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The futility of solar susidization

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opinion Brainerd, 56401
Brainerd MN 506 James St. / PO Box 974 56401

Just across the German border in the small Czech city of Temelin is one of Europe’s most accident prone nuclear power plants. Green Party officials in Germany have repeatedly called for “the entire facility to be shut down immediately.” No longer. Sixty miles from Temelin, the Bavarian city of Passau is a beneficiary of 1.2 million kwh of daily power exported to Germany by the Temelin nuclear plant. That power is keeping Passau’s lights on and electric motors turning.

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Recently an electric power exporter, Germany has become an importer as eight nuclear plants are shuttered, and its 1.1 million solar installations, on rooftops and in solar power plants, produce little power in the short cloudy days of winter. In Brussels, the European Transmission Network monitors European electric grids. Arrows indicate the flow of electricity between countries, with arrows now pointing toward Germany, showing the flow of nuclear energy from France and the Czech Republic. Other arrows show German imports of Polish power, produced by burning brown coal, the most polluting of fuel sources. The Netherlands and Poland are planning new nuclear plants, ready to supply Germany when its nine remaining nuclear plants are phased out. Grid operator Tennet is resorting to an emergency backup plan, powering up an old expensive oil-fired plant in the Austrian city of Graz.

All of these imports were not the original intent, as a big program in renewable energy was to take up the slack. Massive wind and solar subsidies, especially solar, have made Germany the world’s poster country for solar power, with 40 percent of the world’s total solar capacity. But that capacity provided just 3 percent of Germany’s electric demand for all of 2011. German solar facilities, under an intermittent sun, are operating at 9 percent of their name plate capacity, compared to 90 percent for the typical nuclear plant. This, along with $130 bill on in total solar subsidies to date, has made German electric rates the second highest in Europe, trailing only Denmark, the poster country for wind energy.

Under Germany’s Renewable Energy Law, homeowners who spend the $20-30,000 for a rooftop solar system can sell back excess sunny afternoon power for three to four times the going electric rate. The cost of this subsidy is shared by all ratepayers. The effect is to charge low and middle income households for payments to those who can afford the upfront cost of decorating their roofs with solar panels. Solar farm operators and solar homeowners collected more than €8 billion ($10.2 billion) in subsidies in 2011.

One purpose of the program was to make Germany the leader in solar panel manufacturing. Chancellor Merkel had consistently touted the environmental sector’s “opportunities for exports, development, technology and jobs.” In 2004, Germany held a 69 percent share of the global solar panel business. By 2011, it had declined to 20 percent as low cost panels from China and others entered the market.

Another purpose was to meet Germany’s obligation to reduce green house gas emissions. Because of the poor electricity yield, solar energy production also saves little in the way of harmful carbon dioxide emissions, especially compared to other possible subsidization programs. To avoid each ton of CO2 emissions, one can spend $7 on insulating the roof of an old building, invest $28 in a new gas-fired power plant or put about $700 into a new solar energy system.

Jurgen Grossmann, the CEO of Germany’s energy utility giant RWE, summed up the problem last week. He said, “The subsidization of solar energy in Germany was as useful as growing pineapples in Alaska.”

ROLF WESTGARD, resident of Deerwood, will teach class No. 10008 “Science in the News” for the University of Minnesota Lifelong Learning program in spring quarter 2012.

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