When the sun turns off the solar panels

The brighter the sun in the southern German town of Aurach, the more likely it is that Jens Husemann’s solar panels will be disconnected from the grid – a maddening paradox at a time when Germany is going through a crisis of energy supply.

“It’s off every day,” Husemann told AFP during a recent sunny spell, saying there had been more than 120 days of forced shutdowns so far this year.

Husemann, who runs an energy conversion company near Munich, also owns a large solar power system on the flat roof of a transport company in Aurach, Bavaria.

The energy produced is routed to the power lines operated by the network manager N-Ergie, which then distributes it on the network.

But in sunny weather, the power lines become overloaded, leading the grid operator to cut power to the solar panels.

“It’s a betrayal of the people,” Husemann said, pointing to soaring electricity prices and continued pressure to install more solar panels across Germany.

Europe’s largest economy is planning an ambitious switch to renewables representing 80% of its electricity from 2030 with the aim of becoming carbon neutral.

But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine put a damper on the work.

Moscow has cut Germany’s gas supply by 80% in what is seen as an attempt to weaken European power’s resolve to back Ukraine.

As a result, Berlin scrambled to find alternative sources around the world to make up the shortfall.

This makes the situation all the more frustrating for Husemann, whose solar panels normally produce enough electricity for 50 homes. With the repeated shutdowns, he suspects they will only supply half capacity by the end of the year.

Network bottlenecks

Grid operator N-Ergie, which is responsible for harvesting electricity from Husemann’s panels, admits the situation is not ideal.

There were 257 days last year when it had to cut power to solar panels on parts of the grid.

“We are currently witnessing – and this is a good thing – an unprecedented boom in photovoltaic parks,” Rainer Kleedoerfer, head of the development department at N-Ergie, told AFP.

But while it only takes a few years to commission a solar power plant, updating the necessary infrastructure takes between five and 10 years, he said.

“The number of interventions and the amount of reduced energy have been steadily increasing in recent years” as a result, according to N-Ergie spokesman Michael Enderlein.

“Network bottlenecks are likely to increase in the coming years,” while resolving them will take several more years, Enderlein said.

According to Carsten Koenig, managing director of the German Solar Industry Association, the problem is not unique to solar energy and also affects wind energy.

Solar bottlenecks tend to be regional and temporary, he said. “From time to time, however, we hear that, especially in rural areas of Bavaria, closures are more frequent.”

2.4 million households

Koenig agrees that the problem is likely to get worse before it gets better.

“This will be particularly true if policy measures aimed at sufficiently extending

in Germany…dragging too long,” he said.

Some 6.1 terawatt hours of electricity from renewables had to be curtailed in 2020, according to the latest figures available.

With an average consumption of around 2,500 kilowatt hours per year in a two-person household, that would have been enough to power around 2.4 million homes.

A spokesperson for the German Federal Network Agency said it did not share the belief that “it will not be possible to expand the network according to demand in the coming years”.

Only some aspects of the expansion are experiencing delays, the spokesperson said, mainly due to slow approval procedures and a lack of specialist companies to carry out the work.

According to Husemann, there have also been delays in the payments he is supposed to receive in return for the solar power he provides — or cannot provide.

He said he already owed about 35,000 euros ($35,600) for electricity generated so far this year that never found its way into an outlet.

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