Electricity is (only part of) energy demand

A couple days ago, I came across this tweet documenting a statement from a news anchorman of the Dutch state television (NOS). He made the claim that “Solar panels provide about 2% of our energy needs” [of the Netherlands] (translated from Dutch):

No, @NOS, solar panels do not provide “about 2% of our energy needs”. It was 0.42% in 2017. This year it will surely be more, but not five times as much. #electricityandenergyarenotthesame

That is what I was thinking too. Two percent of the energy needs of the Netherlands seems to be a lot. Last time I looked at those numbers, it was closer to 0.5% than to 1%. It would be rather unlikely that this number rose to “about” two percent in roughly one year.

The clip in the tweet came from the NOS news of October 21, 2018 (Dutch). The subject of that news flash was how good the solar generation already was this year. The actual claim was made in the closing words of the news flash (see the screenshot in the tweet).

If that was the only thing in this tweet, then I wouldn’t even bother about it. But when I scrolled down, I stumbled on this response from a Flemish energy expert (translated from Dutch):

And it is not energy but only electrical energy. We already advanced much further in Belgium.

It confirms the electricity-versus-energy-needs error in the news bulletin, but added that we, Belgians, already have a higher share of solar energy in our electricity generation.

Hurrah! 😉

Again something we are better than our northern neighbors. After the (meaningless) metric of installed capacity per km2, we now are also better in the share of solar energy generation. But how significant is this win and are there consequences involved?

Let’s first look at the numbers. Is that 2% true and how much better are we? Time to fire up the BP data set to check it out. The total energy needs of the Netherlands in 2017 was 86.1 Mtoe and solar energy accounted for 0.4 Mtoe. That is 0.46%, much less than the proposed 2%.

The electricity generation by solar of the Netherlands in 2017 was 1.9 TWh on a total generation of 116.6 TWh, meaning 1.63%. The news anchor probably used the data from 2018, so installed capacity would be increased by now and there was a heatwave this summer, so yes, currently the share of solar energy could well be “about” 2% of electricity generation. Nevertheless, this confusing use of “energy needs” is inflating the real number, suggesting a stronger trend than is warranted.

In Belgium, electricity generation by solar in 2017 was 3.1 TWh on a total generation of 86.4 TWh, meaning 3.59%. That is more than double of the solar energy share of the Netherlands. So that part is true, but it comes with consequences that neither of the two mentioned.

It was an exceptional summer this year, so it is not hard to understand that 2018 is a record year for solar. It would be weird if it wasn’t a top year: there is most probably more installed capacity and a long, hot summer extending in a very nice autumn. But it is not guarantied that we have always a good summer and then production will disappoint. I remember for example that the generation of solar energy in Belgium in 2017 was LESS than in 2016:

This despite the fact that installed capacity INCREASED in 2017:

The slow down of installed capacity is not very difficult to explain. Belgian government ended tax cuts and decreased subsidies some years ago. I leave it to the readers to find out when that was in the previous graph…

The Netherlands has a different trend. This is the electricity produced by their solar panels:

We don’t see that decreased production of 2017 compared to 2016 in the Netherlands. The reason is that installed capacity is still growing very strong in the Netherlands:

If there wasn’t this strong growth, then this 2017 decrease would have been visible. The capacity factor of solar in 2017 dropped to its lowest level, but this was masked by this growth. According to the website detailing the news flash (Dutch), the growth of the solar panels in the Netherlands is due to the current favorable regulations for owners of those panels. There are also other advantages (Dutch) when installing solar panels (which will surely disappear in the future).

Concluding. Is solar energy 2% of the energy needs of the Netherlands? No, the news anchor probably confused between energy use and electricity use. Solar energy is “about” 2% of the electricity use of the Netherlands and less than 0.5% of the total energy needs.

Are we further than the Netherlands now when it comes to the share of solar energy in our electricity use? Well yes, but we saw a slowdown in the last five years and even a decrease in generation of solar energy despite a growing capacity (due to the intermittency of solar power), while the Netherlands are still growing strong. At the point where the Netherlands is now, our growth was also very strong, but it will get more difficult to keep up with that growth as time passes and favorable regulations disappear.

3 thoughts on “Electricity is (only part of) energy demand

  1. poitsplace

    It is insane to me that a very large portion of the earth’s installed solar-pv is in…Northern Europe. Not only does solar NOT provide 2% of the energy needs, it provides its lowest output at the time demand is at its absolute highest. In order to use solar in Northern Europe they would need batteries capable of holding 5 or 6 months worth of electricity or enough solar to produce about 10X demand.

    Either way, every time I hear the greens talk about germany and other northern nations using solar like some kind of victory, I think about how they SHOULD be campaigning against it so it frees up solar output for some area where it could actually work (although I suppose without their nonsensical demand prices would be much higher)

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    1. trustyetverify Post author

      This is indeed another consequence of having more solar capacity. We need most electricity when it is cold and dark (winter) and least when it is warm and light (summer). More specific, we need to dimension our capacity to the highest demand: peak demand on working days in winter. Solar energy however is hardly present during the morning peak and is for about 3 weeks completely absent during the evening peak.

      Meaning that solar energy is useless when it comes to the contribution when we need it most and relatively more (conventional) capacity is needed to fill in when solar energy is low or absent. Wind energy could be available, but it is not reliable enough to take over. There are other possibilities of backup like pumped storage or batteries, but whatever the solution, there will be extra costs involved.

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      1. poitsplace

        Not to mention, as I’ve pointed out before. If you go with nuclear and batteries for peaking, the battery requirement drops from weeks of storage for more equatorial regions or months for a colder climate…to roughly 1/4 of a day for a nuclear plant anywhere you want it. That’s enough to run a nuclear power plant that outputs about 75% of peak local demand, peaking during the day with the batteries and recharging at night…plus you could run the power plant about 5-10% under its peak output so there was a bit of wiggle room.

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