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German Coal and Solar Energy: A Self Defeating Scenario

Robert Wilson's picture
University of Strathclyde

Robert Wilson is a PhD Student in Mathematical Ecology at the University of Strathclyde.

  • Member since 2018
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  • Apr 10, 2013

Coal8.4 GW. This is the total capacity of coal plants under construction in Germany today. Add this to what was opened last year and we have a total of 10.6 GW of new coal online in the years 2012-2015.

These numbers probably don’t mean too much to the uninitiated, so let us compare them with those from Germany’s much lauded solar industry, which has already reached a world leading 32.7 GW. By capacity this is three times higher than the new coal plants. Unfortunately capacity does not tell the whole story: the sun does not always shine in Germany. To work out the average power solar will produce all we need is the capacity factor, which is just under 10% in Germany. I’ll just round this up and say that Germany’s solar panels are producing on average 3.3 GW of juice.

How about the coal plants? Let’s work backwards and ask what the average capacity factor would need to be for these new coal plants to match the output from all of Germany’s solar panels. A simple bit of arithmetic and it comes out at about 31%. A capacity factor of 31% however is remarkably low, and one would expect these plants to struggle financially if they were running that infrequently, as is now happening with gas plants. Perhaps the historic coal capacity factors are a better guide. These are just over 51%. In other words if these new coal plants produce at this level they will produce 65% more electricity than all of Germany’s solar panels.(The exact capacity factors are difficult to predict here. The nuclear shutdown, and the ongoing woes of the Germany gas plant industry, will likely push the capacity factors upwards. On the other hand increasing renewables may do the opposite, but the future growth of renewables is now in doubt.)

An alternative way of looking at this is that the electricity from Germany’s solar panels and new coal plants could have been attained by building gas plants, at much lower cost and carbon emissions. This is not to argue that Germany should have done this, but simply to highlight the absurdity of what is currently happening in the model “Green” country.

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Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Apr 10, 2013

This line of thinking can also be extended worldwide. Globally, 1400 GW of coal capacity is currently being proposed (mostly in China and India) ( The maximum capacity factor of modern coal plants is probably well over 85% (we’ll use that for fairness to compare to solar which enjoys priority to sell electricity to the grid, implying that it is used at maximum capacity).  This implies a potential of 1190 GW of useful electricity. At a generous capacity factor of 15%, one would need 8000 GW of installed PV capacity (plus a wide array of balancing infrastructure) to emulate this performance. This is about 115 times the total global solar capacity installed by the year 2011 (according to the BP statistical review).

This just confirms that, while every GW of solar will keep on making headlines, hundreds of GW of coal is being rolled out behind the scenes to drive catch-up growth in the developed world. Despite Germany’s best efforts, CO2 emissions will therefore continue to trend along the most pessimistic scenarios forecast by the IPCC in the year 2000 (as long as the economy remains stable). 

Although I must say that I often find myself disagreeing with Bjørn Lomborg’s comments, his recent remark that Germany has spent $110 billion to delay global warming by 37 hours does make one think. At this kind of return, a year’s delay in global warming would cost a cool 40% of global GDP. I have great respect for the German commitment to clean energy, but I really wish they chose a more efficient low-carbon pathway…

Bill Woods's picture
Bill Woods on Apr 10, 2013

Changes in generation, in TW-h, from  2011  to  2012: 

High C:    231   + 18   =  249
   lignite:   134   +  9   =  143
   hard coal:  97   +  9   =  106

Medium C:
   gas:        60   – 11   =   49

Low C:     185   +  0   =  185
   nuclear:   103   –  9   =   94
   wind:       48.9 –  3.0 =   45.9
   solar:      19.3 +  8.6 =   27.9
   Run/river:  14   +  3   =   17

from pp. 8-9

Pieter Siegers's picture
Pieter Siegers on Apr 11, 2013

Robert, tell me what would be your ultimate goal of sustainablity?

I think that introducing a carbon tax for both types of energy would change the equations you present a bit (if  not a lot), which would be the right thing to do actually. Not a word from you about the costs on the long run that require lots of money to repare (if that is still even possible).

I think you are also trying to apply a high efficiency on coal plants, but since I’m not an expert, I won’t attack your numbers here… it is just my impression.

Also Germany in fact does receive little sun power compared to many other countries. But, they have wind which is a complementary form of energy, which is a good thing. So in countries that receive more sun and/or wind it is a no-brainer that renewables will provide better (lower) energy prices on the long run and most importantly will lower prices.

Anyways, one thing is clear to me: coal kills. So why still move on with that dirty stuff? Why promote it?

We should change to renewables, and use the correct carbon tax on all energy types, cut fossil fuel subsidies (and maybe also some renewable energy incentives depending on their efficiency), to push the change in the right direction.

This, aligned with investigations and commercial development of more efficient green products will show that renewables will push the fossil fuels to the background, with ever growing force.


Cameron Dron's picture
Cameron Dron on Jun 18, 2013

That’s what I thought too, Robert, but those plants appear to have been commissioned pre-2011

However, the Germans still shut down the wrong energy source too soon….

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