Why Germany’s Nuclear Phase Out is Leading To More Coal Burning

  • Date: 02/02/14
  • Robert Wilson, The Energy Collective

In the first half of this decade Germany will open 9 new coal power plants. This is more new coal coal capacity than was constructed in the entire two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In September 2012 Germany’s Environment Minister opened a new lignite power plant, arguing 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.”

Peter Altmaier is not alone, recently the climate benefits of Germany’s new and apparently ultra-efficient coal power plants have been extolled not only by manufacturers such as Siemens and power companies including RWE, but even some of the German nuclear phase out’s most vocal proponents.

We are also now seeing increasing numbers of people suddenly noticing an uptick in coal power, and deciding it has little to do with Germany’s decision to move away from nuclear energy. These arguments however require both an alternative arithmetic, and an alternative history. Here is why.

In the aftermath of Fukushima, Germany prematurely shut 8 nuclear power plants. Respect for arithmetic and the intelligence of my readers dictates that I do not explain why this should lead to an increase in carbon dioxide emissions. However, the relationship between Germany’s nuclear phase out and the construction of new coal power plants deserves an explanation.

Between 2011 and 2015 Germany will open 10.7 GW of new coal fired power stations. This is more new coal coal capacity than was constructed in the entire two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The expected annual electricity production of these power stations will far exceed that of existing solar panels and will be approximately the same as that of Germany’s existing solar panels and wind turbines combined. Solar panels and wind turbines however have expected life spans of no more than 25 years. Coal power plants typically last 50 years or longer. At best you could call the recent developments in Germany’s electricity sector contradictory.

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(Coal production: author’s calculation based on 80% load factor projected by Pöyry. Wind and solar production from Fraunhofer ISE. )

These new power plants are sometimes blamed by nuclear proponents on the post-Fukushima decision to shut all nuclear power plants by 2022. This is a myth. Any large piece of infrastructure takes a long time to build, and Germany simply could not respond to Fukushima by building new coal power plants at this scale and speed. Investment decisions for these power plants were made in 2005-2008 (see table 2 here). In response supporters of the nuclear phase out claim this shows that construction of new coal power plants have nothing to do with Germany’s decision to phase out nuclear energy. This however is historical revisionism.

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