Germany seems to be windier than it is sunny. Consequently, the consensus long held that solar would play a bit part to wind’s starring role in the country’s energy transition. But new wind projects often face public opposition. People support clean power – until their community’s landscape is marred by rows of wind turbines. This has slowed the growth of Germany’s wind capacity. Solar power, by contrast, is on the upswing. For one thing, in recent years solar modules have become 20% more efficient and very much cheaper. In addition, solar farms’ operating costs are low. Lazard, a financial consulting firm, has calculated that in the United States solar power is already cheaper than coal, natural gas, and nuclear. Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, sees “solar becoming the new king of the world’s electricity markets… [I]t’s on track to set new records for deployment every year after 2022.”
Less of an eyesore, a better habitat
Solar farms don’t exactly beautify the landscape. But people generally find them less unsightly than wind farms. They’re also more environmentally compatible. A study by the Berlin-based Association of Energy Market Innovators found that many birds and insects feel at home in solar farms, which are less noisy and less hazardous than wind turbines and their rotor blades. Plants thrive as well. Indeed, agrivoltaics, a space-saving, dual-use solution that combines solar power and agricultural production, has considerable promise. Indeed, the protection provided by overhanging solar panels could actually increase the yields of some crops.
Moreover, solar panels are eminently scalable. They make any open space a potential location for energy production: landfills, motorway medians, refilled strip mines, railroad pathways, and rural areas generally. They’re also much more suitable than wind for urban areas. Solar modules can be mounted on home and garage rooftops, parking ticket dispensers, and motorway noise barriers. E.ON, Germany’s biggest retail energy supplier, points out that 90 million square meters of commercial roof space could provide about 6.8 gigawatts (GW) of solar capacity – as much as eight coal-fired power plants.
German policymakers are only slowing warming to these advantages. The Spiegel, a weekly news magazine, reported in mid-November 2020 that the government plans to subsidize just 0.25 GW of big rooftop solar installations annually in 2021 and 2022. Why? To save money. Similarly, the country’s Renewable Energy Law, which is in the process of being amended, calls for only 2.5 GW of new solar capacity each year. Although the latest draft legislation calls for this figure to be doubled, observers wonder whether even this would be enough to enable Germany to meet its targets under the Paris Agreement.
The Renewable Energy Law is still being debated. So it’s uncertain what Germany’s final solar expansion targets will be. But it’s clear that solar energy will play an increasing role in the country’s transition to a low-carbon future.