A Squandered Opportunity

Germany's Energy Transition

Germany’s ‘Energiewende’ – or ‘energy transition’ – has been getting steadily more controversial. Hyperbole has been flying from all sides: enthusiastic greens have been celebrating Germany’s supposed success in generating half its electricity from solar power (not true) whilst nuclear advocates have been bemoaning the fact that the nuclear phase-out has led to soaring CO2 emissions (also not true).

The latest figures for electricity production have just been published by the Federal Association of Energy and Water Industries. Here they are, at a glance:

The relevant supporting documents are on the BDEW website in German, here and here (PDF).

Here are the main takeaways for me.

Solar PV

Solar continued its enormous growth rate between 2011 and 2012. Production rose from 19.3TWh (terawatt-hours) in 2011 to 27.6TWh in 2012, representing an impressive increase of 47.7%. In terms of total electricity generation, solar’s percentage rose from 3.2% in 2011 to 4.6% in 2012. This is an extraordinary achievement by any standard.

Wind power

Wind production actually fell slightly from 2011 to 2012, by 7.9%. Wind generation was 48.8TWh in 2011, and fell to 46TWh in 2012. Looking at the graph in the full report, it seems that December 2011 was particularly windy, whilst December 2012 was much calmer. In total, wind represents 7.3% of German electricity production.

Other renewables

With all the fuss about solar (and to a lesser extent wind) it is easy to forget that biomass and hydro are also important. Biomass combustion for electricity generation is 5.8% of the total, while hydro is 3.3%, and has flatlined for years. With 1% municipal waste this brings the total renewables production up to 21.9%.


Despite the furore of the dramatic policy reversal post-Fukushima, nuclear still provides more electricity in Germany than wind and solar put together, adding up to 16% in total (down from 17.7% in 2011). Nuclear generated 108TWh in 2011, and this fell to 99TWh in 2012. It will fall further in years to come, and nuclear is due to be phased out completely by 2022.


Germany still uses large amounts of the dirtiest coal, lignite, and its use is rising. Both hard coal and lignite are being burned in larger amounts in Germany, despite its climate emissions targets. In 2011 lignite accounted for 24.6 of German electricity, and this rose to 25.6 in 2012. Hard coal rose from 18.5% to 19.1%. Thus coal accounted for a higher proportion of generation, and CO2 emissions likely have risen as a result.


Because gas prices remain high in Europe relative to coal, gas is being forced out of the electricity market – and with widespread opposition to fracking, there is little prospect of cheaper gas (as in the US) for the foreseeable future. It is important to acknowledge that this is not a problem confined to Germany, and is the case in the UK as well, where the proportion of coal in the generation mix has also risen over the last year. The collapse in the carbon price on the ETS has also not helped matters, as it is not nearly enough to make up the difference.

So it is not necessarily fair to blame the increase in German coal burning on the nuclear shutdown – had the relative prices of the competing fossil fuels been different, the lost nuclear generation might instead have been balanced out by gas. Other factors are also at play here, because electricity production varies with the economic situation, the weather and the export-import balance to at least the same extent as the marginal changes in nuclear, coal and gas over the last year. In terms of a nuclear shut-down leading to higher CO2 emissions, Japan is much more of a story than Germany.

The Energiewende and the climate

My conclusion so far is that unfortunately Germany’s ‘renewables revolution’ is at best making no difference to the country’s carbon emissions, and at worst pushing them marginally upwards. Thus, tens (or even hundreds, depending on who you believe) of billions of euros are being spent on expensive solar PV and wind installations for no climatic benefit whatsoever.

Although I have been unable to find clear figures for the changing CO2 intensity of German electricity (if anyone has them, please post in the comments below), nuclear’s fall of 1.7% almost exactly equals the rise in renewables of 1.6% between 2011 and 2012. This means that the dramatic and admirable increase in renewable generation in Germany is simply a story of low-carbon baseload from nuclear being replaced by low-carbon intermittent supply from wind and solar (which, incidentally, also raises system costs by making the grid harder to manage due to intermittency).

Thus Germany is squandering its opportunity to meet its climate targets more quickly, easily and reliably because of an irrational public aversion to nuclear power. I have tried to engage Energiewende true believers in a debate about this, but have so far been unable to get any acknowledgement that coal is worse on every score than nuclear – not just in terms of CO2 emissions (obviously) but because coal kills hundreds of Germans every year from straightforward air pollution.

The Energiewende, it is probably fair to say, is not really about the climate at all. It is about getting rid of nuclear power, a singular obsession of the German Greens since their birth in the European anti-nuclear movement 1970s. With Germany the only Western European nation still intent on building a large amount of additional coal generation capacity (10GW according to some reports), this marks a remarkable policy failure for European environmentalism.

(Thanks to Gustaf Rosell for the prompt to write this and the German-language links.)

Mark Lynas is an environmental writer based in the United Kingdom. He is author of The God Species and winner of the 2012 Breakthrough Paradigm Award. This piece was originally published at his website marklynas.org.