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The Truth about Germany’s Coal

One downside of Germany’s switch to renewables while weaning itself off of nuclear power is that it must rely on coal — the dirtiest, most carbon-intensive fossil fuel — as the main back-up for its renewable energy supply, which is intermittent given the weather-linked nature of solar and wind sources. As it happens, soft lignite coal in particular, which Germany has in abundance, is one of the worst offenders for greenhouse gas emissions.

Energiewende critics gleefully point to the fact that Germany is building even more new plants that burn coal. Just recently, Germany’s environment minister was beaming at the opening of a new coal plant, which he boasted was much cleaner than old-fashioned models. In point of fact, they are cleaner — but just a little cleaner. Importantly, they can ramp up relatively quickly, providing a flexible complement to intermittent renewables.

Gas, the least polluting fossil fuel, would be the logical choice, but since gas plants are no longer profitable, nobody is building them at the moment (this has to change, by hook or by crook. More on that in an upcoming post). Meanwhile because of the collapsing cost of carbon permits, there’s little penalty for burning coal. This has to change too.

But what’s not said is that the new coal burning plants are replacing (not adding to) the older plants that either have been or will soon be decommissioned. Moreover, by 2020, 18.5 gigawatts of coal power capacity will be decommissioned, whereas only 11.3 gigawatts will be newly installed. Most of the new capacity is expected to come from gas turbines, assuming they find somebody to build them.

Also: Germany’s emissions of carbon dioxide edged down by 2.2% last year, even though its use of coal rose by 4.9 percent. Moreover, it is simply not possible for Germany to increase its carbon emissions from the power sector because emissions trading sets limits on emissions.

What’s also true though is that if the nukes had stayed online, Germany’s emissions figure would have gone down even further.

See Paul Hockenos’s blog Going Renewable on the website of the German Council on Foreign Relations

Lead image: Coal stack via Shutterstock