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Trash, Trees, and Taxes: The Cost of Germany's Energiewende

Max Luke's picture
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Member since 2018
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  • Sep 16, 2013

Energiewende Costs

By Max Luke, Jessica Lovering, and Alex Trembath

Germany’s renewable energy transition, the “Energiewende,” has long been a subject of scorn among conservatives, who have argued that it is a massive ratepayer-subsidized boondoggle that has harmed Germany’s economy and imposed significant regressive costs on poor and working class energy consumers. But the last several months have seen growing skepticism about the Energiewende from the center-left as well. Both Der Spiegel and Slate have published lengthy investigative pieces raising troubling questions about the costs and the environmental benefits of Germany’s headlong pursuit of an all-renewable energy future. Even left-leaning Dissent Magazine recently published a long expose about the failure of the Energiewende to reduce carbon emissions, concluding that Germany’s enormous investments in renewables, together with plans to phase out its nuclear fleet, would cost the nation a generation in the fight against global warming.

At stake are not simply public perceptions of the Energiewende, but the future of efforts to rapidly expand deployment of wind and solar power elsewhere. Environmentalists and renewables advocates have long held up Germany’s example as one that the United States and other nations ought to emulate. To the degree to which the Energiewende is instead perceived as a cautionary tale, efforts elsewhere to expand subsidies and deployment mandates for renewable energy, and to dismantle the present day utility sector in favor of a much more decentralized electrical sector are clearly at risk.

It is a measure of just how serious the new center-left criticisms of the Energiewende have been, and how threatening they are to the long-standing green climate and energy agenda, that prominent clean-tech thought leader Hal Harvey, long a powerful behind-the-scenes player in efforts to expand deployment subsidies for wind and solar power and transform the utility sector, has stepped out publicly and issued an extended defense of the Energiewende against its growing chorus of environmentally minded critics.

As the head of the Energy Foundation and Climate Works and the director of the Hewlett Foundation’s climate and energy programs, Harvey aggregated and spent more money on climate and clean energy policy development and advocacy than any other philanthropic institution over the last two decades – between 2008 and 2010 alone, Climate Works and affiliated philanthropic institutions spend over a half billion dollars on climate and energy policy and advocacy according to one recent study. America’s overlapping mash of renewables subsidies, deployment mandates, and regional cap and trade programs is arguably as much Harvey’s legacy as anyone else’s. For this reason, Harvey’s defense of the Energiewende is revealing, both for what it acknowledges about the real costs and slow progress and for what it attempts to deny and downplay.

Harvey acknowledges the enormous costs at which renewables innovation has been achieved in Germany, writing that escalating costs of the Energiewende “need to be controlled” and that Germany’s large direct subsidies for renewables represent only a portion of their total cost. “One still has to pay for transmission and distribution, for taxes, and for system resources to balance the variability of solar output,” he notes.

And he recognizes the enormous challenges that still must be overcome in order for a transition from fossil energy to renewables to begin in earnest. “There is no doubt that the accelerated phase-out of nuclear power combined with the strong carbon targets for the utility sector make for a complex transition,” he concludes. “Germany will have to reinvent power markets, build more transmission lines, and think deeply about a new business model for its utilities.”

But he also obfuscates many inconvenient facts, particularly those that suggest that current problems facing the Energiewende represent more than temporary setbacks, associated with a cold winter, rising natural gas prices, and the nation’s decision to accelerate the phase out of it’s aging nuclear fleet, and rather are likely to represent endemic and persistent problems associated with efforts to achieve high penetrations of intermittent renewable energy sources given present day technologies in Germany and beyond. A basic reality check on Harvey’s claim follows:

Harvey claims that most of the impressive sounding 24 percent share of electricity that Germany generates from renewables comes from wind and solar. But in fact only about half does. The rest comes from hydropower, biomass, and trash incinerators. As The Economist recently reported, “the largest so-called renewable fuel used in Europe is wood.” Biomass has proven to be an increasingly dubious source of carbon-free energy before even considering the broader environmental implications for forests and habitat of returning to burning wood for energy at significant scale. The situation in Germany is not as bad as in some other European nations. But like the rest of Europe, Germany has relied heavily upon burning trees and trash in order to meet its renewables targets, a fact that is rarely mentioned by Energiewende boosters. Harvey is no exception in this regard. Of Harvey’s 24 percent, wind and solar represent about 5 and 7 percentage points, respectively, leaving less popular forms of renewable power to carry fully half the lift of the Energiewende.

Harvey claims repeatedly that Germany has successfully decarbonized its electricity sector through the Energiewende. In fact, the carbon intensity of Germany’s economy has seen little change since 2000, when the nation embarked on the Energiewende. More recently, emissions have been rising. As the latest numbers from Germany’s BdeW utility consortium show, Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions rose 1.6 percent in 2012, the increase mostly coming from carbon dioxide emissions by coal-burning power plants. Anthracite coal carbon emissions rose 3.4 percent, while emissions from lignite rose 5.1 percent. Emissions are projected to rise again in 2013.

Harvey claims that Germany’s nuclear phase-out has not resulted in increased coal burning, but the evidence he cites contradict the claim. To support his claim, Harvey argues that no new coal plants have been approved since Germany announced plans to accelerate its nuclear phase-out after the Fukushima accident. Harvey is correct when he states that Germany’s current coal building binge has been long planned. But so has its nuclear phase-out, which was initiated over a decade ago. One can reasonably surmise that the long planned expansion of coal facilities has been, at least in some part, in anticipation of the long planned phase-out of aging nuclear facilities. Harvey chooses not to entertain this possibility.

Harvey claims that recent increases in emissions from coal plants are temporary phenomena, relying entirely on analysis lifted whole cloth from a recent blog post by Amory Lovins to suggest that rising emissions were the product of a cold winter and rising natural gas prices. In fact, they are in significant part a direct result of renewables policies. German policy mandates that the grid take renewable energy first and fossil energy second. This results in what is known as the merit order effect. As more intermittent renewable energy enters the grid, it displaces the most costly type of fossil power generation, natural gas. As a result, natural gas generation decreased last year while coal’s share of electricity rose from 43.1 percent to 44.7 percent.  And lignite – the dirtiest form of coal – increased from 24.6 percent to 25.6 percent.

Moreover, as the Energiewende continues, carbon emissions from coal will likely continue to rise. The confluence of a priority grid access for renewables and a low European carbon price have squeezed flexible natural gas out of the market, adding to the gains coal has taken from nuclear power. In 2012 Germany commissioned 2.9 GW of new coal-fired power capacity. According to BdeW, Germany will add another 4.6 GW of coal power in 2013. Of a planned 42.5 GW of major power plants to be built by 2020, two thirds will be new coal and gas generators.

Harvey claims that Germany’s low wholesale electricity prices, due to increasing competition from renewables, cancel out much of the cost of the renewable energy surcharge that retail customers pay to underwrite Germany’s feed in tariffs. Yet his own numbers belie this claim. Harvey acknowledges that the renewable energy surcharge constitutes one sixth of the retail electricity rate, adding approximately five cents per kilo-watt hour to the price of retail electricity. He then cites German government estimates that higher renewables penetrations have driven wholesale electricity prices down one cent per kilo-watt hour, saving ratepayers about $5 billion Euro per year. At best, then, lower wholesale prices mitigate less than a quarter the cost of the renewables surcharge. While lower wholesale rates will save ratepayers about $5 billion in 2013, Financial Times reported recently that in 2013 the feed-in tariffs will cost ratepayers €20.4 billion ($27 billion).

Harvey further claims that increasing competitive pressure from renewables on wholesale prices will ultimately mitigate all of the costs of the renewables surcharge, citing a study from the German Institute for Energy Research (DIW) projecting that by 2020, lower wholesale electricity prices resulting from higher renewables penetrations will exceed the cost of renewables. But this 2011 study is based on outmoded assumptions that are inconsistent with observed trends in both the cost of the renewable energy surcharge and the wholesale electricity market. In reality, both retail electricity prices and the renewables surcharge are growing much faster than wholesale electricity prices are falling. Der Spiegel notes that German electricity rates could exceed 40 euro cents ($0.53) per kilowatt-hour by 2020, almost twice what they are today. The DIW study that Harvey relies upon, by contrast, assumed that the cost of the renewable energy surcharge would decline over the last several years, dropping below 3 euro cents per kWh in 2012 and then rising very slowly over the rest of the decade to 3.6 cents in 2020. In reality, the surcharge has already risen to 5.3 cents for 2013, with a further 20 percent increase projected for 2014.

DIW then inflated its assumptions about cost savings from lower wholesale electricity prices by assuming a counterfactual, in the absence of the Energiewende, in which coal prices rose sharply while the EU ETS carbon price rose to $25/ton. In reality, coal prices have fallen precipitously, not due to lower demand for coal because of growing renewable generation (coal generation has risen in recent years), but due to expanded lignite production from German mines and cheap imports from abroad. Meanwhile, with Europe awash in excess carbon credits, thanks to the deep economic contraction of recent years and the overallocation of credits during the first phase of the emissions trading scheme, the EU carbon price has collapsed and is today below $7/ton.

Harvey claims that exemptions for industry have resulted in the cost of the renewable energy surcharge to residential customers being twice what it otherwise would be. In fact, none of the proposals offered by any of Germany’s political parties to close loopholes and more broadly distribute the costs of the surcharge would result in anything approaching a halving of the cost of the surcharge to residential consumers. Der Speigel reports that the value of the proposed changes to the average retail consumer will be about $.70 per month or less than $10 per year. Harvey, Lovins and others insist that the industry exemptions are a glitch. In fact, they are essential to the political acceptability of significantly raising energy prices in a highly industrial country.

Harvey claims that while the cost of the renewable energy surcharge is significant and rising, it still does not constitute the lion’s share of what consumers pay for electricity, which is the actual cost of energy generation, transmission, and distribution. But while the wholesale price of electricity has declined in recent years, Harvey’s own data show that the total cost of generation, transmission, and distribution has risen substantially since the introduction of the Energiewende, increasing costs that are additional to the rising cost of the surcharge. While it is difficult to fully disentangle the indirect cost of integrating intermittent renewables into the German grid from a variety of other factors that may have contributed to rising electricity costs, it is also difficult to conclude that the Energiewende has not contributed substantially to the total cost of provisioning grid electricity. Meanwhile, German grid operators themselves note mounting challenges to managing highly volatile electricity generation from high penetrations of intermittent wind and solar.

Harvey claims that increasing generation from renewables is increasing competition and “disciplining” wholesale electricity prices. In fact, heavily subsidized, highly intermittent renewables generation, with priority access to the grid and the wholesale market, have forced utilities to operate conventional power facilities unprofitably. An Energiewende that is predicated on forcing utilities to generate power unprofitably can’t be sustained for long. And indeed, Harvey acknowledges this reality both when he observes that the traditional utility business model will be unsustainable should the Energiewende continue to move forward and when he calls for capacity markets to provide an adequate revenue stream to keep the centralized plants upon which the grid depends in service.  In so doing, Harvey undermines all of the prior claims about wholesale electricity prices. Wholesale prices that reflect neither the direct subsidies for renewables deployment nor the capacity markets and enormous new transmission costs necessary to keep an intermittent grid operating reliably tell us nothing about the real cost of electricity.


Putting aside haggling about exactly why German emissions increased last year or how sustained the expansion of coal burning will be going forward, the claim that the Energiewende has driven significant decarbonization of the German economy simply cannot be supported. Zero carbon energy constituted 36 percent of German electricity generation in 2000, it constituted 38 percent in 2010, and if Germany moves forward with an accelerated phase-out of nuclear energy as planned, it will constitute 38 percent in 2022.

While there is little doubt that the Energiewende has accelerated the pace of wind and solar innovation, it has clearly done so at enormous cost. The cost of the renewable energy surcharge alone exceeds $100 billion already, and will continue to rise unless German policy-makers scale back the pace of solar and wind deployment or retroactively reduce subsidies that have already been committed.

The indirect costs of integrating such high levels of renewables into Germany’s electrical grid are more difficult to quantify directly. But the significant increase in the cost of provisioning electricity at the retail level since the inception of the Energiewende, and Germany’s high electricity rates compared to other similar economies suggest that those costs are already substantial and will likely continue to rise further, given plans for major expansion of offshore wind generation and long distance power transmission.

Finally, it appears that renewable energy policies are directly contributing to both the re-carbonization and economic destabilization of the German electrical sector. Mandates to privilege intermittent renewable generation over baseload fossil generation are driving a shift away from gas fired generation and toward coal fired generation. These dynamics have been further reinforced by the economic pressure that large amounts of highly subsidized intermittent renewable energy generation capacity with low or nonexistent marginal operating costs have placed on traditional utilities. The shrinking profitability of centralized generation has sparked a race to the bottom by utilities seeking the lowest cost on-demand generation available, namely older plants burning dirty coal.

The past, of course, is only prologue. But all indications suggest both that the cost of Germany’s transition will continue to rise absent significant steps by policy-makers to contain them and that the those costs are leading policy-makers to reconsider the ambitions of the Energiewende. Already, the German government has placed a cap on PV installations covered under the feed-in tariff at 52 gigawatts, which will be reached within the next several years, to control costs and generation variability. Retroactive subsidy cuts have already slowed the growth of renewables generation, with more significant policy reforms expected after the elections on September 22. With other cost-saving measures potentially on the post-election horizon, it remains highly uncertain how much further current renewables policies will take Germany.

Given these uncertainties, climate and clean energy advocates would do well to consider alternative pathways to decarbonization. Harvey hasn’t done so, but others have. What emerges from those analyses suggests that policy-makers in the United States and elsewhere might do well to consider those pathways seriously before reflexively following Germany’s example.

Mathematician Geoff Russell, for instance, finds that the growth in Germany’s wind and solar over 11 years (2001-2012) added only a small fraction of the per capita electricity generation that growth in nuclear power did in Sweden (1975-1986), France (1979-1990), and Belgium (1976-1987).

Robert Wilson finds that the pace of the Energiewende doesn’t even match past energy transitions in Germany. Natural gas, which supplied 1 percent of Germany’s energy in 1965, had grown to 12.3 percent a decade later. By contrast non-hydro renewables, which supplied 1 percent of Germany’s energy in 2001, had only grown to 7.8 percent a decade later, and much of this growth came from non-wind and non-solar energy such as biomass and waste incineration.

While Germany’s decarbonization has stalled, an energy transition of a different kind has driven down emissions in the United States faster than those of any other nation since 2005. The rapid transition from coal to gas in the United States has displaced large amounts of coal fired generation during the same period that Germany has been bringing new coal plants online.  While the rapid expansion of fracking in the United States has been exceptional, the role that increasing gas generation has played in recent US decarbonization efforts is not. The development of cheap, abundant gas resources also played an important role in the rapid decarbonization of the UK and several northern European economies in the 1990’s.

In fact, just about every significant period of decarbonization in major developed economies over at least the last forty years has been driven by the expansion of either gas or nuclear, not renewables. The same is true at the global level. Roger Pielke Jr, in a recent Breakthrough Institute analysis, finds that the world deployed vastly more zero carbon energy between 1965 and 1999, when the focus of such efforts was predominantly focused on nuclear and hydro power than it has since, when the focus shifted to renewables.

Future transitions may, of course, look different. But taking into account both the challenges that Harvey acknowledges and those that he obfuscates, policy makers and clean energy advocates alike would be well served to consider whether a single-minded focus on deploying present day wind and solar technologies is particularly wise, particularly in contexts where the policies necessary to do so foreclose the viability of alternative technological pathways, such as gas and nuclear, that have actually succeeded in significantly decarbonized major economies at sustainable costs as they have in Germany. 

Photo Credit: Energiewende Costs/shutterstock

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Steve K9's picture
Steve K9 on Sep 16, 2013

The problems with wind and solar are rooted in Physics, which is not affected by human emotion or belief.

Josh Nilsen's picture
Josh Nilsen on Sep 16, 2013

Well the Germans hate nuclear power more than they hate high prices, so that option is out.  Natural gas is 2-4x more expensive in Europe than it is in the United States and large percentages have to be imported from the Russians.  What other options do the Germans have?  It’s either build huge amounts of new coal stations or renewables, those are the options, and they’re doing both.  Of course electricity is going to get more expensive when they turn off all the nuclear reactors that have already been paid for, that’s common sense. 

It should also be noted that this man is funded by natural gas dollars.  It’s not surprising he advocates natural gas.  Complete bias.  Simply go read the site he works for, there are NO articles that give any kind of positives to renewables, not one.  It’s easy to make renewables look bad when you’re PAID to.

The Chinese, Japanese, and the Americans thank you for your Energiewende program, you made solar affordable for the rest of us.  The Chinese manufacturing giants and the innovative financing schemes in the US will handle it from here.


Max Luke's picture
Max Luke on Sep 16, 2013

Hi Josh,

Breakthrough Institute is funded entirely by individuals and philanthropic organizations. We do not recieve funding from the natural gas industry. Please don’t spread misinformation.

Jesse Jenkins's picture
Jesse Jenkins on Sep 16, 2013

Josh, please refrain from baseless accusations, particularly of the “guilt-by-association” kind, and focus on the substance of the article. As Max notes, the funders of the Breakthrough Institute are clearly and publiclly listed on their website, as you could find by checking their About page.

Furthermore, this site features a wide variety of views, including articles that actually are written by those who are part of the natural gas industry. We prefer to host a diversity of informed perspectives and discuss the merits and content of individual articles, with the author’s affiliations clearly displayed, rather than to dismiss the views of individuals simply because of their affiliations — pro gas or anti gas, pro renewables or anti renewables or otherwise. Thanks for staying on topic in the future.

Jesse Jenkins
Digital Community Strategist

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Sep 17, 2013

As I get older I’m haunted by lost opportunities, and other oldsters’ lack of shame.

Today I read about a biomass electric plant just north of the Minnesota Canada border, in a wilderness area tangled with innumerable dead trees burning this time last year.

The adapted structure pales compared to a beautiful, sanitary milk dryer plant on a clean river in Pine City, Minnesota I tried to save. The two boilers in that plant could have managed biomass waste for generations, also providing heat and electricity. But we had a housing boom, and many of those old rural industrial structures were sold for their bricks, and the lots became glorious banks, and we know what happened then.

So waste went to landfills, now mountains. And the forest became corn field, and rivers dried up and are green. And the politicians are now old and rich, and show off “classic cars” while kids are scared and helpless.

Germany might have made some mistakes investing in some dead end renewable energy. But nothing like the failed leadership we’ve endured in the US. At least they offer lessons of durable success to pick from. What, pray tell, does the US have to guide sustainable living? Perhaps you can make that your next post, because I would really, really like to hear some good news in my old age.

donough shanahan's picture
donough shanahan on Sep 17, 2013

We can also place context on this discussion in terms of total energy supply. Using the link below we can see that the renewable energy supply (RES) accounts for 12% of Germany’s total. Of this 8% is biomass, 2% is wind and PV is 0.8%. Thus in total wind and solar are contributing at best 3% of the total energy consumption (assuming of course none of this energy is exported; Robert Wilson highlighted some interesting arguments to show that this may not be the case). So despite all the investment we can see that this energy transition has achieved very little.

Some other interesting tidbits

  • There are as many people employed in solar than in biomass. Wind hass less people but is not off by much. This indicates to some extent that we will be spending more time and manpower producing energy.
  • The ratio of revenue to investments in 2011 was approximately 1:2. Much of these revenues will be generated by government support suggesting that payback on these investments based on the current economic model (i.e. no carbon tax) would be longer than 2 years without the support.
  • Solar installations will reach their limit within four years if the installation rates plateaued level with the 2010-2011 growth rate.

Math Geurts's picture
Math Geurts on Sep 17, 2013

Development of renewable energysources in Germany 2012

Davis Swan's picture
Davis Swan on Sep 20, 2013

This is probably the most comprehensive article I have read on the German situation.  I recently published something very much along the same lines.

This is not a case of “should we” or “should we not” move to a sustainable energy environment.  Of course we should.  This is about “how” we get there.

Any rational analysis of renewables will indicate that subsidizing residential roof-top solar is a terrible use of public funds.  It is relatively dangerous (for the installers and for fire-fighters), inefficient (because of nearby buildings, trees, and hills and default roof-pitch angles), and imposes extra costs on the utility which are by and large picked up by the people that don’t have roof-top solar panels.  Utility-scale PV solar, particularly paired with CSP does make a lot of sense.  Wind farms are also reasonable but only if balanced by some fast-response backup such as hydro or natural gas peaking plants. 

If all the money going into PV solar subsidies was instead channeled into energy storage research I believe we would have a workable solution in ten years or less which would transform the wind turbines into firm and dispatchable generation.  There is also a lot we can do with Demand Response and other demand management technologies.  I have discussed some of these at length in a blog posting.

Alain Verbeke's picture
Alain Verbeke on Sep 20, 2013

” The same is true at the global level. Roger Pielke Jr, in a recent Breakthrough Institute analysis, finds that the world deployed vastly more zero carbon energy between 1965 and 1999, when the focus of such efforts was predominantly focused on nuclear and hydro power than it has since, when the focus shifted to renewables. “



2. The Germans have also barely scratched their huge biogas power potential. BARELY.

3. You forget to include the effect of energy efficiency measures on the future German power demand projections. The EU directive on energy for buildings is into force since 2010, and requires that from 2020 on, all new built building are to be net zero energy buildings. This will also influence their centralised utility model set-up, since each building will become it’s own power generator…

4. The German population started to seriously decrease. That is already visible there, whole neighborhoods are being dismantled from lack of habitants. Another power demand destruction that will facilitate their Energiewende. If projection trends can be certified, then the German population will go from now 87 million people to barely 68 million people by 2040, unless massive immigration occurs.

5. In other words, the final edition of the Energiewende is not yet written, and I know that the Germans are more than capable in surprising us neighbors with creative approaches. I hope they succeed, after all solar PV is now cheap enough for even poor but sundrenched areas of the world to install it at competitive prices, without any subsidies, using bank loans to fund the projects. And that thanks to the Germans.

South Africa just finished grid tying a 95 MW solar PV plant in the Cape area, providing electricity to 33 000 citizens, paid for by a south african bank loan, and sold unsubsidised to the grid by an IPP (independent Power Producer). If South Africa can do that, then Zimbabwe also can do it, and other poor countries.

Alain Verbeke's picture
Alain Verbeke on Sep 20, 2013

“If all the money going into PV solar subsidies was instead channeled into energy storage research I believe we would have a workable solution in ten years or less which would transform the wind turbines into firm and dispatchable generation. “

In the USA, duing the 1960-70-80’s , when nuclear power plants were rolled out, utilities also HAD to built 18 000 MW in pumped up hydro storage facilities, to cover the time where the NPP baseload production (that could not be stopped), had to be stored somewhere because temporary lack of demand (at 3AM or on weekends).

Germany recently created a new subsidy (25 million euro fund) to pay for battery storage systems at homes, in order to install around 30MW in very small scale systems in garages. 25 million euro is what the USA spends in 1 hour on it’s military budget, which is also a pure waste of resources, given the massive amount of personal home weaponry available in that part of the world, to defend the homeland against ragtag fanatics.

The Germans are also experimenting with wind to hydrogen through electrolysis conversion. The hydrogen can then be injected in their natural gas grid (up to a 10% share), to then be burned in gas turbines or used for building heating.

In the meantime, they are exporting their surplus to my country (Belgium), who has a 12% deficit in electricity production, thus buying German surplus for peanuts/kWh, and therefore avoiding capex investments in new power plants, merely by using existing interconnector grid connections built between the two countries.



Michael Goggin's picture
Michael Goggin on Sep 20, 2013

Groups continue to misleadingly and selectively use statistics to hide the remarkable reductions in fossil fuel use and pollution Germany and other European countries have achieved due to their increased use of wind energy. Much of this deception has focused on a short-term increase in coal use over the last year or two as Germany has rapidly phased out its use of nuclear power. However, it is important not to miss the forest for the trees, and to understand that this short-term increase is entirely caused by the shutdown of Germany’s nuclear plants and is only a temporary blip in the long-term, steady decline in emissions achieved by Germany’s transition to renewable energy.

The reality is that, over the last decade, wind energy has allowed Germany to greatly reduce fossil fuel use and pollution, reductions that would have been even larger had the country not also greatly scaled down its use of nuclear power over that same time period.

As documented by International Energy Agency data, as Germany ramped up its use of wind energy, coal use by Germany’s electric sector fell by more than 12% between 2004 and 2010, a reduction of 20 million tons per year. Wind energy was able to drive that reduction in coal use despite nuclear power output declining by 16% over that time period (falling from nearly 34% of the country’s electricity mix in 2004 to less than 25% in 2010).

Other European countries that have adopted even greater amounts of wind energy than Germany have seen even larger declines in pollution and fossil fuel use. Because Spain and Portugal now obtain 15% and 20%, respectively, of their electricity from wind, up from around 1% a decade ago, they have cut in half the amount of carbon dioxide their electric sectors emit per unit of electricity produced.

Electric sector coal use in Europe’s top five wind-using countries fell by 21% between 2004 and 2010. These savings totaled more than 100 million tons of coal per year.

The easiest way to assess the impact wind energy has had on pollution is to compare the emissions trend in the five countries that lead the world in wind energy use (Germany, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, and Ireland) versus the trend for similar countries that have not deployed as much wind energy. Between 1999 and 2010, each of these five countries greatly increased its use of wind energy, as shown in the table below. For the comparison case, the aggregation of all European OECD countries increased their use of wind energy by a much lower amount.

The best measurement of a country’s emissions profile is to look at changes in the amount of CO2 emitted by the electric sector for every unit of electricity produced, i.e., the emissions intensity of a country’s electric sector. One would expect that adding a zero-emission resource like wind energy to the power system would reduce the emissions-intensity of the country’s electric sector, and International Energy Agency data presented in the table below indicate that this is the case. The countries that added the most wind energy saw the greatest declines in their emissions intensity, while countries that added less wind energy (like Germany and the aggregation of all OECD Europe) saw smaller declines in their emissions intensities.

 Percent Change in Electric Sector CO2 Emissions/kWh from 1999-2010


% Change in CO2 emissions/kWh from 1999-2010

Increase in wind’s electricity percentage share from 1999 to 2010
















All OECD Europe



Interestingly, Germany would likely have seen a much larger decline in emissions intensity had the country not decreased its use of zero-emission nuclear energy by 16% over the 1999-2010 period.

Does this mean the current surge in coal demand is a blip? When asked by The Economist magazine, Tom Brookes of the European Climate Foundation, an environmental non-governmental organization based in The Hague, said yes.

To sum up, it is important to keep in mind that the temporary and small uptick in coal use in Germany over the last two years is purely the result of the country shutting down many of its nuclear power plants following the events at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant in early 2011. As Germany continues to ramp up its use of wind and solar energy, the decline in fossil fuel use and carbon dioxide emissions will resume.

For more information, please see:

Michael Goggin,

American Wind Energy Association

Max Luke's picture
Max Luke on Sep 20, 2013

Hi Michael,

Your assertion that the uptick in coal in recent years is purely a result of the country’s shutting down of nuclear is dubious. Yes, most of the increase in coal use can probably be attributed to the decline in nuclear, but there has also been an increase in coal due to more intermittent wind and solar on the grid. Germany’s energy policy gives wind and solar generation first priority access to the grid. Large influxes of wind and solar typically force natural gas generation, not coal generation, offline due to gas’s higher marginal cost. Grid operators have filled the gap by building more coal capacity or burning more coal in existing plants. So the picture is not as simple as you make out and wind has not led to a one-to-one displacement of CO2 as you imply.

That said, we’re not arguing against wind or that wind has driven an increase in CO2 emissions. Wind and solar have clearly displaced some carbon emissions and Germany would be more carbon intensive if wind and solar hadn’t increased over the same period that nuclear has been declining. What we argue in our piece, and what I think is more important than arguing about how much carbon wind has displaced, is that by rejecting nuclear Germany has locked itself into an electricity sector that will be no cleaner in 2020 than it was in the year 2000.

At the planned current rate of expansion, when the last German nuclear plants shut down in 2022, renewables will be generating about 38 percent of electricity. With no more nuclear power in operation this will be the total share of zero-carbon electricity, but that’s almost exactly the same share of zero-carbon electricity Germany produced in 2010, when its share was 38.8 percent (22.4 percent nuclear and 16.4 percent renewable). This has been dubbed Germany’s lost decade.

But it’s more like a lost generation given that the policy of favoring renewables over nuclear has been in effect for 13 years and counting. In 1999, a peak year of power generation for nuclear, the share of zero-carbon electricity was 36 percent, with nuclear contributing 31 percent. Thus, over a twenty-three-year period of expanding renewables and closing nuclear plants from 1999 to 2022, Germany will have managed to decarbonize a meager 2 additional percentage points of its electricity.

And while I appreciate you pointing out that the countries with the most aggressive wind deployment have seen emissions reductions (you would need to do more analysis to prove causation here, rather than correlation), the countries that have experienced the fastest rates of decarbonization of the electricity supply are those that have rapidly ramped up nuclear power. For instance, between 1971 and 2006, France and Sweden, which both pursued nuclear power aggressively, achieved the fastest average rates of decarbonization of energy supply of any OECD nations (-2.0% and -2.5%, respectively – see link below). So while wind definitely contributes to modest decarbonization and CO2 emissions reductions in most cases, by locking out nuclear Germany has removed from the table the technology that has the best track record of meeting climate goals.

Alain Verbeke's picture
Alain Verbeke on Sep 20, 2013

” For instance, between 1971 and 2006, France and Sweden, which both pursued nuclear power aggressively, achieved the fastest average rates of decarbonization of energy supply of any OECD nations (-2.0% and -2.5%, respectively – see link below). So while wind definitely contributes to modest decarbonization and CO2 emissions reductions in most cases, by locking out nuclear Germany has removed from the table the technology that has the best track record of meeting climate goals. “


yeah yeah yeah, same old story.


1. in the meantime we are 2013 and not 1971 or 1991.The French went recently to war in Mali to protect their uranium ore supplies from African Talibans. Even without that issue, the price to be paid for the ore was getting more expensive by the day, since the Chinese are willing to pay Mali a lot more for the same ore than the French. Mali is a third world country, who therefore play both against each other to increase its revenue streams. The USA is importing 90% from it’s ore from Russia, from mothballed missile heads. A nuclear plant needs to refuel every two years…. A renewable energy power plant does not.


2. Sweden and France are now discovering that nuclear power that would be too cheap to meter, according to their government salesmen, is now indeed extremely expensive to mothball. Both have a black eye. Decommissioning cost ARE relevant for a radioactive plant. You simply can mothball any power plant and recycle the materials (cement, steel, copper, silicon, etc). No so with radioactive elements. They require special handling, making it more expensive thus VERY relevant to the overall cost picture. The French have now mothballed a couple, and the foreseen dismantling costs for their 56 plants are in the tens of billions euro UNDERestimated. The cents/produced kWh levy over decades won’t cover those costs. Taxpayers will have to cover those unforeseen costs, utilities are walking away after receiving the money during decades, and given that French pay 75% income tax for incomes over $1 million and Swedes 50% tax for incomes above $150 000, you understand why nuclear is sooooo popular in cable networked Europe right now. The Germans are seing what storage works are needed to store their wastes for thousands of years in a really safe way, and they do not like the price tag or the measures taken at all.


3. Finland is building a new NPP. From Areva, French model. It is a disaster. The same is getting built in France, it is also a disaster. Only the model in China is going ok, it needs 6 years from start to completion, costs $10 Billion with a B, and is that cheap only because it gets built with zero chinese safety regulation plus people working for $15 per day, instead of $15 per hour as in Finland or France….

Finland’s Olkiluoto 3 is also facing an explosion of construction costs. Initially, it was estimated that the plant’s construction would cost three billion euros ($4.1) – but now the bills amount to well over 5.3 billion euros ($7.2 billion). How much the plant is actually going to cost remains unclear. These costs must be added to the revenues losses TVO had budgeted as electricity sales, but which were never realised due to the non operation of the plant. The delays in completion and the explosion of costs have led to litigation between the Finnish operator TVO and the manufacturer AREVA. The Citibank survey concludes that without taxpayers money there is “little if any prospect that new nuclear stations will be built … by the private sector unless developers can lay off substantial elements of the three major risks. Financing guarantees, minimum power prices, and/or government-backed power off-take agreements may all be needed if stations are to be built.”


4. People in Europe remember vividly the Tchernobil accident. They remember the nice TV and Radio speakerine saying in a very soothing voice that nobody needed to fear anything, given that the radioactive cloud had stopped at the border. In the meantime, they are reading this in 2013:

Aug 23, 2013. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster spread significant radioactive contamination over more than 3500 square miles of the Japanese mainland in the spring of 2011. Now several recently published studies of Chernobyl are bringing a new focus on just how extensive the long-term effects on Japanese wildlife might be. Mousseau and Moller have with their collaborators just published three studies detailing the effects of ionizing radiation on pine trees and birds in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. In the journal Mutation Research, they showed that birds in Chernobyl had high frequencies of albino feathering and tumors. In PlosOne, they demonstrated that birds there had significant rates of cataracts, which likely impacted their fitness in the wild. And in the journal Trees, they showed that tree growth was suppressed by radiation near Chernobyl, particularly in smaller trees, even decades after the original accident. “There’s extensive literature from Eastern Europe about the effects of the release of radionuclides in Chernobyl,” Mousseau said. “Unfortunately, very little of it was translated into English, and many of the papers – which were printed on paper, not centrally stored, and never digitized – became very hard to find because many of the publishers went belly up in the 1990s with the economic recession that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union.” A large body of this work finally came to the attention of Western scientists in 2009 with the publication of “Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment” as a monograph in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. “The uniform theme we find from these papers is that, when you look carefully, in a quantitative way, you see numerous biological impacts of low doses of radiation. Not just abundance of animals, but tumors, cataracts, growth suppression.”


5. The French are now investing into 2000 MW of offshore wind turbine parks forecasted to operate 50% of the time, according to 2 years of windspeed measurements done 10 miles offshore. It is cheaper than building one new NPP with current French laws and decommissioning prices, while providing the same amount of kWh’s. Onshore wind is not prevalent but growing too, they are adamant in keeping the scenery clean, and solar power is not very popular, given that they have to import it mostly from Germany or China (they are chauvinists on that…).


6. You forget that in Europe people still can vote, and they use this privilege. The voters are demanding something else than nuclear power, why, well simply read above litany. And global warming is a concern, but it is fading. Why ? Because we see that the Chinese and many other countries don’t care about global warming and carbon emissions, so if the rest of the world says f..k off, why should we bother about this goal. We Europeans represent only 7% of the global population and 17% of global GDP. Germany is far less. What you clearly fail to understand, is that the European mindset is directed at securing LOCAL power supplies, to avoid going to war again. After all, Europe is the only world area who had 4 Empires.




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