Germany’s Lost Decade

Nuclear Shutdown Whets Germany's Appetite for Coal

Germany appears intent on doing three things faster than almost any developed country: expanding renewable power, closing nuclear power plants, and building new coal power plants. The first two are much praised by those who drink the Energiewende Kool Aid, while the third is often treated as some kind of myth by the same people. Germany’s Environment Minister however recognizes it is not a myth, but appears to believe in magic instead. After the opening of a 2.2 GW coal power plant earlier this year, he absurdly stated the following:

“If one builds a new state-of-the-art lignite power plant to replace several older and much less efficient plants, then I feel this should also be acknowledged as a contribution to our climate protection efforts.”

Now, one would have hoped that such statements would kill off Germany’s hopes of being a model Green country. After all it could easily build gas plants instead, and get half the emissions. Instead prominent figures such as Bill McKibben continue to peddle wishful thinking about Germany’s energy plans, apparently with no regard for the actual carbon dioxide Germany will be pumping into the atmosphere.

What, however are the actual emissions impacts of Germany’s over praised Energiewende? More important, for those countries considering copying Germany, is whether its nuclear phase out will have negative implications on the Energiewende. Many Greens believe that it won’t. An illustrative example is Damian Carrington of the Guardian newspaper, who fumbled around in the dark “busting the carbon myths” of Germany’s energy policy. Some argued that shutting 8 nuclear reactors in 2011 would lead to Germany importing more electricity, to which Carrington responded that Germany instead simply exported less. This is sophistry of the highest order. He then explained away any rise in emissions by claiming that they would be magically offset by reductions elsewhere due to the workings of the European Emissions Trading Scheme. A fine piece of special pleading, curiously absent when the possibility of the UK building new gas plants is discussed.

Similarly, the recent book Clean Break, on Germany’s Energiewende, made the following claim:

Germany’s old coal plants are being decommissioned faster than new ones are coming online.

This fact is a key part of the author’s explanation of why Germany’s nuclear shutdown is not having the effects some of its critics claimed it would. The problem however is that what the author claims has absolutely no basis in reality. Germany is building coal plants faster than it is decommissioning them. This can easily be checked by looking at the list of power stations the German government says are being built and decommissioned between now and 2015 (see the second spreadsheet).

In total, between now and 2015, Germany is decommissioning 1.8 GW of coal plants, but building 8 GW. This is not a healthy ratio. In contrast, it is only building 1.5 GW of gas, which could provide the electricity with half of the emissions. So, quite astonishingly, the carbon intensity of Germany’s new build fossil fuels is actually higher than its existing fossil fuel capacity.

The plain truth is that Germany’s nuclear shutdown means that its carbon emissions from electricity are going precisely nowhere in the next decade. Before March 2011 Germany got 40% of its power from low carbon sources (23% nuclear, 17% renewables.) What is it targeting for 2020? 35% renewables (though they may push this up to 40%). This leaves fossil fuels where they are today. So, the arithmetic is clear: Germany is spending vast amounts of money on renewable energy and putting big increases on regular consumers’ electricity bills, while phasing out nuclear energy, all so that they can stand still.

Simply calling this a lost decade for Germany, however, may be overly optimistic. The continued increase in consumer electricity bills is almost certain to dampen the enthusiasm for clean energy, and Germany’s already fond appetite for coal may be increased all the more.

Robert Wilson is a PhD candidate in Mathematical Ecology at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. He blogs at Carbon Counter, where a pervious version of this appeared. You can follow him on Twitter @planktonmath.