Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Can renewables meet the need?

A recent tweet celebrated the supposed fact that at peak, recently, Germany derived 25% of its power from solar. The source given was data published by the Fraunhofer ISE at  But is the claim true?

Actually no. The highest proportion in recent weeks was reached during August 2nd when a combination of low demand, low winds and strong sun produced about 56% of Germany's electric power from solar pv. A very good result - though obviously excluding fuels used for space heating, travel, etc.

But it's a power number - a measurement over a short time - specifically the middle of the day. There is no solar power at night and not much in the early morning and evening. A bit of rough analysis for a more representative day, 27 July in fact, shows that solar produced 22% of the power at peak but 10% of the day's energy. Extra investment in solar PV could increase the peak as much as you like - even to 100% - but that would still need over 50% of the energy to come from somewhere else (possibly wind or a storage system).

And this is mid summer.

A similar analysis for January shows a solar PV power peak of c8% but providing only c2% of the day's electricity. And the average over that week is much worse.

Is wind the answer? Sort of. Germany gets more energy from wind than from solar PV and it's available at night and in winter. But it's even less predictable than solar. At midnight on January 5th it provided just 3% of the needed electrical power.

Moreover periods of low wind can last for days - there was almost no wind for the whole seven days starting January 17th.

There are partial low-carbon solutions - nuclear, tidal, hydro, import of power from very large new solar farms in north Africa and various kinds of storage - but they all have their own problems.
Any responsible plan for our energy future must show how it would cope with periods like 17 to 14 January - and at what cost.

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