Getting Solar Energy On Line

October 7, 2009 at 10:34 am 4 comments

For the past decade, Germany has been weaning itself off nuclear energy and investing heavily in wind and solar power. While it’s still well short of replacing its nukes with renewables, Germany now has more solar power than any other country in the world. This, in a region with even less sunshine than the cloudy Pacific Northwest. How did they do it? And are there lessons there for us? KPLU environment reporter Liam Moriarty examines these questions in Part Two of his series “Europe and Us: Growing a Green Future.”


By Liam Moriarty

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Solar hot water collectors and a “green roof” are among the energy-saving features of this apartment complex in Dusseldorf.

In Dusseldorf, Germany, I get a tour of an energy-efficient apartment complex. My tour guide is Andreas Gries. He works for a government agency that helps develop a wide range of energy projects. Gries shows me how these apartments are highly insulated, with a super-efficient ventilation system.

Between the two he says, “it reduces the demand for heat energy considerably – basically, by about 50 percent, compared to what’s currently required by law.”

This building is one of 50 so-called “solar communities” the agency is helping build. The government – working with private investors – subsidizes these developments to boost energy conservation, reduce greenhouse gases – and to build markets for German energy technology companies.

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Manfred Franck and Andreas Gries represent the public-private partnership that built this “solar community” project in Dusseldorf.

Gries takes me out on a balcony overlooking solar panels that cover a south-facing roof. The panels provide more than half the hot water used to heat the apartments. Looking up at Dusseldorf’s partly-cloudy skies, he concedes solar may seem better suited to a sunnier climate.

“But in Germany, the conditions are good enough to use such systems” he says. “And so many investors and many families do it.”

Faced with a mandate from the European Union to cut greenhouse gas emissions, European governments are using a number of tools to encourage solar and other renewable energy sources.

In her office in Brussels, Belgium, Dorte Fouquet points out one of those tools: requiring minimum levels of clean power.

“By 2020, Europe has to reach 20 percent of the overall energy consumption from renewables,” she says.

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Dorte Fouquet is director of the European Renewable Energy Federation in Brussels.

Fouquet heads the European Renewable Energies Federation, a group that represents small renewable energy businesses. She says another important tool used in Europe is what’s called a “feed-in tariff.” It guarantees that anyone who generates renewable energy – from commercial wind farms to households with solar panels – is paid a premium price for feeding that juice into the electrical grid. Fouquet says that domestic solar power very affordable.

“I pay this, I install it on my house, and from day one I get per kilowatt hour – let’s say 42 cents — paid to me, and by that I can pay back my financing,” she says.

Like the European Union, states in the Pacific Northwest have laws that require utilities to get a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable sources. And in Washington, we also have something that acts very much like a feed-in tariff. Mike Nelson, director of Washington State University’s Northwest Solar Center, explains.

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Mike Nelson heads WSU’s Northwest Solar Center in Shoreline.

“You’re paid for every kilowatt hour you generate,” he says, “whether you use it yourself or not. It’s like baking bread, getting paid for having baked the bread, and getting to eat it also.”

Washington has a tax credit that starts out paying you 15 cents per kilowatt hour for the electricity from your rooftop solar panels. That’s about twice what utilities charge for the power they sell you. And if your solar equipment is made in Washington, you could get nearly four times that. Nelson says the bonus for “made-in Washington” equipment is meant to help jump-start local solar manufacturing industries.

“If I buy a solar module from China, 70 percent of that purchase flows out of the country,” he says. “If I buy a solar module built in Arlington, that’s using silicon produced in Moses Lake, all of the money trolls over in our own economy.”

That’s a key difference between Washington and the E.U.: the European feed-in tariffs don’t have a similar “made in Europe” clause. So a lot of the solar equipment used in Europe is made in China or other places that produce lower-priced goods

On the other hand, our tax credit doesn’t apply to industrial-scale renewable energy. Matt Steuerwalt notes that the largest solar projects in the world are all in Spain and Germany. He says the lack of a feed-in tariff is a major reason no large-scale solar projects have been built in the Pacific Northwest.

Steuerwalt represents the Teanaway Solar Reserve, a 400-acre solar power plant being proposed about 80 miles southeast of Seattle. It’s projected to generate enough juice to power 45 thousand homes. Steuerwalt says other state and federal incentives – plus a strong regional interest in technology and the environment – have convinced his group this is a good time to build large-scale solar in Washington. But he says a European-style feed-in tariff – with its guaranteed premium price — would give renewables across the board a big boost.

“I think it would make a lot of other projects attractive, to get financing for projects and to bring big, utility-scale projects, like solar projects, on line in this state.”

That could happen. There are plans in Olympia to create an incentive very like a feed-in tariff, that would apply to large-scale projects, too.

All in all, the Northwest is well-positioned to become a major clean energy hub. Approaches that work in Europe may not all work here. But there is a political consensus that the region’s economic edge – not to mention its green reputation – rides on staying at the forefront of an emerging clean energy economy.

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