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Lessons from Germany: How can the US succeed at its own Energiewende?

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When it comes to the renewable energy revolution, the world is trailing in the wake of Germany. But there are many lessons the rest of us, the US in particular, can learn from the cleantech world leaders, writes Katrina Prutzman, leader of the system design team at UGE.

Germany has put itself on the world map in the past decade as an early adopter of energy generation from renewable sources. In 2013, 25% of the country’s energy came from renewable sources – the highest percentage in the world. By 2050, as part of the country’s Energiewende (or “energy transition”), Germany expects this number to be at 80%. This is an incredibly ambitious goal, as Germans and the rest of the world will agree, but Germany is preparing now to make this happen.

As part of the Transatlantic Program hosted by the German American Chamber of Commerce, I had the incredible opportunity to meet with many of Germany’s energy influencers, and learn directly about how Germany is transitioning to carbon-free energy. It hasn’t been all smooth sailing, but there are key lessons that the US and the rest of the world can learn both from Germany’s successes and plans for improvements.

Consistent policy is critical

The Bundesnetzagentur in Bonn is Germany’s Federal Network Agency for electricity, gas, telecommunications, post, and railway, and they had many insights to share about the reason for such high rates of renewable penetration to date. In particular, they attribute this adoption to policy, and more specifically, three aspects of the current renewable energy policy in Germany: guaranteed grid and market access for renewables, priority dispatch of renewables over conventional generators, and guaranteed financial support for 20 years through the feed in tariff. These three traits have provided great incentives for installers of renewable energy, paving the way in some cases for high profit as competition from solar producers caused panel prices to drop rapidly. This is a key lesson the US can learn from Germany:  consistent policy is critical for a similar large-scale transition to renewables, and it’s currently missing in our market.  

Though policy incentives are often criticized, for a transition of this size predictability of expected returns throughout the expected life of renewable equipment is essential in the early years. With policies that are inconsistent or absent from state to state and year to year, individuals, businesses, and even utilities are hesitant about investment in newer technologies. Germany’s foresight on this front has resulted in solar capital costs that have reached grid parity  – a great thing that much of the world can take advantage of as we follow suit.

Negative pricing is a double-edged sword

The transition to renewables has not been all smooth sailing for Germany. The sudden drop in solar prices was not anticipated, as the German market and German manufacturers were flooded by low-cost Chinese suppliers. The large influx of intermittent sources has made grid management difficult.  Only 5% of the renewable capacity on the German market is owned by the primary utilities, with the rest being owned by individuals, communities, industry, and smaller utilities.

The complexity of planning for these scattered sources (which are guaranteed access to the grid), and existing baseload plants like nuclear or coal that are difficult to shut down quickly, resulted in a “perfect storm,” with overproduction of supply and negative pricing on the spot market.  This actually incentivized demand to increase in order to balance supply and demand on the grid, and stabilize the voltage and frequency output of the system.

Germany is now adjusting their incentive structure to adapt to these unforeseen effects. The feed in tariff will soon become a feed in premium, where eligible producers of renewable energy will need to bid their production into the market just like all other providers. They will then receive a bonus or premium price over the resulting market price.  In this way, all generators have an incentive to curtail production when the market price and demand are low (thus avoiding negative pricing), and produce when the price (and subsequent demand) is high.

Though Germany went through some growth pains to arrive at this stronger footing, they have also paved the way for greater understanding and policy structures for other markets. As other nations look to implement a similar transition, we have a head start with Germany to thank, and can structure incentives that are implemented in a way that rewards responsible installation and management of clean technology projects.

Diverse and rapid innovations

Despite the challenges, Germany’s negative pricing phenomenon led to the need for very creative energy solutions. Germany has had unparalleled development and deployment of new and emerging energy technologies, many of which now have strong potential to scale. Our delegation met with many of these new companies and it was exciting to see what’s on the horizon.

Researchers at EFZN in Goslar are evaluating the feasibility and economics of wind powered pumped water storage in abandoned mines in Germany. A storage capacity of 40 GWh is likely available in 100 existing mines at a current cost of €0.05-0.10 per kwh.  When the market price of electricity drops below zero, grid electricity can be used to pump the stored water to a higher elevation. When the grid price is high, the potential energy in the water is used to generate electricity and sell it to the grid, and the economics of this solution start to become viable.  

A delegation tour of a hydrogen fuel production station revealed a similar economic concept, though the technology involved is significantly newer and still more expensive. Hydrogen technology has gotten much criticism for the high cost and safety concerns associated with producing, storing, and transporting compressed hydrogen gas, however, the hydrogen production and fueling station in Hamburg’s HafenCity, provided by Vattenfall, is proving that the technology is feasible. The plant was designed to produce hydrogen gas through electrolysis of filtered city tap water from renewable energy at low or negative cost, and sell the hydrogen to fuel the city’s fleet of hydrogen fuel cell city buses and personal cars.  

Many battery storage technologies are also undergoing research and demonstration for expanded uses in the transition.  Lead acid batteries remain the most common technology for use with renewable energy systems due to their low cost and high availability.  However, this solution is bulky, heavy, and limited to low power applications. The battery research center at MEET in Munster is conducting extensive testing with Lithium ion batteries, which provide many advantages in both mobile and stationary applications and performance as part of the energy transition. Better understanding of this technology coupled with industry partnerships at the research center will allow for greater adoption and lower costs. 

In another energy storage development, the delegation met with the Project Manager of the Smart Region Pellworm project, an island community that generates all of its energy plus some through renewable sources on the island. As part of this project they have installed a vanadium flow battery  to help with response to grid demand for electricity and improve the economics of the renewable investment. This type of battery is new to the market, but has the potential for tremendous benefits and applications for community scale renewable microgrid systems which are larger than what is practical for traditional batteries. This installation was reported to have been very reliable so far, and is expected to have at least a 20 year life with only minor maintenance.  

Though the technology and progress enabled by the Energiewende is incredible to behold, this still comes at a cost.  The renewable feed in tariff is funded by rate payers, and many in Germany agree that its implementation created excessive windfalls for some. Though the rate of the FIT is declining for new installations, projects that are already operational are still reaping massive benefits. With all of its ups and downs along the way, Germany is leading the way in the energy transition, and we all have much to learn from their experience.

Katrina Prutzman leads the system design team at UGE, and recently returned from the Transatlantic Program for Young Technology Leaders, a delegation trip to Germany focused on smart grid and energy storage.

UGE (TSX: UG.V) is a leading developer of distributed renewable energy solutions for business and government, with projects in over 90 countries, including several for Fortune 1,000 companies.

A version of this article first appeared on GreenTech Media.

Energy

5 Easy Things You Can Do to Make Your Home More Sustainable

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sustainable homes
Shutterstock Licensed Photot - By Diyana Dimitrova

Increasing your home’s energy efficiency is one of the smartest moves you can make as a homeowner. It will lower your bills, increase the resale value of your property, and help minimize our planet’s fast-approaching climate crisis. While major home retrofits can seem daunting, there are plenty of quick and cost-effective ways to start reducing your carbon footprint today. Here are five easy projects to make your home more sustainable.

1. Weather stripping

If you’re looking to make your home more energy efficient, an energy audit is a highly recommended first step. This will reveal where your home is lacking in regards to sustainability suggests the best plan of attack.

Some form of weather stripping is nearly always advised because it is so easy and inexpensive yet can yield such transformative results. The audit will provide information about air leaks which you can couple with your own knowledge of your home’s ventilation needs to develop a strategic plan.

Make sure you choose the appropriate type of weather stripping for each location in your home. Areas that receive a lot of wear and tear, like popular doorways, are best served by slightly more expensive vinyl or metal options. Immobile cracks or infrequently opened windows can be treated with inexpensive foams or caulking. Depending on the age and quality of your home, the resulting energy savings can be as much as 20 percent.

2. Programmable thermostats

Programmable thermostats

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By Olivier Le Moal

Programmable thermostats have tremendous potential to save money and minimize unnecessary energy usage. About 45 percent of a home’s energy is earmarked for heating and cooling needs with a large fraction of that wasted on unoccupied spaces. Programmable thermostats can automatically lower the heat overnight or shut off the air conditioning when you go to work.

Every degree Fahrenheit you lower the thermostat equates to 1 percent less energy use, which amounts to considerable savings over the course of a year. When used correctly, programmable thermostats reduce heating and cooling bills by 10 to 30 percent. Of course, the same result can be achieved by manually adjusting your thermostats to coincide with your activities, just make sure you remember to do it!

3. Low-flow water hardware

With the current focus on carbon emissions and climate change, we typically equate environmental stability to lower energy use, but fresh water shortage is an equal threat. Installing low-flow hardware for toilets and showers, particularly in drought prone areas, is an inexpensive and easy way to cut water consumption by 50 percent and save as much as $145 per year.

Older toilets use up to 6 gallons of water per flush, the equivalent of an astounding 20.1 gallons per person each day. This makes them the biggest consumer of indoor water. New low-flow toilets are standardized at 1.6 gallons per flush and can save more than 20,000 gallons a year in a 4-member household.

Similarly, low-flow shower heads can decrease water consumption by 40 percent or more while also lowering water heating bills and reducing CO2 emissions. Unlike early versions, new low-flow models are equipped with excellent pressure technology so your shower will be no less satisfying.

4. Energy efficient light bulbs

An average household dedicates about 5 percent of its energy use to lighting, but this value is dropping thanks to new lighting technology. Incandescent bulbs are quickly becoming a thing of the past. These inefficient light sources give off 90 percent of their energy as heat which is not only impractical from a lighting standpoint, but also raises energy bills even further during hot weather.

New LED and compact fluorescent options are far more efficient and longer lasting. Though the upfront costs are higher, the long term environmental and financial benefits are well worth it. Energy efficient light bulbs use as much as 80 percent less energy than traditional incandescent and last 3 to 25 times longer producing savings of about $6 per year per bulb.

5. Installing solar panels

Adding solar panels may not be the easiest, or least expensive, sustainability upgrade for your home, but it will certainly have the greatest impact on both your energy bills and your environmental footprint. Installing solar panels can run about $15,000 – $20,000 upfront, though a number of government incentives are bringing these numbers down. Alternatively, panels can also be leased for a much lower initial investment.

Once operational, a solar system saves about $600 per year over the course of its 25 to 30-year lifespan, and this figure will grow as energy prices rise. Solar installations require little to no maintenance and increase the value of your home.

From an environmental standpoint, the average five-kilowatt residential system can reduce household CO2 emissions by 15,000 pounds every year. Using your solar system to power an electric vehicle is the ultimate sustainable solution serving to reduce total CO2 emissions by as much as 70%!

These days, being environmentally responsible is the hallmark of a good global citizen and it need not require major sacrifices in regards to your lifestyle or your wallet. In fact, increasing your home’s sustainability is apt to make your residence more livable and save you money in the long run. The five projects listed here are just a few of the easy ways to reduce both your environmental footprint and your energy bills. So, give one or more of them a try; with a small budget and a little know-how, there is no reason you can’t start today.

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Energy

Is Wood Burning Sustainable For Your Home?

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sustainable wood burning ideas

Wood is a classic heat source, whether we think about people gathered around a campfire or wood stoves in old cabins, but is it a sustainable source of heat in modern society? The answer is an ambivalent one. In certain settings, wood heat is an ideal solution, but for the majority of homes, it isn’t especially suitable. So what’s the tipping point?

Wood heat is ideal for small homes on large properties, for individuals who can gather their own wood, and who have modern wood burning ovens. A green approach to wood heat is one of biofuel on the smallest of scales.

Is Biofuel Green?

One of the reasons that wood heat is a source of so much divide in the eco-friendly community is that it’s a renewable resource and renewable has become synonymous with green. What wood heat isn’t, though, is clean or healthy. It lets off a significant amount of carbon and particulates, and trees certainly don’t grow as quickly as it’s consumed for heat.

Of course, wood is a much less harmful source of heat than coal, but for scientists interested in developing green energy sources, it makes more sense to focus on solar and wind power. Why, then, would they invest in improved wood burning technology?

Homegrown Technology

Solar and wind technology are good large-scale energy solutions, but when it comes to small-space heating, wood has its own advantages. First, wood heat is in keeping with the DIY spirit of homesteaders and tiny house enthusiasts. These individuals are more likely to be driven to gather their own wood and live in small spaces that can be effectively heated as such.

Wood heat is also very effective on an individual scale because it requires very little infrastructure. Modern wood stoves made of steel rather than cast iron are built to EPA specifications, and the only additional necessary tools include a quality axe, somewhere to store the wood, and an appropriate covering to keep it dry. And all the wood can come from your own land.

Wood heat is also ideal for people living off the grid or in cold areas prone to frequent power outages, as it’s constantly reliable. Even if the power goes out, you know that you’ll be able to turn up the heat. That’s important if you live somewhere like Maine where the winters can get exceedingly cold. People have even successfully heated a 40’x34’ home with a single stove.

Benefits Of Biomass

The ultimate question regarding wood heat is whether any energy source that’s dangerous on the large scale is acceptable on a smaller one. For now, the best answer is that with a growing population and limited progress towards “pure” green energy, wood should remain a viable option, specifically because it’s used on a limited scale. Biomass heat is even included in the UK’s Renewable Heat Initiative and minor modifications can make it even more sustainable.

Wood stoves, when embraced in conjunction with pellet stoves, geothermal heating, and masonry heaters, all more efficient forms of sustainable heat, should be part of a modern energy strategy. Ultimately, we’re headed in the direction of diversified energy – all of it cleaner – and wood has a place in the big picture, serving small homes and off-the-grid structures, while solar, wind, and other large-scale initiatives fuel our cities.

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