Germany once prided itself on being the “photovoltaic world champion,” doling out generous subsidies — totalling more than US$130-billion, according to research from Germany’s Ruhr University — to citizens to invest in solar energy. But now the German government is vowing to cut the subsidies sooner than planned, and to phase out support over the next five years. What went wrong?
According to Der Spiegel, even members of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s staff are now describing the policy as a massive money pit. Philipp Rösler, Germany’s Minister of Economics and Technology, has called the spiralling solar subsidies a “threat to the economy.”
Germany’s enthusiasm for solar power is understandable. We could satisfy all of the world’s energy needs for an entire year if we could capture just one hour of the sun’s energy. Even with the inefficiency of current PV technology, we could meet the entire globe’s energy demand with solar panels by covering 250,000 square kilometres, about 2.6% of the Sahara Desert.
Unfortunately, Germany — like most of the world — is not as sunny as the Sahara. And, while sunlight is free, panels and installation are not. Solar power is at least four times more costly than energy produced by fossil fuels. It also has the distinct disadvantage of not working at night, when much electricity is consumed.
In the words of the German Association of Physicists, “solar energy cannot replace any additional power plants.”