The latest issue of the IEEE Power & Energy magazine (March-April) is devoted to photovoltaics, with substantial articles on the U.S. SunShot vision, integration of solar energy in one important U.S. grid, the solar picture in Germany, development of performance metrics on the basis of a 1 MW Tennessee plant, and the PV outlook in post-Fukushima Japan.
Even to somebody who has been keeping a pretty close eye on Germany, the German numbers astound. According to the article by Jan von Appen et al., total photovoltaic capacity in German is 31 GW, equivalent to 6-10 standard nuclear power plant installations, allowing for solar's intermittency. With much of that capacity concentrated in the relatively sunny South (which by the way is not all that sunny, by some standards), and with many recent installations at the distribution level, the challenges to grid management are formidable, as the authors explain.
Small and medium-size installations of less than 30 kV have dominated Germany's solar expansion in recent years, so that 70 percent to total PV capacity is now connected to the low-voltage grid. "In some low-voltage grids," they say, " the installed PV capacity can even exceed the peak load by a factor of ten."
Renewable energy now meets about a quarter of Germany's average electricity consumption, and at times photovoltaics alone satisfy as much as 40 percent of peak demand.
To be sure, Germans pay a fairly high price for what some might dismiss as a quixotic quest for political correctness in energy generation. German home rates, at 28 euro-cents per kilowatthour in 2012, were almost twice the residential rates in nuclear-rich France, for example.
Arguably, however, Germans are positioning themselves to do just what President Obama says he'd like to accomplish in the United States--to be a major global player in the technologies of the near future. And this is a game, let it be said, that Germans are extremely good at playing.
It's not just a matter of basic engineering excellence, which everybody knows about. Germans also excel at execution in high tech, as a recent article in the Wall Street Journal pointed out. And it's not just that either. Germans also excel at maintenance and follow-through.
Ride a German high-speed train and you won't be impressed only by the high speed. You'll notice that everything works, from the toilet paper rolls to the door handles. And you'll be struck that everything is clean as a whistle. You won't likely have, sad to say, the same experience on an Amtrak Acela.