renewable energy

Energiewende, The German Energy Transition. In a 1954 the Atomic Energy Commission Chairman Lewis Strauss in a speech predicted that “It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electric energy too cheap to meter.” While later disputed whether the optimism was based on high expectations of fusion energy or on nuclear power in general, the phrase has stuck with critics of over-promises of not only nuclear energy but also of other “new technologies”.

If not “too cheap to meter” in 2004 the German Minister for Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, Jürgen Trittin, came close, when he (in)famously stated that the surcharge (“Umlage”) for the German Energy Transition (“Energiewende”) to renewable energy, primarily wind and solar, for a household would amount to “only around one euro per month, the price of a scoop of ice cream”.

The reality turned out differently. A German household has now (2018) some of the highest prices for electricity in Europe, 33.9 cents/kWh, including the surcharge for the energy transition. As a comparison the average retail electricity price (2018) in Europe is about 24 cents/kWh and in the United States is 13.9 cents/KWh.


There is a military saying, when faced with a discrepancy between the map and the terrain, trust the terrain!

In a similar way, when faced with a discrepancy between what a company offers and what the customers want, trust the customers!

According to Utility Dive 71 of Fortune 100 companies and 215 of the Fortune 500 have now defined targets for clean energy or sustainable energy. Many of them seems very determined to achieve their targets.


In the electric industry, baseload refers to the minimum level demand over 24 hours. The baseload is generally about 30 – 40 % of the peak load. Traditionally the baseload has been served by low cost power generators, operating steadily and continuously.

Coal fired power plants, nuclear, and (depending on geography) hydro have been the backbone of baseload generation. Operating in “baseload mode” is more or less a prerequisite for nuclear and coal-fired power plants. That is because of their high fixed costs and need to run due to long start-up times and limited ability for load-following.

This paradigm has started to change.



Jämtkraft, a municipal electric company in Östersund, Sweden, announced December 13 the launch of a “cloud-based” energy storage for residential customers. For a cost of 20 SEK  ($2.50) per month the customer can deposit excess power from its solar installations and use it later.


Germany is the 4th largest economy in the world. Consequently, when Germany launched its Energiewende to transform its electric industry from fossil fuels to 80 % renewable by 2050, it got worldwide attention. If such a large economy could make this transformation and stay competitive as a nation, other large economies should also be able to follow.

Germany started out with trademark German determination. To make transformation even more aggressive, after the Fukushima nuclear incident, they decided in 2011 to exit all nuclear by 2022. Progress has been impressive. By 2015 renewable energy represented 31 % of all electric energy consumption.

If California was a nation, it would be the world’s 6th largest economy. In an executive order, B-30-15, the statewide goal was set to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40 % below 1990 levels by 2030. As part of this goal California has set the ambitious goal to transform their electric consumption to reach 50% of renewables by 2030.  At the end of 2015 renewable energy has reached 26 %. However, contrary to Germany this target does not include large hydro! Trying to compare apples and apples with Germany by including large hydro, California was well over 30 % of all electric consumption from renewables.


“When you come to a fork in the road, take it!” was Yogi Berra’s way to give directions to his house. In his case he was right, since both roads led to his house. In the case of the German Energiewende it is not as clear what road to take and some roads may not even lead to the destination.


The U.S. electric industry is undergoing an unprecedented transformation, in terms of magnitude and speed, from a dominance of coal to more natural gas, wind and solar.

Natural gas fired combined cycle generation has among the lowest levelized cost of electricity (LCOE). Between 2006 and 2014 natural gas prices fell by 34 %. Meanwhile the average retail electricity price rose by 17%, which is about the same rate as consumer price index during this period. Only one state, Texas, saw a significant decrease, 13 %, in retail electricity prices.

It triggers the question: Do lower energy costs also mean lower electricity prices for the consumers? The question is straightforward. The answer is more complicated. It is “Yes and No”. Let’s elaborate by looking at available data for the last 10 years.


Access to a large electric system provides big economies of scale not only  in terms of diversity  and low cost of power generation, but even more so for minimizing necessary reserves and for making it easier to balance variable resources like wind and solar.

Islands without access to neighboring electric systems are in every aspect on their own. They have to generate all the power they need and they must themselves keep the system reliable no matter what. Adding more renewable energy to an island system can be an opportunity, but large amounts of variable renewable energy increases the challenge of maintaining reliability at reasonable costs.


Achieving 100% renewable energy was not so long ago seen as a dream. Now recognized to be viable, many cities around the world have set such targets.

Still it is not a trivial task to get to 100% renewable energy, while at the same time ensure reliable and affordable electric power. A key enabling factor is being connected to a large and robust electric grid.  It gives access to remote renewable resources and it is the most cost efficient way to balance the variability of wind and solar. Let’s take a closer look at a couple of cases.


Sunday August 18 Germany set a new renewable record. That day at 2 pm generation from renewable energy sources provided 75 % of all power needed to satisfy the total demand of electric energy.

Less noticed was that Burlington Electric Department, Vermont, in September with the purchase of a 7.4 MW hydroelectric facility achieved its goal of reaching 100 % from renewable energy.

While Germany’s August 18 record was a peak, Burlington’s 100 % is basically on a continuous basis.

What makes Burlington Electric’s achievement additionally impressive is that retail electricity rates in Burlington are less than half of the rates in Germany, 13.7 cents/kWh (time of use rate 2014) versus 36.25 cents/kWh (average 2013).