Data and Facts

Recent facts about photovoltaics in Germany

Compiled by Dr. Harry Wirth, Fraunhofer ISE | Last updated: June 10,2020

Germany is leaving the age of fossil fuel behind. In building a sustainable energy future, photovoltaics is going to have an important role. The following summary consists of the most recent facts, figures and findings and shall assist in forming an overall assessment of the photovoltaic expansion in Germany.

  • Are we reaching our annual capacity target?

    The annual target of the German Federal Government for PV expansion was exceeded in 2019, but the goals of the energy transformation are still far away.

    In order to cover all of our energy needs from renewable energies (RE), a massive expansion of the installed PV power is necessary, along with a number of other measures. Various model-based scenarios anticipate an expansion corridor of 120-650 GWp nominal capacity, depending on assumptions on boundary conditions and accompanying measures ([BCG], [ACA], [ESYS], [ISE5], [IWES], [UBA], [ISE11], [UBA8], [IRENA], [ISE12]). If we assume a PV expansion of 400 GWp by 2050, then an average of 12 GWp of PV will have to be added annually. Increasingly, old systems also have to be replaced. These replacement installations are currently of little importance, but they increase to about 13 GWp per year in the fully expanded state with an assumed useful life of 30 years.

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  • Does PV contribute significantly to the power supply?

    Yes.

    In 2019, PV generated 8.2% of gross electricity consumption (definition in Section 8724.8) with an electricity generation of about 46.5 TWh [ISE4] in Germany, all renewable energies (RE) came to 43% (Figure 1). On sunny days, PV electricity can temporarily cover up to 50% of our current electricity consumption. At the end of 2019, PV modules with a nominal output of around 49 GWp were installed in Germany [ISE4], distributed over 1.8 million systems [BSW1].

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  • Is PV power too expensive?

    It depends on the reference point.

    It is difficult to compare the costs of PV electricity with fossil and nuclear electricity since external costs incurred by environmental, climate and health damage or risks as a result of pollutant emissions are largely left out ([UBA3], [FÖS1], [FÖS2]).

    The marginal costs for nuclear power are in the order of 1 €-ct/kWh, for coal-fired power 3-7 €-cts/kWh, for gas-fired power 6-9 €-cts/kWh. The fixed costs of power generation (e.g. investments, capital) are added on top of this. The marginal costs essentially cover the provision of the fuel, but not the neutralization of the radiating waste or polluting emissions (CO2, NOx, SOx, Hg). Although an EU-wide emissions trading (European Union Emissions Trading System, EU ETS) was introduced for the energy sector in 2005 to make CO2 emissions more expensive and to internalize costs to some extent. Due to an overabundance of certificates, however, the price had collapsed by the end of 2017. In addition, certificate trading covers only 45% of greenhouse gas emissions across Europe, because important sectors are excluded [UBA5]. Estimates of the direct and indirect follow-up costs also facing Germany in the coming years due to global climate change are not yet known.

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  • Is PV power subsidized?

    No. The support is provided through a selective surcharge, which applies also to self-produced and self-consumed PV electricity.

    The investment incentives for PV power are not supported by public funds. While fragmentary reports often quote figures relating to past and future PV power feed-in tariff payments in the hundreds of billions and call these «subsidies”, a true subsidy is supported by public funds. The EEG, on the other hand, makes provisions for a surcharge in which energy consumers make a compulsory contribution towards the energy transformation, a necessary and agreed upon resolution. This interpretation is also supported by the European Commission. The EEG surcharge is not the total remuneration, but rather the differential costs, calculated as the difference between costs paid (remuneration) and revenues received (see section 4.4). The cumulative costs paid out for PV power fed into the grid up to and including 2018 amounted to ca. 82 billion euros, according to the German Federal Ministry of Economics.

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  • Are we exporting large amounts of PV power to other European nations?

    No, the increased export surplus comes primarily from coal power plants.

    Figure 16 shows the increase in electricity exports since 2011 [ISE4]. The monthly values of the Energy Charts (www.energy-charts.de) show that the export surplus was conspicuously high in winter, i.e. in months with a particularly low PV power production. The average export price per kWh of electricity differs slightly from the average import price.

    The fact that the German power plant park is increasingly producing for export should also be related to the low production costs for coal electricity, in particular the low CO2 certificate prices (Section 5.2) of recent years.

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  • Can new PV plants bring reasonable rates of return?

    Yes.

    In principle, new PV installations can bring profits through grid feed-in as well as self-consumption. Although the legislator curtails both business models through a package of measures (Section 4.7), good returns are possible due to the sharp drop in prices for PV modules. This also applies to PV systems without or with only low self-consumption [HTW].

    Self-consumption becomes more worthwhile, the greater the difference is between the cost of delivering PV electricity and the LCOE of the PV system. For systems without energy storage, the self-consumption is dependent on coinciding supply and demand profiles. Independent of the system size, households generally consume 20-40 % of their self-produced electricity [Quasch]. Larger systems increase the percentage of PV coverage for the total power, however, reduce the percentage of self-consumption. Commercial or industry consumers achieve an particularly high rate of self-consumption as long as their consumption profile doesn’t collapse on the weekends (e.g. Refrigerated warehouses, hotels and restaurants, hospitals, server centers, retail). Energy storage and technologies for energy transformation offer a large potential for increasing the self-consumption (compare Section 18.3).

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  • Does installing PV only create jobs in Asia?

    No, however over the last few years Germany lost many jobs in the PV industry.

    In 2018, the PV industry employed 24,000 people in Germany [BSW]. By comparison, about 21,000 people still worked in lignite mining and lignite-fired power plants in 2015 [ÖKO1]. Businesses from the following sectors contribute to the German PV industry:

    1.   manufacture of materials: solar silicon, metal pastes, bus bars, plastic films, solar glass, coated glass

    2.   manufacture of intermediate and final products: modules, cables, inverters, mounting structures, tracker systems

    3.   mechanical engineering for cell and module production

    4.   installation (especially trade)

    In 2019, the German inverter manufacturers held notable shares of the global market with approx. 10%, silicon manufacturers (Wacker), silver paste manufacturers (Heraeus) and manufacturers of production systems.

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  • Are large energy suppliers interested in PV?

    In 2016, the majority of Germany’s installed PV capacity belonged to private individuals, farmers and commercial businesses. The four big power plant operators EnBW, Eon, RWE and Vattenfall (called «big four” in Figure 18) owned a mere 0.2 percent. Where does their aversion to PV power come from?

    1.     The electricity consumption in Germany is showing a declining to stable tendency since 2007. The construction of new renewable power plants will force either a reduction in the utilization rate of existing power plant parks or an increase in electricity export.

    2.     Because PV electricity is generated primarily during periods of peak load, conventional peak load power plants are required less often. This reduces their utilization and profitability in particular. Paradoxically flexible power plants with fast response times are increasingly in demand for the energy transformation.

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  • Is PV research taking up high levels of funding?

    Looking back at previous numbers, Figure 20 shows that it took time for renewable energy and energy efficiency to become a focal point of energy research.

    Figure 21 shows the funding granted for PV research by the federal ministries.

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  • Does PV power overload our energy system?

    More than 98 percent of solar power systems in Germany are connected to the decentralized low-voltage grid (Figure 23) and generate solar power consumption [BSW].

    As a result, solar power is mainly fed in decentrally and hardly demands to expand the German national transmission grid. High PV system density in a low voltage grid section may cause the electricity production to exceed the power consumption in this section on sunny days. Transformers then feed power back into the medium-voltage grid. At very high plant densities, the transformer station can reach its power limit. An even distribution of PV installations over the network sections reduces the need for expansion.

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  • Does the manufacture of PV modules consume more energy than they can produce?

    No. The Energy Returned on Energy Invested (ERoEI or EROI) describes the relationship between the energy provided by a power plant and the energy spent on its construction. Energy payback time or energy payback time indicates the amount of time a power plant must run to provide the amount of energy invested.

    Harvest factor and energy payback time of PV plants vary with technology and plant location. A recent study from 2017 [RAUG] found a harvest factor of 9-10 for PV power plants with wafer-based modules based on measured PV yields from Switzerland and an assumed lifetime of 25 years, corresponding to an energy payback period of 2, 5 - 2.8 years. Wind power plants have significantly shorter energy payback times, usually less than a year.

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  • Is there enough space for PV in Germany?

    Yes, without any significant conflicts with agriculture.

    When analyzing potentials, a distinction is made between a theoretical, a technical and an economic-practical, feasible or exploitable potential. The theoretical potential considers the maximum possible implementation of a technology on the basis of the total supply (physical rough calculation). The technical potential is lower because it takes basic technical constraints into account (technical rough calculation). The economic-practical potential takes into account all relevant boundary conditions, in particular legal (including nature conservation), economic (including infrastructure), sociological (including acceptance), as well as competing uses (e.g. solar thermal energy and PV on roofs). Different sources draw somewhat different boundaries between the categories.

    A study commissioned by the German Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure estimates the potential for expansion of non-restriction open spaces for PV ground-mounted systems to 3164 km2 in Germany [BMVI]. With an area consumption of 1.4 ha/MWp according to the current state of the art [ZSW], these areas offer a technical potential of 226 GWp.

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  • Do PV power plants find acceptance in the population?

    Yes. The free scalability of PV power plants enables decentralized expansion, even down to so-called "balcony modules" ("plug-in PV") with a few hundred watts rated power. The high number of more than 1.7 million PV systems in Germany, of which about 60% are small systems with outputs below 10 kW, shows that extensive use is made of these technical possibilities.

    According to a representative survey by Lichtblick, solar systems are among the most popular power plants [Licht2]. Figure 32 shows the distribution of the answers to the question "If you think of the construction of new plants for energy generation in Germany: What types of plants should the focus be on?”

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  • Are PV plants in Germany efficient?

    The nominal efficiency (see section 24.2) of commercial wafer-based PV modules (i.e. modules with silicon solar cells) in new production has increased in the last few years by approx. 0.3 percentage points per year to average values of approx. 17.5% [ISE10] and a peak performance of 22%. They provide a nominal output of 175 W per square meter module, top modules up to 220 W.

    Since additional losses occur during operation, PV plants do not actually operate at nominal module efficiency. These effects are combined in the performance ratio (PR). A well-designed PV plant installed today achieves a PR of 80–90 percent throughout the year. This takes into account all losses incurred as a result of higher operating temperature, varying irradiance conditions, dirt on the solar modules, line resistance, conversion losses in the inverter and downtime. Inverters convert the direct current (DC) generated by the modules to alternating current (AC) for grid feed-in. The efficiency of new PV inverters currently stands close to 98 percent.

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  • Does PV make a significant contribution to reducing the CO2 emissions?

    Yes.

    While PV systems do not release CO2 during operation, a holistic view must also take into account the manufacture of the system and its disposal. If one considers the life cycle of a photovoltaic roof system operated in Germany, plausible estimates lie between approx. 50 (Figure 39, [EnAg]) and 67 g CO2 eq./KWh solar power [UBA7]. With the spread of new technologies such as diamond wire saws, greenhouse gas emissions from PV production have decreased significantly in the recent past.

    By expanding RE, the CO2 emission factor for electricity generation in Germany could be reduced to 474 g CO2/kWh by 2018 (Figure 40). The expansion of RES has reduced the CO2 emission factor for the German electricity mix from 764 g CO2/kWh in 1990 to 474 g CO2/kWh in 2018 (Figure 38). The emission factor describes the ratio of the direct CO2 emissions of the entire German electricity generation (including electricity export) to the net to electricity consumption in Germany [UBA6].

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  • Are PV systems capable of replacing fossil fuel and nuclear power plants?

    No, not in the near future.

    PV and wind power may currently be capable of reducing the use of fossil fuels, imported energy consumption and CO2 emissions but until considerable storage capacities for electricity or hydroelectric storage facilities are available in the grid, they are not capable of replacing capacities. Calm, dull winter days, when power consumption is at a maximum and no solar or wind power is available, present the most critical test.

    Despite this, PV and wind power are increasingly colliding with conventional power plants with slow start-up and shut-down processes (nuclear, old lignite power plants). These power plants, which are almost only capable of covering the base load, must be replaced by flexible power plants as quick as possible. The preferred power plant choice is multifunctional electrically powered CHP plants fitted with thermal storage systems (Section 18.3.6).

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  • Are we capable of covering a significant proportion of our ener-gy demand with PV power?

    Yes, to the extent that we adapt our energy system and the energy-related structures to the requirements of the energy transformation.

    Energy demand and supply

    The traditional energy industry promotes fossil and nuclear energy sources (primary energy), converts them and prepares them for end users (Figure 43).

    The conversion and consumption are subject to dramatic efficiency deficits. For example, the end energy consumed in traffic is predominantly converted into waste heat via internal combustion engines; only a small part is transferred as mechanical energy to the drive train (load-dependent approx. 10-35%). Of the drive energy generated, a considerable part of the braking is still irreversibly burned, especially in city traffic, because internal combustion engines do not recuperate. Thus, motorized road traffic burns fossil fuels with a very low efficiency, based on the transport performance. Households, which use about 75% of the final energy consumed for heating, could halve their consumption through simple heat protection measures.

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  • Do we need PV production in Germany?

    Yes, if we want to avoid new dependencies in energy supply.

    As the energy transformation progresses, Germany will leave behind the «fossil fuel” century, in which we spent 90 billion euros for oil and gas imports annually and thus financed authoritarian governments.

    The energy transformation offers the chance to escape from this dependency. Not only does the sun also shine in Germany but Germany has also made decisive contributions to technology development in the solar sector. Despite the slowdown in national expansion of Germany’s solar market, the German PV sector with its material manufacturers, engineers, component manufacturers, R&D institutes and training facilities has held onto its leading position worldwide.

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  • Does it still need a Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG)?

    Yes, with focusing on the energy transformation process.

    The current market mechanisms would provide too little incentive for long-term investment in the energy transformation without the support of an EEG. The main reasons is the sectoral gaping pricing of CO2 emissions, which fluctuates with the stock market and is much too low overall. A socially balanced national carbon tax, such as that introduced in Sweden in 1991 and in Switzerland in 2008 as a "tax levy", can bridge these shortcomings.

    As a rule, PV power plants of all sizes require a grid connection in order to deliver electricity that can neither be consumed on site nor saved economically. In order to maintain the diversity of actors involved in PV generators, a legal framework must entice the grid operator to make connections easily.

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  • Do PV modules contain toxic substances?

    That depends on the technology and materials used.

    Wafer-based modules

    The silicon wafer-based modules (more than 90 percent of the market share) often contain lead in the cell metallization layer (around 2 grams of lead per 60-cell module) and in the solder used (approximately 10 grams of lead). Lead, a toxic heavy metal, is soluble in certain, strongly acidic or basic environments, and lamination in the module does not permanently prevent mass transfer [IPV]. In wafer-based modules, lead can be completely substituted by harmless materials at low additional costs. Some module manufacturers use backsheets containing fluoropolymers, for example polyvinyl fluoride

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  • Are there enough raw materials available for PV production?

    Wafer-based modules

    Wafer-based modules do not require any raw materials which could become limited in the foreseeable future. The active cells are fundamentally composed of silicon, aluminum and silver. Silicon accounts for 26 percent of the mass of the earth’s crust, meaning that it is virtually inexhaustible. While aluminum is also readily available, the use of silver poses the most problems. The PV industry currently uses approximately 1,400 metric tonnes of silver annually, corresponding to almost five percent of production in 2015. In the future, the silver in solar cells could be used more efficiently and replaced by copper as much as possible.

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  • Do PV plants increase the risk of fire?

    Can defective PV plants cause a fire?

    Yes, as is the case with all electric installations.

    Certain faults in the components of PV plants that conduct electricity may cause electric arcs to form. If flammable material, like roofing material or wood, lies in close vicinity to these arcs, then a fire may break out depending on how easily the material ignites. In comparison to AC installations, the DC power of solar cells may even serve as a stabilizing factor for any fault currents that occur. The current can only be stopped by disconnecting the circuit or preventing irradiation reaching any of the modules, meaning that PV plants must be constructed carefully.

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  • Does it still need a Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG)?

    Yes, with focusing on the energy transformation process.

    The current market mechanisms would provide too little incentive for long-term investment in the energy transformation without the support of an EEG. The main reasons is the sectoral gaping pricing of CO2 emissions, which fluctuates with the stock market and is much too low overall. A socially balanced national carbon tax, such as that introduced in Sweden in 1991 and in Switzerland in 2008 as a "tax levy", can bridge these shortcomings.

    As a rule, PV power plants of all sizes require a grid connection in order to deliver electricity that can neither be consumed on site nor saved economically. In order to maintain the diversity of actors involved in PV generators, a legal framework must entice the grid operator to make connections easily.

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