Generating Photovoltaic Solar Power Close to the End Consumer

By Frank Thomas

This article is a continuation of the series on PV (photovoltaic power) power generation. Previous articles were Learning from the Cascading Power Failures that Brought Down the Power Grid in India by Deb Severson and Power to the People or Power to the Corporations by John Lawrence.

The evidence is substantial that distributed local PV power plants have the lowest transmission loss and cost as well CO2 pollution footprint of all available energy sources. In Germany, more than 98% of all PV power plants are decentralized. Of course, this is easier for European countries each of which is a population intensive, closely knit national community. PV solar, in particular, is rapidly becoming a price competitive, significant sustainable renewable source. The development of average system prices indicates that Germany´s decentralized PV electricity production will likely achieve competitive parity with electricity from the grid for private consumption by 2013.

In my earlier writing on energy developments, I highlighted how Germany and Denmark are totally committed to a step-by-step process of being entirely covered by renewable energy sources by 2050 – in addition to aggressive programs for effective energy conservation (waste reduction) and efficiency in both electrical generation and consumption. It is expected that PV solar energy will account for 25-30% of Germany´s total electricity needs by 2050 vs. less than 4% today!

Between 2012 and 2050, Germany will have phased out of all of its nuclear power plants. This reflects a recent government decision to build no more nuclear plants and to gradually shut down its current plants! Denmark is on a similar 100% clean energy course by 2050.

Europe is playing a dominant role in the world distributed PV market systems. According to  research by the European Photovoltaic Industry Association (EPIA), PV prices are decreasing faster than expected. This along with the highly efficient and environmentally friendly (almost zero carbon) features of PV power plants is attracting more and more interest by other European countries (and countries outside Europe) in generating PV solar power close to the end customer. The EPIA makes the following forecast of European cumulative installed PV capacity by 2020:

PV Installed Capacity 2020        GW=Gigawatt

EUROPE                                          240 GW

Germany                                                     80 GW

Italy                                                               55 GW

France                                                         30 GW

Spain                                                              17 GW

UK                                                                 11 GW

U.S.                                                     18 GW 2015* /40 GW 2020

Source: Solar Energy Industry Association Q1 2012 Market Report

Germany is going from 25 GW installed PV solar capacity today to  80 GW by 2020 and Europe to an amazing 240 GW by 2020. Compare this to the U.S. which is going from 5 GW of installed capacity today to 18 GW by 2015 rising to 40 GW by 2020.

It is obvious  the way behind Europe in photovoltaic solar development … whether decentralized or centralized. BUT, on the positive side, PV solar plant activity is sharply increasing across the U.S. There are now 46 operating utility-scale plants of which 9 are in California; 28 plants under construction of which 12 are in California; and 120 are under development of which 62 are in California!  Clearly, California is one of the remarkable world leaders in its commitment to transition relatively quickly to PV solar systems.

A conservative estimate of total added U.S. GWs, allowing for delay and no go-ahead for some of the planned PV power plants, is as noted above 40 GW, hopefully more, by 2020 … still far behind Europe! This along with the grand rush to exploit huge internal reserves of unconventional shale/tight oil, tar sand oil, and conventional Artic offshore oil reserves means we are stacking the cards against ever stabilizing near/long-term polluting CO2 emissions and holding to a maximum earth temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius by 2050.

We simply do not a have a simultaneous, coherent national energy plan that step-for-step takes us off conventional fossil fuels (ignoring unconventional oil resources for the moment) by at least 70% by 2050 … while still getting our imported oil dependence down significantly. This 70% goal is piddling compared to Germany and Denmark’s plans to be 100% on renewable energy sources by 2050.

Frank Thomas–A graduate of Bowdoin and Dartmouth colleges, I was an independent management consultant and entrepreneur working with Dutch international shipbuilding and offshore oil/gas contracting firms for many years. In recent years, I have been a trainer for such firms as ING, DSM, Siemens, the Dutch Ministries of Foreign and Economic Affairs and the Ministry of Justice in The Hague and have been a teacher/lecturer at The Hague University and NTI University in Leiden. Training and lecture subjects covered have included: finance, legal writing, commercial law, report writing and presentations, advanced English writing and conversation.


  1. avatarRS says

    The reality: Germany is building 23 NEW coal-fired power plants to replace clean nuclear power with dirty but reliable coal power.

    It is impossible (without the fantasy invention of huge and cheap power storage) for solar to produce 30% of Germany’s electric power. German power LOAD occurs in the winter, when it is both cloudy and dark from 4pm to 10am. On the other hand, PV peaks in summer, when German power loads are lightest.

  2. avatarjohn says

    it seems one aspect you forgot to mention is the GGE of solar panel manufacturing itself is still estimated to be in the range of 50-75% of a coal fired power plant, over its projected life span of about 25 years. I’m all for solar but just thought it bears mention. If we are talking fully off the grid with the necessary battery storage solar isn’t greener by any stretch of the imagination, though the ability to tell power companies to shove off must be worth something in methane emissions.

  3. avatar says

    RS, where is the link that substatiates your assertions? Provide a link and I’ll check it out. It sounds to me like you don’t know what you’re talking about.

    • avatarjohn says

      Google is your friend, there are many pieces written on this. What if I told you hydro is worse than coal if you have to build new dams. That’s a fact too. The pouring of all the concrete has initial emissions, then when you flood all that land the dead organic materials spend decades decomposing and when sent through the turbines release methane gas.
      I think solar is a great idea, please don’t portray me as a naysayer. However I am also a skeptic of one sided measures and legislature that has made most manufacturing in the US prohibitive so it’s sent to China where we can’t monitor the emissions and pollution, both climate change related and conventional. They’re making solar panels and the processes they use are harmful as well as the mere industrialization of their people is something you have to consider. If 100,000 Chinese workers are employed in an industry that didn’t exist before, they’re all going to be driving cars, buying electricity, etc.
      It’s almost always lose/lose, and hard to truly calculate an end result of what’s better.

  4. avatarbob dorn says

    If the northern Europeans are making a mistake installing solar where winters are dark they needn’t worry. There’s plenty of sun elsewhere, and solar in those ever-growing zones of sunlight will largely offset the damages of German and Danish coal-burning if the solar plants can’t find energy. Besides, if a country can compete against oil 8 months out of the year, more power to it. And how likely are the prosperous Germans and Danes to be putting money to waste? Ultimately, it’s fascinating to find this reluctance to invest in solar among a lot of intelligent people. The same tendency exists against desalination and public transit The objections defy common sense.

  5. avatar says

    From Frank Thomas via email:

    “It’s impossible (without the fantasy invention of huge and cheap power storage) for solar to produce 25-30% of Germany’s electricity power (by 2050).” This challenging comment raises many questions.
    My plus 30 years working in Europe for European high-tech firms has taught me to be a bit humble about making predictions about what certain EU countries can and cannot do when their minds are set. Since 1991, Germany has gone from an installed renewable power capacity share of gross energy consumption of 6.7% % in 2001 to 20.1% in 2011 … a threefold increase and still accelerating. As one expert said, Germany recognizes a nation has to “think BIG” to make renewables work … solar panels on every roof, vast state-of-the-art wind farms, solar collectors in deserts, and advanced, interconnecting infrastructure that goes with it.

    This is reflected in Germany’s remarkable pace of renewable energy generated (Table 1) and installed (Table 2) to date. It is also reflected in the levels of renewable electricity consumption achieved to date and projected (Table 3) as a % of gross energy consumption.(Sources: “Renewables 2011,” Global Status Report by REN 21; Wikipedia)
    _______________________________________________________TABLE 1: Renewable Power Generated as a % of Total Electricity Consumption
    1991 2001 2011

    3.1% 6.7% 20.5% _______________________________________________________

    TABLE 2: Renewable Electricity Installed Power Capacity, 2010
    GW (Gigawatts)
    EU Germany U.S
    Wind 84 27 40
    Solar PV 29 17.3 2.5
    Biomass 20 5 10

    In 1st Qtr. 2011, Germany generated 2.75 Twh of electricity with PV, an increase of 87% over the same period in 2010. Further, Germany installed more PV in 2010 than the entire world did in 2009. Germany now has 44% of the global market for PV.

    TABLE 3: Solar,Wind, Biomass Relative Share in Electricity Consumption and in Total Electricity Consumption: Actual-Targets

    2011 2020 2050
    A. Renewable Electricity as % 20.5% 35% 80% of Total Electricity Consumption
    B. Renewable Energy as % 9.7% 18% 60% of Total Energy Consumption
    C. Reduction of CO2 Levels -19.6% -40% -80% Below 1990 levels

  6. avatar says

    TABLE 3: Solar,Wind, Biomass Relative Share in Electricity Consumption and in Total Electricity Consumption: Actual-Targets

    2011 2020 2050
    A. Renewable Electricity as % of Total Electricity Consumption
    20.5% 35% 80%

    B. Renewable Energy as % of Total Energy Consumption
    9.7% 18% 60%

    C. Reduction of CO2 Levels -19.6% -40% -80%
    Below 1990 levels
    _______________________________________________________The above shows how Germany not only thinks BIG but has a track record of achieving ambitious goals. That same commitment to doing what’s best for society as a whole over the long term is self-evident in Germany’s proven capacity to retain its highly skilled manufacturing base, now supplying over 24% of all jobs vs. less than 10% of jobs coming from U.S. manufacturing. Germany is not about to have a clean energy policy that causes manufacturing firms to start fleeing to China … driving up trade deficits, loss of jobs, budget deficits.
    The Japan nuclear plant disaster was the last straw in the German public’s long disenchantment with nuclear energy. Germany prefers not to follow France’s plus 75 nuclear plant course providing about 80% of France’s total energy. The nuclear waste disposal risk and risk of a tragic breakdown – in regions of scarce open land for disposal and very dense populations – are behind the firm decision to step out of nuclear energy (now supplying 11% of Germany’s energy needs) by 2022.

    Yes, Germany depends on coal power – as does the U.S. with its huge reserves – to offset the phase-out of nuclear energy and the gap left by renewables and gas. Coal is an interim solution to take up the slack when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. Since the 1950s, Germany has drastically cut back its coal production from 150 mines then producing 150 million tons of coal to less than 8 mines producing 18 million tons of coal today. This factor has helped to reduce Germany’s CO2 emissions to date. The 2007 study gaining attention to build 23 new coal plants will have a negative effect on Germany’s historically impressively declining CO2 emissions … but can be counter-balanced.
    Germany respects the lower pollution, and other benefits of gas-fired plants, e.g., it’s easier to turn a gas-fired power station on and off for intermittent generation of wind and solar. But Germany is seeking the best technology for optimum reduction/control of CO2 emissions for new coal and gas plants.
    Also, Germany is fully committed to the cumulative 40% CO2 emission reduction target for 2020 and beyond. Coal plant system design efforts will focus on moving to lower emission types of coal and away from the polluting “brown coal.” The aim is to capture the benefits of clean coal plus clean coal processing technologies, including integrating advanced carbon capture and storage systems to meet CO2 emission targets.
    The aggressive transition to renewables will require continued public support of high energy prices. In this regard, Germany’s generous feed-in-tariff has without question caused the sharp fall in solar prices worldwide. Sticking to the “think BIG” clean goal will drive expensive solar prices ever much lower as scale operations evolve step-by-step, but at a strong pace as Germany is showing.
    Will there be economic problems and technical obstacles along the way as there are now? Yes, of course. But the Germans are extremely resilient in recognizing and tackling societal problems so fundamentally serious as clean energy and limiting the heating up of the earth’s surface atmosphere to a still very warm 2 degrees celcius by 2050.
    Frank Thomas
    The Netherlands

  7. avatar says

    Another comment from Frank:

    I forgot to mention in my article that a large number of the new coal plants that Germany possibly will build are to replace ancient plants built in the early 60s when clean technology production knowhow for coal was very minimal to say the least.