Emissions Nuclear Policy Renewables

Germany’s grand energy experiment

Most readers of BNC know the story — after the Fukushima nuclear crisis, the German government announced that Germany would phase out all of its nuclear generation capacity by 2022. In almost the same period, Germany also aims to cut its national greenhouse gas emissions to 40% of 1990 levels (by 2020). Their emissions have already fallen by 22% since 1990, due in part to the reunification of West and East Germany and the subsequent closing down of the most polluting industrial and energy plants. So they have another 18% to go. Given the nuclear policy, can it be done?

According to this study by the Ecologic Institute (published prior to the nuclear shutdown announcement), Germany will have to initiative a range of aggressive measures, focused on energy efficiency, smart metering, car taxation, renewable energy heating systems, etc. etc. This was to make up a ‘gap’ compared to 2009 policies of 70 – 90 million tonnes (Mt) of CO2-e. The gap is now much larger.

Let’s look at the task ahead.

In 2010, 16.9% of Germany’s electricity came from renewable energy sources; nuclear provided 23.3%. The relative share, spread across renewable-based electricity (not final energy), is shown in the figure on the right. The installed renewable capacity was 55.7 GWe, producing 101.7 TWh of electricity, for an all-tech-averaged capacity factor of 20.8%. The aim is for renewables to provide 35% of electricity by 2020.

Nuclear provided 141 TWh of electricity in 2010. If this had come from coal instead (assuming an EI of 1.12 t/MWh), it would have produced about 158 Mt of additional CO2-e. Germany’s total emissions for 2010 were 960 Mt CO2-e, compared to 1230 Mt in 1990. The 2020 target is 740 Mt, with the remaining gap, to fill in the next 9 years, being 220 Mt. If we wipe out consideration of the now-to-be-retired nuclear fleet, that brings the ‘gap’ up to almost 380 Mt CO2-e.

Note that total final energy use in Germany in 2010 was 8,984 PJ, which is 2,495 TWh. So the economy-wide emissions intensity (EI) is 0.385 tCO2-e/MWh. This breaks down to a mix of 34.6% oil, 22.5% coal, 21.7% gas, 11% nuclear, 1.5% wind, 0.8% hydro, 0.9% solar and 7.9% biomass combustion. I calculate, based on standard EI values, that about 40% of Germany’s total 960 Mt CO2-e comes from oil emissions, 39% from coal, 20% from gas and ~1% from other.

So where do the 380 Mt of required 2020 savings come from? Nuclear is zeroed, so wind/hydro/biomass/solar need to swallow that 11% (and be not backed up by gas etc.) to even take this share (158 Mt). Then the remaining 220 Mt would have to come from further (massive) increases in renewables, little or no growth in total energy demand, large-scale energy storage to offset the requirements to back the wind and solar with gas. I doubt there will be much more biomass – maybe a 25% increase, so let’s take that up to 12% of the total. Hydro we can leave the same.

Let’s assume oil falls to 25% of total final energy in 2020, gas rises to 35%, and coal drops to 10%, biomass rises to 12%, hydro stays on 0.8%. This leaves 17.2% from wind/solar, which would cut emissions by 163 Mt according to my calculations (assuming the wind/solar is not backed by gas and the energy demand is held level) — but we need 380 Mt if we include the nuclear phase out.

Renewable energy sources as a share in final energy consumption in Germany - 2010. Source:

Okay, let’s try another, much more drastic scenario for Germany in 2020: oil 20%, gas 21%, coal 5%, biomass 12%, hydro 0.8% and wind/solar 41.2%. This yields 382 Mt savings — we’re there! However, that would mean a 17-fold increase in installed wind/solar capacity in just 9 years (!), rising from 33.7 GWe peak in 2010 (23.9 GWe wind and 9.8 GWe solar PV) to 579 GWe peak in 2020, and all the extra transmission and energy storage that implies. Wow, quite a task… I suppose I could try to put some Euro-€ costs on that that, but let’s leave it to another post, shall we?

The current reality in Germany is that subsidized coal-fired electricity (with the funds generated by the trade in CO2 emissions certificates – yes, turn up the irony dial) will be ‘filling the gap‘ (interesting euphemism) left by the nuclear phaseout. We’re talking here of upwards of 20 GWe of new fossil fuel power plants to be built in Germany over the next decade, with Chancellor Merkel being pretty blunt:

If we want to exit nuclear energy and enter renewable energy, for the transition time we need fossil power plants. At least 10, more likely 20 gigawatts [of fossil capacity] need to be built in the coming 10 years.

I don’t really understand the ‘transition time’ statement — maybe it’s a poor translation. After all, coal-fired power stations last 50-60 years and cost about $2 billion per GWe to build, so this seems like a rather expensive and major long-term energy proposition to me. Built in 10 years, damaging the climate system for half a century. Just great.

Still, there are few others options, according to Oxford University’s Prof. Dieter Helm. Here is an interesting quote:

STEPHEN BEARD: Germany is bowing to the inevitable, claims Dieter Helm, an energy expert at Oxford University. He says if the Germans do abandon nuclear power, they will have to build more fossil fuel plants. Ironic, he says, that this follows pressure from German environmentalists.

DIETER HELM: What they have succeeded now in doing is pushing Germany to a fossil fuel-dominated system. And they’ve committed Germany to making a bigger contribution to increasing global warming.

Back in 2009, Tom Blees wrote an article for BNC on Germany’s solar programme, ‘crunched by the numbers‘. Here is what Tom said to me about the latest German news:

An interesting quote from this Spiegel article:

One of her most vocal critics has been Jürgen Grossmann, head of energy giant RWE. At the end of May, he complained publicly of an “eco-dictatorship” before writing a letter directly to Merkel earlier this week blasting details of her plans.

On Friday, he took the battle a step further, warning in an interview with theSüddeutsche Zeitung that Merkel’s phase out plan could result in large companies turning their backs on the country as a result of climbing energy prices. “The de-industrialization (of Germany) won’t come all at once. It will be a gradual process,” Grossmann said. “Soon we will have to do without entire industrial sectors: companies like BASF and Thyssen-Krupp won’t be here anymore.

California has already seen this happen to some degree, but nowhere near what will likely transpire in Germany if they go through with this. Either they’ll lose industries or they’ll crank up more and more coal plants to keep the prices somewhat within reason, though their feed-in tariffs are still driving their prices up. So they end up cutting deals with the energy-intensive industries to give them rates that’ll keep them from fleeing the country, and bump up the prices to regular citizens even more.

Why do I feel a distinct lack of compassion for the poor German citizen who’s bearing the brunt of all this? Oh yeah, because they keep voting these people into office. To be fair, though, I don’t think people expected this when they voted Merkel in. She just couldn’t hold up to the pressure from the environists after Fukushima. Kind of reminds me of the situation in any democracy that’s going off the rails: millions of people voted for sanity, but they end up taking the brunt of the insanity nevertheless. So yeah, I guess I can feel some empathy for those Germans who see this as the insanity that it is.

So, what’s your view on Germany’s ‘Großes Energie-Experiment’, and the likelihood of them achieving their 2020 emissions reduction and renewable energy expansion goals?

Perhaps, I reflect, it’s actually quite good that Germany is following this path. Why? Because it will surely prove, once and for all (okay, I’m still an optimist at heart), that either:

(i) less nuclear power = more fossil fuels + higher carbon dioxide emissions, or

(ii) renewables + energy efficiency really can cut CO2 emissions, displace fossil fuels, and do so cost effectively, without any need for nuclear.

If (i) transpires, the argument for governments to pursue nuclear energy becomes significantly bolstered. If (ii) miraculously comes to pass, then terrific! — Germany will have led the way. Either way, other nations will be armed with the right sort of real-world evidence to know which is the correct path to follow — hypotheticals be damned.


By Barry Brook

Barry Brook is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania. He researches global change, ecology and energy.

108 replies on “Germany’s grand energy experiment”

An update, via Climate Spectator

Again, I’ll let some quotes tell the story.

“Germany is set to expand its power generation capacity by 17 per cent in the decade to 2020 but see a 5.6 per cent decline in actual generation volumes as it replaces thermal with renewable sources…”

“Solar capacity is forecast to treble, while wind will grow by an average 2 GW a year”, but “overall electricity generation will decline to 590 terawatt hours (TWh) in 2020 from 625 TWh in 2010, due among other reasons to energy efficiency measures”. This last is important, since the scenarios outlined by Barry above assume constant energy consumption, but it’s still only 5%. Hard to see how this will account for the emissions reduction required. Moreover “As availability of wind and solar output is lower, because they are driven by weather, Germany would need to step up power imports from its neighbours”.

“Coal would remain the leading fuel with a 37 percent share of generation…”

“There would also be more gas-fired generation…”

Where these developments leave Germany’s CO2 emissions profile in 2020 (which should be the bottom line) is not stated.


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