German Renewables Reach 25 Percent

The numbers of photovoltaic installations are just as astonishing

2 min read
German Renewables Reach 25 Percent

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.

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Smokey the AI

Smart image analysis algorithms, fed by cameras carried by drones and ground vehicles, can help power companies prevent forest fires

7 min read
Smokey the AI

The 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California is suspected of being caused by Pacific Gas & Electric's equipment. The fire is the second-largest in California history.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 fire season in the United States was the worst in at least 70 years, with some 4 million hectares burned on the west coast alone. These West Coast fires killed at least 37 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, caused nearly US $20 billion in damage, and filled the air with smoke that threatened the health of millions of people. And this was on top of a 2018 fire season that burned more than 700,000 hectares of land in California, and a 2019-to-2020 wildfire season in Australia that torched nearly 18 million hectares.

While some of these fires started from human carelessness—or arson—far too many were sparked and spread by the electrical power infrastructure and power lines. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) calculates that nearly 100,000 burned hectares of those 2018 California fires were the fault of the electric power infrastructure, including the devastating Camp Fire, which wiped out most of the town of Paradise. And in July of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric indicated that blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly 400,000 hectares.

Until these recent disasters, most people, even those living in vulnerable areas, didn't give much thought to the fire risk from the electrical infrastructure. Power companies trim trees and inspect lines on a regular—if not particularly frequent—basis.

However, the frequency of these inspections has changed little over the years, even though climate change is causing drier and hotter weather conditions that lead up to more intense wildfires. In addition, many key electrical components are beyond their shelf lives, including insulators, transformers, arrestors, and splices that are more than 40 years old. Many transmission towers, most built for a 40-year lifespan, are entering their final decade.

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