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German Energiewende Turned Into a Dead End

Rauli Partanen's picture
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Rauli Partanen (@Kaikenhuippu) is an award-winning science writer and energy analyst who lives in Finland. In addition to his four energy-related books published in Finnish, his internationally...

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  • Dec 11, 2017

Germany has invested hundreds of billions to promote renewable energy sources. Yet emissions have been dropping slower than thought, because Germany is shutting down nuclear and is therefore depending more on its coal power.

Germany hosted the Conference of Parties, COP23, climate talks in the city of Bonn this November. Germany wants to impress itself, and the rest of the world, what a progressive leader it is in climate policy. Unfortunately, the numbers and statistics tell a completely different story.

The German energy policy, named Energiewende, or energy turning, was started in earnest in around the turn of the century. It was then that the government reached an agreement that the German nuclear power plants would be limited to 32 years of operational lifetime, with the last of them set to close in 2022.

Other pillars of the Energiewende were ambitious emissions reduction targets, huge increases in energy efficiency and growing the share of renewable energy to 80 percent of energy use. More than just talking the talk, Germany has since spent hundreds of billions to support renewable energy capacity additions and production, both to reach its emissions goals and to increase the share of renewables towards their aggressive goal.

The next emissions target is a 40 percent drop in emissions from 1990 levels by the year 2020. Germany is not on a trajectory to reach this target. Not by a long shot. The latest statistical estimates show a reduction of just 32 percent happening by 2020. What’s more, a large share of these emissions was cut before the Energiewende started, when inefficient East-German power plants and factories were closed during the years after the unification of Germany.

Indeed, even after spending tens of billions of euros each year, German emissions have decreased much slower than the EU average between 2000 and 2016. EU average reduction was almost 15 percent, while Germany managed around 10 percent, almost a third slower.

Not enough new renewables to replace nuclear

How is this even possible? Germany has built renewable energy like there is no tomorrow, but their emissions have barely budged. The main reason for this is in one of the key pillars of the Energiewende: the accelerated shut down of nuclear power.

Between 2000 and 2016, the combined energy production of wind and solar rose by over 110 terawatt hours (TWh) per year. Bioenergy increased by almost 50 TWh. But the shutdown of roughly half of the German nuclear fleet (one of the most well-operated in the world, as befitting the high quality German engineering) meant that around 85 terawatt hours of annual clean energy production has disappeared. This is equal to the annual electricity demand of Finland, or over twice that of Denmark. During the next five years, 2018 to 2022, a further 85 TWhs of nuclear production will be shut down.

While clean renewables, wind and solar, have so far grown a bit more than the closed nuclear on an annual basis, this seems unlikely to continue in the future. Solar PV production growth has been slowing down, and in 2016 it actually dropped, as it was not that sunny in Germany. Even wind was down in 2016 from the previous year.

Once exponential solar PV growth in Germany has stagnated.


Even wind power fell in 2016, despite additions to capacity.


Meanwhile, each year Germans pay around 25 billion, around 300 euros for each man, woman and child, to pay just for the tariffs of the currently installed renewable capacity. If this is divided among solar, wind and bioenergy production (around 150 TWhs combined), the tariffs alone come to roughly 170 euros per megawatt hour. And these billions are paid just for the currently installed capacity, meaning it is not used to add any new, much needed renewable capacity.

If the same money was used to construct the “expensive” 1.6 gigawatt EPR reactor being built in Olkiluoto, Finland (TVO’s Olkiluoto 3), one could buy three of them each year. Alternatively, one could get around four of the 1.2 gigawatt VVER-1200 reactors that Fennovoima and Rosatom are constructing at Hanhikivi 1 power plant in Finland. This would translate to an addition of around 35 terawatt hours of low-carbon electricity per year. At that pace, the German grid would be effectively zero carbon in just 15 years.

The energy policy is broken

The Germans find themselves in a very hard situation with no good or easy options available. The German fear and loathing of nuclear power is deeply engrained in their society. Politically, there is nothing to win by defending nuclear, but a lot to lose, so there is little appetite for anyone to say anything. The Energiewende will succeed in at least in one of its goals: shutting down the German nuclear fleet.

But the growing costs of the renewable energy additions have also been rising political opposition in German politics lately. When one adds the enormous political clout that the coal and lignite industry has in Germany, and for good reason, given the amount jobs and local economic value it offers, it is not hard to see that burning coal has a surprisingly bright future in Germany for decades to come, as does natural gas imported from Russia.

With Nuclear, it would have been different

If we speculate that Germany had kept its nuclear reactors running, that targeted 40 percent cut in emissions starts to look much more plausible. It is estimated that Germany will emit around 115 million tons of CO2 per year above the target in 2020. This is roughly the combined annual emissions of Finland and Sweden.

If nuclear energy production had stayed at around 160 terawatt hours per year, and coal plants would have closed down instead, there would be roughly 120 million tons less of annual emissions.

In other words, the direct result of one Energiewende objective, closing nuclear power, is a failure of another Energiewende objective, cutting emissions as planned.

Germany is very likely to miss its emission reduction targets by a wide margin.

(Edit: This article was first posted on Fennonen)

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Willem Post's picture
Willem Post on Dec 11, 2017


Below are some article regarding Germany’s Energiewende, capital costs, and storage requirements by 2050, if Germany would be foolish enough to try to do without nuclear, and fossil fuels.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Dec 11, 2017

The Germans find themselves in a very hard situation with no good or easy options available. The German fear and loathing of nuclear power is deeply engrained in their society. Politically, there is nothing to win by defending nuclear, but a lot to lose, so there is little appetite for anyone to say anything.

Rauli, the way out of Germany’s environmental mess will take a determined and courageous leader willing to identify “fear and loathing” of nuclear energy as the problem, not the solution. Once that hard truth is acknowledged, Germany’s path to an environmentally-responsible future is easy. Until then, it’s impossible.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Dec 11, 2017

The most conservative ‘Realistic’ emissions target, a fall from the current ~900 MTCO2 to 850 in three years highly unrealistic, if German energy continues as planned. The large Gundremmingen B reactor, 1284 MWnet is scheduled scheduled to close per policy, not reactor age, this month. If it does close, an *increase* in 2020 emissions, not a further decline, is almost certain.

Jarmo Mikkonen's picture
Jarmo Mikkonen on Dec 12, 2017

The failure of Energiewende to cut emissions is just the beginning. The real problems lie ahead.

According to the plan nuclear generation will be replaced mostly by wind generation. The Germans will have to almost double their wind generation capacity in 5 years. There will be 150 GW of solar and wind generation capacity when the grid needs only 60-80.

Curtailment will rise. Transmission capacity which cannot handle the present wind generation will face twice the load. Negative wholesale electricity price days will increase. Gas and coal plants may have to be subsidized as well because they are needed less…..but when there is no sun and wind they have to supply all the electricity. Batteries are an even more expensive solution.

On the positive side, we have a real life laboratory that will show the costs and benefits of creating a renewable power grid and a population willing to foot the bill. Thank you, Germany!

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Dec 12, 2017

Developing nations have not been fooled by Germany’s phony (pro-coal) clean energy program. They are buying a few solar panels just for show, but investing billions of dollars to build nuclear programs as the core of their clean energy programs.

Since western countries have nearly abandoned new nuclear, developing countries are turning for help to China (e.g. Pakistan’s new build) and Russia (for an Egyptian plant).

Rauli Partanen's picture
Rauli Partanen on Dec 13, 2017

Thanks Willem, I will give those a look. From what I have learned, the requirements for grid-scale electricity storage are, compared to what we have now, completely different scale (and will have environmental impacts as well)

Rauli Partanen's picture
Rauli Partanen on Dec 13, 2017

Yeah. I went to Germany ald talked with local people and experts, and the situation is politically quite horrible. No politician will say anything positive about nuclear, as he or she can only lose with that. The public have been scared senseless on the topic. So everyone is just basically waiting for the nukes to be closed and be done with it. And now there is more and more criticism on the tariffs paid for renewable energy, so it will likely be King Coal and Queen Lignite who will rule the day, with Prince Natural Gas there to provide heating and grid support.

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