Analysis: Germany’s Plan to Phase Out Nuclear Jeopardizes Emissions Goals

June 13, 2011 | Sara Mansur,

One week ago, the German government released a report outlining its plan to close all of its 17 nuclear power reactors by 2017 and power the country without causing electricity shortages. That plan hinges heavily on the construction of 16 GW of new fossil-fired power pants. This analysis finds that Germany's new strategy would make achieving the country's ambitious 2020 climate goals far more difficult. To both achieve emissions reduction goals and fully displace nuclear power, renewable energy would need to scale up from 17% of the country's power supply today to a full 57% of total electricity generation in just nine years' time.

Replacing Lost Nuclear Capacity and Electricity Generation

Table 1 below, excerpted from the report, outlines the German government's plan for replacing the 21.4 Gigawatts (GW) of lost nuclear power generation capacity.

The plan indicates that--in the absence of nuclear power--Germany will continue to be heavily reliant on fossil-fuel generation for the bulk of its electricity supply. The report calls for the construction of 5 GW of new natural gas power plants, in addition to 11 GW of new coal-fired power plants currently under construction in the country. This will leave the country with a net increase of 5 GW in coal-fired electricity capacity, after the retirement of some 6 GW of older, and more carbon-intensive, coal-fired power plants.

The report also proposes an increase in the country's capacity to generate electricity from biomass by 1.4 GW.


The electricity generated by this increase in natural gas and coal-fired power would represent about 10% of forecasted electricity demand in 2020, and would provide about 44% of the electricity generation lost by the phase out of nuclear power.

Replacing the remaining nuclear-generated electricity, about 73 billion kWh, would require renewable power to scale to provide about 31% of total electricity demand in 2020, a substantial increase from the 17% of electricity demand renewable energy provided in 2010. At most, the new installations of biomass could provide an additional 7% of the electricity lost by the phase out of nuclear power, or 5% towards this 31% of 2020 electricity demand.

Germany has already vowed to scale renewable energy to supply 35% of its 2020 electricity demand as part of its national CO2 reduction goals. But as Figure 2 below illustrates, even achieving this ambitious goal is not enough to fully replace lost generation from nuclear power. As a previous Breakthrough Institute analysis has demonstrated, to fully replace nuclear power solely with renewable energy, Germany would have to scale the electricity provided by renewable energy to well over this 35% goal, to provide over 42.4% of the country's projected 2020 electricity demand.

Achieving Climate Goals

This scenario outlined in Germany's newest plan would be a step backwards for the country with respect to its emissions reduction goals, as nuclear power, a zero-carbon energy source, would be partially replaced by carbon-intensive fossil fuel generation. Unless Germany brought an additional 40 billion kWh of generation from its older, more carbon-intensive coal-fired power plants offline, this planned uptick in fossil fuel generation would cause the country's overall carbon emissions to rise by as much as 14% of the country's 2008 total carbon emissions (33 million tons of CO2), illustrated in Figure 1 below.


This plan will make it substantially more difficult for Germany to achieve its goal of reducing its carbon emissions by 2020 to 60 percent of 1990 levels. As Figure 2 below illustrates, if the country met its goal for renewable generation without any additional policies, it would fall roughly 57% percent short of meeting its combined nuclear phase out objectives and goal of reducing 2020 carbon dioxide emissions to 40% below 1990 levels.


Under this plan, to both displace nuclear power and meet its 2020 emissions reduction target, total renewable electricity generation would thus need to reach 305 billion kWh, or 57% of the country's electricity demand in 2020--an almost four-fold increase in electricity derived from non-hydro renewables like wind and solar power.

That is, the country would need to generate an additional 207 billion kWh of zero-carbon electricity in 2020, or 38% of Germany's projected 2020 electricity demand. A full 20% of this 207 billion kWh is derived from the increase in zero-carbon electricity required to displace the emissions that would result from the plan's proposed increase in fossil fuel electricity generation.

The significant scale up in the electricity provided by renewable energy to phase out Germany's nuclear power sector while meeting its climate goals is illustrated by the two figures below.


Alternatively, to offset some of this generation using efficiency measures, Germany would have to cut total electricity use by about 22% of projected electricity demand in 2020, provided the country met its goal for 35% of 2020 electricity demand generated from renewable energy. This would translate into an average annual decrease in the country's electricity consumption/GDP ratio of 3.92%, a substantial increase from the 1.47% annual improvement assumed by the IEA's BAU forecasts accounting for current German efficiency policies. As a further point of comparison, Germany's electricity consumption per unit of GDP fell by an average of about 1.7% annually from 1990 to 2010.

Germany's recent plan for the future of its electricity sector has been heralded by many as proof that the country can phase out its nuclear power plants while continuing to progress towards its carbon emissions reduction targets. However, as this analysis makes clear, the disconnect between these ambitious goals and the reality of the country's current emissions is only set to widen with the closure of the country's nuclear power sector.

Major Assumptions
Electricity Generation

Capacity Factors:
New Coal-Fired Power Plants: 70%
Old Coal-Fired Power Plants: 60%
New Natural Gas Power Plants: 45%
Biomass Power Plants: 75%

2008 Electricity Demand: 544 billion kWh
2020 Electricity Demand: 532 billion kWh

Carbon Emissions:

Emission Factors:
New Coal-Fired Power Plants: 0.77 tons CO2/MWh
Old Coal-Fired Power Plants: 824.76 g CO2/MWh (IEA Statistics Database)
New Natural Gas Power Plants: 0.398 tons CO2/MWh