German Solar Experience Offers Critical ‘Lessons Learned’ For America
Benjamin Franklin once said, “half the truth is often a great lie.” Keep that in mind when you read a recent report prepared for our friends at the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) about Germany’s experience with renewable energy, including solar power.
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Here’s the gist of the argument made by the energy consulting firm, Finadvice: Germany’s wholesale markets are suffering from “disequilibrium” because of increased consumer costs. The 86-page report is pretty much a hatchet job on renewables. “In conclusion, the lessons learned in Europe prove that the large-scale integration of renewable power does not provide net savings to consumers, but rather a net increase in costs to consumers and other stakeholders,” according to the report.
Really? That’s the problem with half-truths. Not surprisingly, there’s no mention of the enormous societal costs of the damaging pollution which is caused by burning fossil fuels and undeniably driving climate change.
So what’s the other side of the story—the one utilities fail to mention? In response to that question, the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) today released a comprehensive study taking an in-depth look at Germany’s solar support programs and how the United States can benefit in the long term from the experiences of the world’s leading solar producer.
Prepared for SEIA by the widely-respected Brattle Group, which provides economic and financial consulting around the world, the new report examines, among other things, the rising cost of Germany’s feed-in tariffs (FITs) for solar PV and resulting reform efforts. Today, Germany has 35 gigawatts (GW) of installed solar capacity and is on track to hit 52 GW in the near future, representing about 7 percent of the nation’s wholesale generation.
Most importantly, the report found: “By and large, the German path has been remarkably successful, given the goal—shared by a great majority of the population—of ‘de-fossilizing’ Germany’s electricity sector.”
But the report also acknowledged that there have been growing pains, as well, with some critics calling Germany’s solar support programs too expensive.
“The primary lessons from the German experience are that a system of FITs such as the one used in Germany can be highly effective in promoting the growth of solar PV,” the report continued. “But FITs for new installations should be adjusted regularly and perhaps automatically … so as to avoid undue increases of electricity rates for retail customers.”
Photo credit: Shutterstock
Yet the benefits of solar, according to the report, clearly outweigh some of the problems being experienced by Germany. One of these critically important benefits is reliability. “As the recent Ukraine crisis has shown,” the report stated, “the transition has also helped reduce the exposure of Germany to potentially volatile input prices to the traditional power system.” The report went on to say, “it is perhaps not surprising that the German system has been capable to remain highly reliable up to now, even with a significant and rising contribution of intermittent renewable energy sources.”
This is a thoughtful report—not a scare tactic—and SEIA plans to share its findings with policymakers and regulators nationwide.
Here’s my takeaway from the report: When you examine all of the facts, Germany is a lesson to be learned from, not an experience to be avoided. Admittedly, the costs of Germany’s renewable support programs, including solar PV, have been significant—and higher than expected. But that’s only part of the story.
As the report pointed out, there is also significant evidence that increased power production from the use of solar and other renewables is a major contributor to falling wholesale market prices in Germany, while also helping to significantly reduce pollution. For the U.S., the goal should be to improve solar support programs, not eliminate them. This new report reinforces that objective.
The Brattle Group report concluded by stating: “The reform efforts of the solar PV and renewable support programs in Germany should not be interpreted as an acknowledgement of a broad failure of the Germany systems of FITs. Rather, the reforms are indeed an effort to improve the design of the FIT system … Germany’s experience therefore likely provides an opportunity to ‘look ahead’ and see how electricity systems and the rules governing them will have to adapt when penetration rates of various renewable energy sources reach levels similar to those in German today and beyond.”
In the final analysis, let’s have a debate about renewable energy which includes all of the facts—from the costs of energy to the costs of pollution—and then decide what’s best for America in the long run.
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When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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