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Why Germany's Nuclear Phase Out is Leading to More Coal Burning

Robert Wilson's picture
University of Strathclyde

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

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  • Jan 20, 2014

Germany and Nuclear Phase Out Consequences

In September 2012 Germany’s Environment Minister opened a new lignite power plant, arguing the following: “If one builds a new state-of-the-art lignite power plant to replace several older and much less efficient plants, then I feel this should also be acknowledged as a contribution to our climate protection efforts.”

Peter Altmaier is not alone, recently the climate benefits of Germany’s new and apparently ultra-efficient coal power plants have been extolled not only by manufacturers such as Siemens and power companies including RWE, but even some of the German nuclear phase out’s most vocal proponents.

We are also now seeing increasing numbers of people suddenly noticing an uptick in coal power, and deciding it has little to do with Germany’s decision to move away from nuclear energy. These arguments however require both an alternative arithmetic, and an alternative history. Here is why.

In the aftermath of Fukushima, Germany prematurely shut 8 nuclear power plants. Respect for arithmetic and the intelligence of my readers dictates that I do not explain why this should lead to an increase in carbon dioxide emissions. However, the relationship between Germany’s nuclear phase out and the construction of new coal power plants deserves an explanation.

Between 2011 and 2015 Germany will open 10.7 GW of new coal fired power stations. This is more new coal coal capacity than was constructed in the entire two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The expected annual electricity production of these power stations will far exceed that of existing solar panels and will be approximately the same as that of Germany’s existing solar panels and wind turbines combined. Solar panels and wind turbines however have expected life spans of no more than 25 years. Coal power plants typically last 50 years or longer. At best you could call the recent developments in Germany’s electricity sector contradictory.


(Coal production: author’s calculation based on 80% load factor projected by Pöyry. Wind and solar production from Fraunhofer ISE. )

These new power plants are sometimes blamed by nuclear proponents on the post-Fukushima decision to shut all nuclear power plants by 2022. This is a myth. Any large piece of infrastructure takes a long time to build, and Germany simply could not respond to Fukushima by building new coal power plants at this scale and speed. Investment decisions for these power plants were made in 2005-2008 (see table 2 here). In response supporters of the nuclear phase out claim this shows that construction of new coal power plants have nothing to do with Germany’s decision to phase out nuclear energy. This however is historical revisionism.

A terse history lesson. In the year 2000 the government of Gerhard Schröder announced that all of Germany’s nuclear power plants must close by 2022, and this was passed into law in 2002.. This policy was revised by Angela Merkel in September 2010 to extend the lives of nuclear power plants so that the phase out would occur by 2032. Then after Fukushima, Merkel wisely or opportunistically – take your pick – decided to revert largely to the earlier phase out plan, closing eight nuclear power plants immediately and ruling that all would close by 2022.

The policy to phase out nuclear power was vital to the decisions to build new coal power plants. Closing down a quarter of your electricity generation leaves a gap that must be filled by something, and Germany realised it would largely have to be filled by one thing: coal. This is more or less beyond doubt, because Germany’s then Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel said so. Gabriel, now Germany’s Minister for Energy and Economics told climate scientist James Hansen that Germany had to build new coal power plants because of its nuclear phase out, and stated elsewhere that Germany would have to build 8 to 12 coal power plants to replace its nuclear fleet.

And this is exactly what he got. In the first half of this decade Germany will open 9 new coal power plants.

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Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Jan 31, 2014


German electricity market is an open market.
Production facilities deliver at prices that are specified by market rules at the Leipzig exchange (the necessary volume is delivered at the price for which the lowest bidder delivers the last necessary MWh. Prices are fixed every 15 minutes; of course also future trading). Anybody can start a powerplant if he satisfies the environmental rules, etc.
It has the benefit of low prices, and the drawback that utilities can build overcapacity as they did. So they now have to take losses as wholesale prices in Germany are extremely low.

Even the grid is free but bound by more rules. So the Dutch state owned grid operator, Tenant, bought and operates ~30% of the German grid.

You can also start selling electricity without owing any production facility; you just buy at the Leipzig exchange and can stabilize your purchace prices by buying futures.

So you see in Germany 3 major grid operators, ~10 producers (most also sell to consumers), and hundreds of sellers to consumers.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Jan 31, 2014


Check Denmark. They are already at 35% with wind turbines only!
And still have reliable grid.
Stronger, they are building more wind turbines as they target to generate 50% of all consumed electricity in 2020 with wind!

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Feb 3, 2014


If that solution was fine, then industry would have picked it up with two years.
Just as with the LWR/PWR designs.
So long before government decided to stop that endless trial.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Feb 5, 2014


We will see. Until now the Germans always met the Energiewende targets. The next one is 35% renewable in 2020, so then we know. I bet they will meet it.

And of course, now that the Energiewende levy threatens to become substantial, they remix. So more cheap onshore wind & solar, and less offshore wind as that is still expensive.

I think that is a wise decision also from a technology point of view. Those offshore wind turbines should be developed further in such a way that they:
 – do not need any maintenance (so no gearbox, may be superconducting magnets);
 – have a life of 60 years;
 – are >10MW (bigger lowers the costs of offshore more than onshore);
That should be possible as essentially it are rather simple machines.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Feb 11, 2014

I guess, that means that coal is estimated to be cheaper than gas in the long run despite that coal would be charged extra should a CO2 tax be levied (or for energy costs of CCS)? Perhaps the actual capacity is cheaper to build?

I got to agree with you because, well yep, I didn’t do the detailed math (and I don’t like the idea of burning coal for so long into the future).

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Feb 11, 2014

France has lower emissions than any other per capita of the developed world. If their emissions are higher than they were in 1990, then they have been slack’n on building new nuclear plants.

Hopefully, they (and the rest of the world) will build the closed cycle so we can convert some 95% or more of the current nuclear “wastes” into pure electricity .

Decomissioning is scary but it must be dealt with in order to fully transition away from fossil fuels.

Just less than a million tons (a buried skycraper’s worth) of fission products, vitrified in glass and probably just twice that amount for all the nasty old reactors, ect (from decomissioning) would provide… FIVE times current total world consumption for FIVE decades!

OR we can ditch nuclear and proudly deliver ourselves… an over heated biosphere where wastes and excess CO2 is felt all around a planet which succumbs to fossil fueled depletion. Yes, I did some basic math

By that time, there will be broken down solar and wind unless nuclear is used to build new such capacity in the meantime (nuclear might be needed to power the excess CO2 clean up as well). There will not be enough fossil fuels to re-build a renewable energy capacity, especially at the planetary level, much less continue to power that planet.

I see it like this: Don’t ditch solar, wind and nuclear. Instead, subsidize the machine automation of wind and solar and subsidize the factory development of the nuclear closed cycle. Then ditcch the subsidies!


Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Feb 11, 2014


I know it is not easy to make 10MW wind turbines that require little maintenance and last 60years.

But these machines are much simpler than planes, which endure bigger temperature and pressure ranges, and also last up to 60years.

Mechanically: Since they can be made without a gearbox, the parts that can wear are essentially two bearings for the main spindle, and the bearings & servos that arrange the position the nacelle and the rotors. And with good design, failing servo’s, etc. can be replaced. 
So essentially this leaves us with ~6 big bearings that have to last 60years.

Once development of these machines leave their present infant status, there is no doubt this will occur.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Feb 11, 2014


France announced that it targets 50% share of nuclear for electricity generation in 2025 (now still ~75%).
Taking into account their track record in meeting long range targets, I doubt whether they will reach that target (their standards regarding meeting targets, are almost opposite to the Germans).
Anyway, they make a start with the closure of the 2 reactor Fessenheim plant in 2015, which seems to be sure. .

France tried to install a closed fuel cycle but gave up.
Mostly because Superphénix (their breeder) was a failure (it lasted ~10years, ~7% of the time operational), despite having a pilot plant (Phenix) before building super-fenix.
So now they spent already some billions looking for a suitable spot to store their nuclear waste.

Clearly, closed fuel cycle is not that easy taking into account that all countries failed.
I believe France came closest, and Japan had the most expensive adventure to reach that dream.

Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Feb 11, 2014


Your guess that coal is cheaper in the long run will not be far away.
The Germans have open lignite mines in which a few huge digging machines do all the work (so only few operators). The lignite is transported by a conveyor belt into the power plant.
The plant crumble the lignite into powder which burns floating in the air which come from beneath.
The plant emits ~30% more CO2.

So, all in all this is not very different from gas. While there is a lot more competition around the use of gas (we heat near 100% of our houses with it, also useful as chemical) which makes gas more expensive.


Bas Gresnigt's picture
Bas Gresnigt on Jun 11, 2014

The facts contradict the assumption that Germany moves towards more coal.

Coal consumption went down during the last 6 years, while Germany closed 8 NPP’s in 2011.
This graph shows it:

They closed more coal capacity than building new.

All base-load plants have to be replaced because those cannot compete in an environment with substantial wind and solar.

So the utilities close all coal base-load plants (efficiency ~35%), and replace part by flexible coal plants which use fluidized bed technology.

Those new plants also have substantial higher efficiecy (~45%) which explains the absence of opposition by the greens. Expecially since the new plants also exhaust hardly any toxic NOx’s (which the old plants did), thanks to the low temperature burning of this ‘new’ technology.


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