states that produce less wind energy.

Table 2: Consumers in the top wind energy states have seen their electric rates increase at around half the rate of consumers in states that use less wind energy

Ranking for wind power

Electricity price increase, 2005-2010

Bottom 30 wind power states

26.74%

Top 20 wind power states

15.72%

Top 10 wind power states

10.94%

 

Many factors influence the price of electricity, so this isn't necessarily proof that states that build more wind power will always see reduced electricity prices relative to states that built less. However, this result makes sense, as adding wind energy to the power grid displaces output from the most expensive power plants first. In addition, wind energy protects consumers from volatility in the price of fuels that are used to produce electricity.

Wind energy has driven major decreases in Europe’s carbon emissions and fossil fuel use

Finally, the fossil fuel industry has attempted to misleadingly and selectively use statistics to hide the remarkable reductions in fossil fuel use and pollution Germany and other European countries have achieved due to their increased use of wind energy. Much of this deception has focused on a short-term increase in coal use over the last year or two as Germany has rapidly phased out its use of nuclear power. However, it is important not to miss the forest for the trees, and to understand that this short-term increase is entirely caused by the shutdown of Germany’s nuclear plants and is only a temporary blip in the long-term, steady decline in emissions achieved by Germany’s transition to renewable energy.

The reality is that, over the last decade, wind energy has allowed Germany to greatly reduce fossil fuel use and pollution, reductions that would have been even larger had the country not also greatly scaled down its use of nuclear power over that same time period.

As documented by International Energy Agency data, as Germany ramped up its use of wind energy, coal use by Germany’s electric sector fell by more than 12% between 2004 and 2010, a reduction of 20 million tons per year. Wind energy was able to drive that reduction in coal use despite nuclear power output declining by 16% over that time period (falling from nearly 34% of the country’s electricity mix in 2004 to less than 25% in 2010).

Other European countries that have adopted even greater amounts of wind energy than Germany have seen even larger declines in pollution and fossil fuel use. Because Spain and Portugal now obtain 15% and 20%, respectively, of their electricity from wind, up from around 1% a decade ago, they have cut in half the amount of carbon dioxide their electric sectors emit per unit of electricity produced.

Electric sector coal use in Europe’s top five wind-using countries fell by 21% between 2004 and 2010. These savings totaled more than 100 million tons of coal per year.

The easiest way to assess the impact wind energy has had on pollution is to compare the emissions trend in the five countries that lead the world in wind energy use (Germany, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, and Ireland) versus the trend for similar countries that have not deployed as much wind energy. Between 1999 and 2010, each of these five countries greatly increased its use of wind energy, as shown in the table below. For the comparison case, the aggregation of all European OECD countries increased their use of wind by a much lower amount.

Table 2: Wind Energy Growth in the Five Highest Wind Energy Use Countries


Country

Wind Energy’s Share of Electricity in 2010

Wind Energy’s Share of Electricity in 1999

Increase in wind’s electricity percentage share from 1999 to 2010

Denmark

22.6%

8.8%

13.8%

Portugal

20.2%

0.3%

19.9%

Spain

17.0%

1.6%

15.4%

Ireland

11.0%

0.9%

10.1%

Germany

6.9%

0.03%

6.9%

All OECD Europe

4.3%

0.5%

3.8%


The best measurement of a country’s emissions profile is to look at changes in the amount of CO2 emitted by the electric sector for every unit of electricity produced, i.e., the emissions intensity of a country’s electric sector. One would expect that adding a zero-emission resource like wind energy to the power system would reduce the emissions-intensity of the country’s electric sector, and International Energy Agency data indicate that this is the case (Table 3). The countries that added the most wind energy saw the greatest declines in their emissions intensity, while countries that added less wind energy (like Germany and the aggregation of all OECD Europe) saw smaller declines in their emissions intensities.

 

Table 3: Percent Change in Electric Sector CO2 Emissions/kWh from 1999-2010


Country

% Change in CO2 emissions/kWh from 1999-2010

Increase in wind’s electricity percentage share from 1999 to 2010

Portugal

-53.07%

19.9%

Spain

-46.45%

15.4%

Denmark

-24.96%

13.8%

Ireland

-34.24%

10.1%

Germany

-12.58%

6.9%

All OECD Europe

-12.60%

3.8%


Interestingly, Germany would likely have seen a much larger decline in emissions intensity had the country not significantly decreased its use of zero-emission nuclear energy over the 1999-2010 period. Germany’s nuclear output dropped by 16.7% between 1999 and 2010, declining from 34.6% of the country’s electric output in 1999 to 24.5% in 2010.

Does this mean the current surge in coal demand is a blip? When asked by The Economist magazine, Tom Brookes of the European Climate Foundation, a non-governmental organization based in The Hague, said yes.

To sum up, it is important to keep in mind that the temporary and small uptick in coal use in Germany over the last two years is purely the result of the country shutting down many of its nuclear power plants following the events at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant in early 2011. As Germany continues to ramp up its use of wind and solar energy, the decline in fossil fuel use and carbon dioxide emissions will resume.

Conclusion

In short, none of the fossil fuel industry’s latest attacks on wind energy hold up to scrutiny. The data make it clear that wind energy is reducing fossil fuel use and pollution and improving power system reliability in Europe, just as it is in the U.S.  Perhaps because the fossil fuel industry’s misleading and outright false attacks on wind energy in this country have been repeatedly debunked, they’ve now fled across the Atlantic on the hope that American readers may not be as familiar with the facts of Europe’s success with wind energy.

Photo credit: David K. Clarke

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