The danger of solar after grid parity
German utilities organization BDEW says that the trend towards "direct consumption" of solar power by homeowners is simply going to make the grid – which everyone on the grid, including owners of solar roofs, still needs – more expensive for those without a solar roof.
Ever heard of "guerrilla photovoltaics"? Grid parity has been far, far surpassed in Germany; electricity from the grid now costs around 27 cents per kilowatt-hour, but the feed-in tariffs that take effect (see the Excel file here) on April 1 for the smallest solar arrays in Germany (up to 10 kilowatts) will drop to an astonishing 15.92 cents per kilowatt-hour.
What could be better than a switch to solar power now? As a German journalist Matthias Brake recently pointed out, the German Solar Energy Society (DGS) recently argued that everyone can go "guerrilla solar" by hooking up a single panel with a capacity of 245 watts and a module inverter to their home power socket – the term "guerrilla" apparently meaning that you shouldn't even bother going through the normal approval process for PV, which generally only takes a few days in Germany anyway. The original article (PDF in German) stops short of suggesting, however, that you should do everything illegally and not even tell your power provider that you have solar: "And just so everything is official," the article ends, "tell your grid operator that you now have a single-panel solar array and are thus helping to take a load off of the distribution grid."
Essentially, as the DGS puts it, "your meter runs backwards" from your own guerrilla solar panel, so we are talking about US-style net-metering. Feed-in tariffs provided a potential return of 5-7 percent on solar investments back when net-metering would have gotten you nowhere in Germany because the retail rate was so much lower than the cost of solar power. But now that grid parity has been surpassed, the solar sector would rather toss out feed-in tariffs, which still offer a 5-7 percent ROI, in favor of net-metering, now that grid power costs roughly two thirds more than solar.
The BDEW has another way of looking at it. In a press release published yesterday (in German), the organization points out that homeowners with solar roofs are not required to cover the cost of the grid when they consume their own power directly. Nonetheless, the grid still exists unchanged and with the same old costs to be covered – in this case, by everyone else who consumes a kilowatt-hour of power from the grid. The result will be that everyone who has not invested or cannot invest in solar (either for a lack of money or, in the case of solar guerrillas, because the only balcony they have faces north) will have to cover an inordinate share of the cost of the grid.
Nonetheless, as Renewables International has repeatedly pointed out, practically none of these people with solar roofs are completely off the grid, and they all still need the grid and all of its dispatchable capacity on those November evenings, when solar reliably supplies zero percent of German power and the country's overall power demand peaks for the year.
Granted, if each of Germany's approximately 22 million households followed this advice and went "guerrilla solar," all of the panels would merely add up to 5.39 GW (the country currently has more than 32 GW). What's more, only a quarter of the apartments and homes in Germany face the south, and many of those will already have solar roofs, so the impact of this advice – if heeded by most people – would be negligible. On the other hand, it would be nice if the solar sector would stop focusing on itself and start discussing with everyone else what a transition to more renewable energy requires – even if that means we need to slow down solar.
Furthermore, Germany provided a safe investment environment for photovoltaics for years back when it cost 3 to 5 times the retail rate, and ratepayers will continue to pay that bill for the 20 years of guaranteed feed-in tariffs for these expensive systems. Now that solar has become far cheaper than the retail rate, it would also be nice if the solar sector would refrain from advising citizenry to break the rules. (Craig Morris)