Exploding the German coal myth – Is Germany really developing more coal power stations?

German coal plant
Grevenboich coal plant, Germany (Pic by Patrick Pekal, Flickr)

It’s a popular tale, regularly pounced upon by critics of renewable energy, and it goes something like this: Germany is having to construct more coal-fuelled power stations in order to balance power as the country’s ‘energy transition’ (energiewende) advances. However, is this entirely accurate?

Currently a third of Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions come from coal, particularly the dirtier form known as lignite (brown coal). Unfortunately, these coal plants also constitute 44 percent of German energy supply. For this reason, coal plants are the major target for cuts in emissions (representing about 22 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent), which under the energiewende is aiming towards a target of a 40 percent cut in carbon emissions by 2020.

However, Germany did construct some new coal-fired power plants in 2012 and 2013, thereby increasing the share of total electricity supply provided by coal by 5 percentage points to 52 percent. It was this that sparked off the media clamour about Germany building more coal plants but the reality is that in 2014 coal’s share of electricity fell by 11 percent compared to 2013 with lignite falling by 3 percent.

The coal plants that went online in 2012 and 2013 were planned for in the opening stages of European emissions trading and therefore were not part of the energy transition. In general electricity production from hard coal and lignite has fallen by more than 6 percent. Furthermore, since Fukushima, not a single coal plant has been built.

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The Landschaftspark in Duisburg-Mederich is based around a coal and steel production plant, abandoned in 1985. Designed by Peter Latz, Landschaftspark is now an interesting artwork based on the theme of memory of our industrial past (Pic by Phillippe Teuwen, Flickr)

A common myth is that Germany is building more coal plants in order to compensate for its nuclear power phase-out. This is entirely the result of the clamour over the construction of the plants built in 2012-13 and therefore can easily be debunked. What Germany is actually doing is replacing the nuclear capacity with renewable energy capacity.

Nevertheless, there is a concern about possible shortages. Germany shut down one of its nine nuclear power stations in June this year, leaving only eight more to be closed. The 1,345 MW Grafenrheinfeld generated one-sixth of Bavaria’s electricity supply and is the second plant to be closed down after Isar. Another three Bavarian nuclear plants are due to be shut down by 2022, Gundremmingen B in 2017 and Gundremmingen C and Isar II in 2021 and 2022, respectively. According to a study commissioned by the Green Party governor of Baden-Württemberg, Hans Filbinger, this will leave Germany in danger of an energy shortfall by the end of the decade. The gap will be filled by building more renewable energy plants.

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Isar nuclear power plant, shut down in March 2011 (Pic by Bjoern Schwarz)

“We have made substantial progress with expansion of renewable energy in Bavaria, to the extent we will be able to cover most of the capacity lost through renewables” said Ilse Aigner, Bavarian minister for energy and the economy.

Across the country as a whole, renewable energy provided 26 percent of Germany’s electricity production in 2014, double that achieved in the US but lagging behind Denmark which has managed to generate more than 30 percent of its electricity demand from wind power alone.

One of the problems is that fewer coal plants mean more reliance on natural gas, which, although it emits only as half as much as coal, means more reliance on Russia for supplies (representing about 40 percent of Germany’s natural gas requirement). Nevertheless, in 2015 Germany announced plans to reduce emissions from lignite. This created a new problem, in that the industry predicted a loss of thousands of jobs, a complaint underlined by around 15,000 miners travelling to Berlin to protest. The German government relented, setting a reduction target amounting to half that originally required (22 metric tons of carbon emissions). German utilities will henceforth be paid to downsize their operations while keeping their power plants in reserve. This will in turn eliminate around 2.7 GW of lignite production, representing 13 percent of the national lignite total and displacing 11 metric tons. The government further announced that the difference would be made up by subsidies for energy efficiency in heating.

“Ultimately, we will deliver the 22 m ton reduction, but at a higher cost” said Sigmar Gabriel, Social Democrat leader, vice chancellor and federal minister for economic affairs and energy.

The cost will amount to $2.2 billion to $3.3 billion per year, divided between the German government and private consumers, who will therefore have to pay more their electricity. The decision means that brown coal plants of more than 2.7 GW capacity will be mothballed, prevented from selling electricity on to the open market but retained in an operational capacity just in case of shortages.

It will take a while for the clamour and rumours about supposed new coal plants to subside, but subside they will. Germany is indeed doing what many other countries should be doing – getting on with it.

About Robin Whitlock
I am an experienced freelance journalist with a wide and varied portfolio to my credit including web content, magazine articles, reporting, features, interviews, reviews and blogs. My special interests include environmental issues, particularly climate change, renewable energy, transport, green building and sustainable infrastructure. I have numerous secondary interests ranging from politics and current affairs to social justice, science, technology and innovation, historical topics and lifestyle subjects such as literature, psychology, contemporary spirituality and culture.

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