Intelligent Energy

Germany's $263B renewable energy experiment

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Offshore wind farms six times the size of New York City! Thousands of miles of power lines! Germany's shift from nuclear to renewables has been described as challenging as the first moon landing.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel aims to replace 17 nuclear reactors that supply about a fifth of the nation's electricity with renewable energy -- a transformation that will cost billions of dollars and require a penchant for risk.

According to the DIW economic institute in Berlin, the shift from nuclear to renewable energy such as solar and wind will cost upwards of $263 billion, or about 8 percent of the Germany's gross domestic product in 2011. But this about more than money. Right now, Germany might have reached a political and societal consensus to drop nuclear, but it lacks a clear technological solution, Stephan Reimelt, the CEO of General Electric's energy unit in the country, told Bloomberg News.

In other words, expect a lot of experimenting with certain technologies -- and with that some failures -- before Germany finds the right mix of energy sources to meet its post-nuclear needs without increasing its greenhouse gas emissions.

Germany's energy transformation is already shaking up the power industry, Bloomberg reports. At the end of last year, Germany had 53.8 gigawatts of wind and solar power capacity.  On windy or sunny days, turbines and solar panels flood the power grid with electricity, which erodes the economics of natural gas-fired generators. That has prompted some power suppliers to shutdown gas-fired plants.

Meanwhile, Merkel's administration is pushing to generate 35 percent of its power from renewable energy by 2020. [It should be noted, that some say the government is sending mixed messages by cutting subsidies for solar energy.]

To achieve those renewable goals, Merkel's environment minister wants to add 25,000 megawatts of wind power capacity -- the equivalent of 25 nuclear power stations -- in the North Sea and Baltic Sea by 2030. Right now, there are about 200 megawatts of offshore wind plants in operation.

Wonder what that might look like? Imagine 5,000 turbines, each one reaching more than 300 feet into the air. One turbine would take up some 247 acres. Altogether, their footprint would cover 1,931 square miles -- just a smidgen less than the state of Delaware. Grid operators will have to add or upgrade 2,800 miles of high-voltage power lines to connect the turbines with the national power grid, Germany's economy minister estimated back in January.

What's perhaps more remarkable is Germany's plans aren't as aggressive as other European countries. Sweden, Austria, Spain and Slovenia have promised to add a bigger share of renewables than Germany by the end of the decade. Although it should be noted that those renewable energy goals will likely be mitigated by their richer hydroelectric resources.

[Via: Bloomberg]

Photo illustration by Kirsten Korosec; uses photos from Flickr user Paul J. Everett and zudark, CC 2.0

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Kirsten Korosec

Contributing Editor

Kirsten Korosec has written for Technology Review, Marketing News, The Hill, BNET and Bloomberg News. She holds a degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is based in Tucson, Arizona. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure