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Germany’s Grand Energy Experiment

Barry Brook's picture
University of Tasmania
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  • Jul 30, 2011 9:15 am GMT

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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 ‘Gewähren 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.

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Paul O's picture
Paul O on Jul 30, 2011

The few factors  Germany has going for it toward option (ii) are that :

a) They are a homogenous society (relatively), making it easier for them to act together.

b) They live in a densely compacted populace (again relative), this means that moving things around is easier as they go about upgrading their efficiency.

c) They are whealthy (relatively), so they can afford to burn lots of Deutch Marks.

d) The majority of them believe in enviro-green dogma and voted for it.


All these factors not withstanding, I have a hard time seeing how it will succeed, herefore I am glad that they are willing to be the Green Guineapigs for the rest of us.

My main regret is the time it will take for all of this to play out, before we find out where this is all going. The world could really have used German know-how and German technology to make a quicker dent solving the remaining Engineering difficulties laying in the way of the effort to bring about Fourth Generation Nuclear power.

John Englert's picture
John Englert on Jul 30, 2011

With Southern US states pursuing nuclear power expansion, I wouldn’t be surprised if German companies relocate manufacturing to states such as Georgia.

David Lewis's picture
David Lewis on Jul 31, 2011

Schellnhuber, Merkel’s advisor on climate, says the German Advisory Council on Global Change studied the issue of whether it is possible for Germany to meet its CO2 reduction goals even as it abandons nuclear power, and still have vibrant economic growth.  He says they’re going to do it.  You don’t mention what their plan is, and you don’t sound like you’ve even bothered to read it.  

He came to your country to headline the 4 Degrees conference and perhaps talk things over with your country’s politicians.  One, the Environment Minister, gave him 12 minutes. One of your countrymen issued a death threat to him.

Did you bother to seek him out to ask how Germany was going to achieve what he says it can do?

What’s Australia doing to do to meet its targets?  I didn’t hear one politician talking about any form of nuclear as the carbon policy was unveiled.  

Germany leads in carbon capture technology as far as I can tell.  When the Mountaineer plant in Virginia cancelled its plans to build at full scale because without a carbon price their regulator will not allow them to spend the extra money to add CCS the CEO of American Electric Power, the company that owns it, Mike Morris, stated adding CCS to a new coal plant that could produce power for 5 cents kWhr would increase the cost to 7 cents a kWhr, producing electricity that is “clearly cheaper than new nuclear, clearly cheaper than sun and wind

The German plan looks like it depends on successfully lowering the cost of offshore wind and Scanadavian pumped water storage.  What’s wrong with wishing them luck?  If they want to pay for it, what matters is that they are attempting to lead the way while Australia and the US are still reluctant to so much as lift one finger.  

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Jul 31, 2011

Devil’s Advocate: Carbon capture (if CO2 interdiction is what we mean ) captures Oxygen twice as fast as it captures carbon.

Lacking a crystal ball, it is difficult to predict how significant this could be, were CC to become the defacto standard for of Baseload generation of the future.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Aug 1, 2011

Perhaps many opportunities exist you are not aware of.

For example, the windmill on a stick design might instead be better catching combined solar updrafts and wind if coupled to the aerfoil of a large pitched roof. Money would be better used in barn structures than large windmill sticks. The coupling efficiency of wind to mechanical energy would improve with a large wing.

The variability of renewables presents some problems. But food harvesting is variable, and people drink orange juice in winter.

Much like PV materials vary, the properties producing ferroelectrics might be exploited. Instead of magnetic induction generation, electrostatic generation of constant voltage variable current from polymers seems possible.

And after harvesting food grains there is all that biomass pretty much lignin free cellulose. Keeping a 1KW person running has about 1KW left over.

I don’t think we’ve scratched the surface of possibilities. But usually, dealing with those that close thinking is wasted time. So some just do their work without explaining why.

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