Denmark on track for 100% renewable energy

Denmark, a tiny country on the northern fringe of Europe, is pursuing the world’s most ambitious policy against climate change. It aims to end the burning of fossil fuels in any form by 2050 — not just in electricity production, as some other countries hope to do, but in transportation as well.

Now a question is coming into focus: Can Denmark keep the lights on as it chases that lofty goal?

Anyone at the TIMES realize what a wonderful context requires a question like this?

Lest anyone consider such a sweeping transition to be impossible in principle, the Danes beg to differ. They essentially invented the modern wind-power industry, and have pursued it more avidly than any country. They are above 40 percent renewable power on their electric grid, aiming toward 50 percent by 2020. The political consensus here to keep pushing is all but unanimous.

The trouble, if it can be called that, is that renewable power sources like wind and solar cost nothing to run, once installed. That is potentially a huge benefit in the long run.

But as more of these types of power sources push their way onto the electric grid, they cause power prices to crash at what used to be the most profitable times of day.

That can render conventional power plants, operating on gas or coal or uranium, uneconomical to run. Yet those plants are needed to supply backup power for times when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining…

The governments have offered short-term subsidies, knowing that if they force companies to operate these plants at a loss, it will be a matter of time before the companies start going bankrupt.

Throughout Europe, governments have come to the realization that electricity markets are going to have to be redesigned for the new age, but they are not pursuing this task with urgency. A bad redesign could itself throw customers into the dark, after all, as happened in California a decade ago…

Amazing. An adult supposedly knowledgeable about power generation, pricing and, yes, price manipulation – who apparently never heard of Enron. The corrupt company with even more corrupt capitalists at the helm who deliberately induced many of California’s so-called power shortages.

The government is…well aware that it needs to find a way out of this box. Environmental groups, for their part, have tended to sneer at the problems the utilities are having, contending that it is their own fault for not getting on the renewables bandwagon years ago…

So the trick now is to get the market redesign right. A modest version of reform would essentially attach a market value, and thus a price, to standby capacity. But Rasmus Helveg Petersen, the Danish climate minister, told me he was tempted by a more ambitious approach. That would involve real-time pricing of electricity for anyone using it — if the wind is blowing vigorously or the sun is shining brightly, prices would fall off a cliff, but in times of shortage they would rise just as sharply.

As Denmark, like other countries, installs more smart meters and smart appliances able to track those prices with no human intervention, one can imagine a system in which demand would adjust smoothly to the available supply. Most people would not care if their water heater were conspiring with other water heaters to decide when to switch on and off, as long as hot water reliably came out of the tap.

Has Mr. Gillis ever traveled, lived among ordinary folks in Europe? First time I ran into tankless hot water heaters was in Switzerland – in 1971. Prices gave been coming down as efficiencies rose – even for electric models instead of gas-fired. We installed an on-demand electric hot water heater in our home this summer for less than $400 for the unit. Our household electric bill is down 20-30%. Payback in one year.

Yet, even if Denmark can figure out a proper design for the electric market, it has another big task to meet its 2050 goal: squeezing the fossil fuels out of transportation…Mr. Petersen told me he still felt electrification of cars was the way to go, but the cars themselves were not really ready.

“We need longer range and lower prices before this becomes a good option,” he said. “Technology needs to save us here.”

Fortunately, there are more than one or two automobile manufacturers dedicated to resolving that portion of the questions asked. Builders ranging from Volkswagen/Audi/Porsche to Mercedes, Nissan/Renault, target less expensive electric cars with ranges extending 250 to 550 miles decades before the 2050 renewable electrification target date.

At the mid-price point and up for big luxury cars Tesla is already there.

An important footnote BTW. Save the arguments about “manageable” small countries vs what is needed to change over the United States. It can be done one state at a time, one region at a time. Denmark is bigger than a number of states. So is the size of that nation’s population.

The important bit is that the citizens and politicians are also smarter, sensible and willing to change. That’s the significant comparison.

Wind turbines DON’T lower property values – Gasp!

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You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, as Bob Dylan said. But whether or not it’s a good idea to build wind turbines to harness wind energy has been a matter of some debate in communities throughout the country and world.

One of the main arguments used by those who oppose the turbines is that they decrease property and home values. But a new study effectively puts that argument to rest.

The study, published this month, looked at more than 50,000 home and property sales near 67 wind facilities in nine U.S. states and found no average decrease in home properties when windmills were built nearby. Study author Ben Hoen, a policy researcher…at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said it’s the second large-scale study he’s been involved with that’s shown such a result.

“Regardless of the home’s model and construction, regardless of how we slice the data set, we still ended up with the same result: We cannot find evidence of an impact that turbines have on nearby property values,” Hoen said…

Most windmills aren’t placed in densely populated areas, however. In this case, the argument can become a matter of aesthetics, with some claiming they are eyesores. But many also see them as beautiful kinetic sculptures, John Rogers, a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told LiveSience.

The fact that windmills usually don’t affect home prices suggests that the other concerns (annoyance, potential health effects, etc.) aren’t widespread enough to have an economic impact, Hoen said. Or widespread enough to detract from their environmental upside.

Studies have shown, however, that windmills may in some instances have significant impacts on birds and bats. Usually, though, “there are ways to find proper sites for wind farms to avoid, minimize or compensate for the impact it might have on wildlife,” Rogers said.

Some of the new coastal offshore wind farms have become tourist attractions. Of course, the answer to that from some Luddites is that “those people” haven’t good taste. Uh-huh.

Renewables exceed 20% of Germany’s energy production

In the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, tens of thousands of German citizens took to the streets calling for the phase out of atomic energy. In May, the German government bowed to public pressure and unveiled its plan to shut down the country’s 17 nuclear power plants by 2021 – with the possibility that three will continue operating until 2022 if the transition to renewable energy doesn’t go as quickly as hoped.

Providing some hope that Germany will achieve its ambitious goals, Spiegel Online International has quoted a newly released…report that says, for the first time, renewable sources accounted for more than 20 percent of the country’s electricity generation…

According to the report, renewable energy sources provided 18.3 percent of total demand in 2010, but the first six months of 2011 saw that figure rise to 20.8 percent, while Germany’s total usage remained steady from 2010 at 275.5 billion kilowatt hours…

Of the 57.3 billion kWh provided by renewable sources in the first six months of 2011, wind power was the dominant source supplying 20.7 billion kWh (7.5 percent of total production), followed by biomass with 15.4 billion kWh (5.6 percent), photovoltaic solar with 9.6 billion kWh (3.5 percent), hydroelectric with 9.1 billion kWh (3.3 percent, and waste and other sources providing 2.2 billion kWh (0.8 percent).

Solar power saw the biggest jump, increasing by 76 percent over 2010 with the BDEW citing the reduction in the price of photovoltaic installations as a result of increased competition and the decision of the federal government not to cut subsidies for private solar-power generation as initially planned as the main reasons for the increase.

“Because of the volume of new photovoltaic installations and the amount of sun during the spring, solar energy knocked hydroelectric from third place for the first time,” said the BDEW.

Two points worth making. First – the economies of scale really play well with photo-voltaics. It’s a technology where small but noticeable advances are being made in both cost of production and efficiencies of energy production. Second – German voters are already sophisticated enough to ignore the hypocrisy of fossil fuel facility builders who whine about continued subsidies. Fact is – all fossil fuel plants rely on taxpayer subsidy for construction. There’s little difference in passing along subsidies to consumers with home installations.

I spent most of the past half-century as an advocate for nuclear power generation. From early days working in the field, it was clear that properly-run there was no need for safety concerns. Over that time the only disasters which have occurred were the result of bureaucratic malingering. Which can happen in any industry. The difference being that falling-down stupid about safety with nuclear power can be fatal on a large scale.

More important, we’ve just about reached the point where the cost of production of electricity via photo-voltaics matches the cost of construction and production of nuclear facilities. That will continue to diminish while the opposite happens with nuclear projects. And there will never be shutdown dangers associated with natural disasters using photo-voltaics.