Germany to Raise Geothermal Feed-in Tariffs

By Paul Gipe

Germany wants to do for geothermal energy what it has done for wind, solar photovoltaics, and biogas by raising its payments for geothermally-generated electricity in 2012.

Feed-in tariffs – fixed, high payments for electricity generated by wind turbines, solar panels and biogas power plants – have been responsible for Germany’s world leadership in renewable energy development, most of which are in small distributed applications.

However, Germany is in the "also ran" category in geothermal energy, tying Ethiopia for the amount of capacity installed. Even France, a country not known as a hotbed of renewable energy development has more than twice the installed geothermal generating capacity as Germany.

In 2000, Germany introduced a system of differentiated feed-in tariffs to pay people for generating renewable energy. The policy pays one price for wind energy, another for solar energy, and so on. It also differentiates its renewable tariffs by project size and, in the case of wind energy, by resource intensity.

Germany also uses feed-in tariffs to pay for electricity generated by geothermal plants.

Current Geothermal Status

Following feed-in tariff revisions in 2009, Germany implemented geothermal tariffs for two project sizes: those less than 10 MW and those greater than 10 MW. 

Above these base rates, Germany offers substantial bonus payments for completing projects on time, the type of technology used and how it is used.

As a result, geothermal rose from just 220 kW of capacity in 2003 to 7.5 MW in 2010, supplying a meager 0.03% of Germany’s energy.

The German Renewable Energy Federation (Bundesverband Erneuerbare Energie or BEE) expects that by 2020 Germany will have installed 625 MW of new geothermal plants or nearly two orders of magnitude more than that today. Still, it would generate under 1% of its electricity demand.

Therefore, Germany is substantially raising its feed-in tariffs to speed up geothermal development.

German Geothermal Costs

The cost to generate geothermal averages €0.21/kWh ($0.30/kWh), according to Dr. Erwin Knapek, president of the Geothermal Business Forum (Wirtschaftsforum Geothermie).

He recommended to Germany’s conservative government that they scrap a subsidy that covers 30% of drilling costs and instead simply raise the tariff.

Although this doesn’t reduce exploration risk, a big concern to geothermal developers worldwide, it makes the payment more attractive if the wells are successful.

The conservative coalition government of the Christian Democrats-Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) and the neoliberal party (FDP) appears to have accepted this suggestion.

For project developers, says Knapek, this simplified payment reduces bureaucracy and the policy risk that the government will scrap exploration subsidies. In contrast to the policy risk posed by elimination of federal subsidies with each budget review, payments from feed-in tariffs and the policy they represent are much more stable in Germany and accepted across party lines.

While the Ministry for the Environment and Nuclear Safety (BMU) and the Merkel cabinet has recommended that the 30% exploration subsidy be continued, Germany’s upper chamber, the Bundesrat, appears disinclined to agree and early indications are the subsidy will not be extended. The Bundesrat will vote in early July.

If the feed-in tariff revisions are accepted by both chambers of the German parliament (the Bundestag and the Bundesrat), the new tariffs will go into effect at the beginning of 2012.

Proposed New Geothermal Tariffs

The revision of the geothermal tariffs is part of the normally scheduled revisions of all tariffs. The last revision was in 2009.

To inform the parliamentary policy debate, studies on the experience of each technology’s growth during the previous period are undertaken and a report on this experience is published by the Ministry of the Environment or BMU. The most recent "experience report" (Erfahrungsbericht 2011 zum Erneuerbare-Energien-Gesetz) was delivered to the Bundestag at the end of May.

The report contains information on the cost and performance of each technology. Here are just a few items gleaned from the section on geothermal energy.

  • Projects operating in Germany deliver a 90% capacity factor,
  • Drilling costs account for about one-half of total project costs,
  • New projects cost €10,900/kW ($15,500/kW),
  • Most German projects are developed at intermediate temperatures,
  • Higher temperature sites in Bavaria can produce electricity for €0.20/kWh, and
  • Lower temperature sites, more typical of elsewhere in Germany, need €0.27/kWh.

The report also shows how much is being typically spent by ratepayers on each size tranche within each technology.

German geothermal development uses what the industry calls low-temperature resources. Unlike the more well known geothermal fields at Larderello, Italy or the Geysers in California that use relatively conventional power plant design, low-temperature geothermal resources, like those in Germany, France, and Switzerland, require more complex, and costly, "binary" technology.

To simplify construction and reduce costs, binary geothermal power plants have become standardized and are built in a series of small modules from 1 MW to 7 MW. The average size of binary geothermal power plants worldwide is ~2.5 MW according to a reference textbook by engineering professor Ronald DiPippo. The modules are then clustered at one site.

If past experience is any guide, these clusters of small generators will be connected at the distribution level. Projects in Germany are typically found in small, distributed applications on the outskirts of cities, towns and villages.

For example, one 3 MW geothermal plant was built on the southern edge of Landau in Rheinland-Pfalz in 2007 and another 3.4 MW plant in the city of Unterhaching south of Munich in 2009.

Both geothermal plants are about the same size as modern wind turbines. However, geothermal plants operate more often at full capacity than wind turbines.

The Ministry for the Environment assumes in its report that a geothermal plant will typically generate 8,000 kWh/kW of installed capacity (a capacity factor of ~90%), whereas the average generation of wind turbines in Germany is about 2,000 kWh/kW. Thus, a geothermal power plant in Germany should generate four times more electricity than a wind turbine for the same generating capacity.

The Ministry for the Environment recommends simplifying the geothermal tariff structure by eliminating separate size tranches. Most current projects, the report says, are less than 10 MW. They recommend offering a bonus for projects installed prior to 2016 and combining a bonus for district heating into a single tariff. They maintain and increase the bonus for using enhanced geothermal using hot, dry rock.

They recommend raising the geothermal tariff nearly €0.10/kWh ($0.14/kWh) above that in 2011 to €0.25/kWh ($0.36/kWh).

Germany’s proposed new geothermal tariffs, if implemented, will put it on a par with France and Switzerland where existing tariffs range from €0.20/kWh ($0.30/kWh) to €0.30/kWh ($0.40/kWh).

Earlier this month, the International Energy Agency (IEA) urged greater use of geothermal energy because of its ability to provide critical baseload power that’s available all over the world, reliably every day of the year. 

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Comments on “Germany to Raise Geothermal Feed-in Tariffs”

  1. Feed in Tariff Shahram

    Great article! I hope more countries around the world switch to solar and governments provides incentives to switching to solar.


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