29 May 2014: Analysis

On the Road to Green Energy,
Germany Detours on Dirty Coal

While Germany continues to expand solar and wind power, the government’s decision to phase out nuclear energy means it must now rely heavily on the dirtiest form of coal, lignite, to generate electricity. The result is that after two decades of progress, the country’s CO2 emissions are rising.

by fred pearce

Right at the entrance to the Schwarze Pumpe power station in Brandenburg, Germany, there is an electric car plugged in and ready to go. Ostensibly “green,” this car must be one of the dirtiest in the world. For it is charged using power generated at the plant by burning lignite, one of the world’s most polluting fuels.

This contradiction illustrates a far wider problem in Germany’s pioneering efforts to become the first large industrial nation to run on renewable energy. Behind the millions of solar panels and wind turbines and electric
Boxberg lignite-fired power station
John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images
The Boxberg lignite-fired power station sits behind the Nochten open-pit lignite mine in eastern Germany.
cars, Germany has a dirty secret: its addiction to lignite, also known as brown coal.

In 2011, the main political parties in Angela Merkel’s Germany, the fourth largest economy in the world, agreed on a new policy known as energiewende, meaning energy transition. Its twin centerpieces are an 11-year phase-out of nuclear power plants, in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima disaster earlier that year, and a target of cutting carbon emissions by 80 to 95 percent by mid-century. Under the plan, renewables, predominantly wind and solar, will supply 80 percent of Germany’s electricity and 60 percent of its total energy.

Is achieving this goal possible, especially given that until recently nuclear was Germany’s main source of low-carbon energy? Pessimists suggest not. They point out that, since the announcement of energiewende, a long, slow decline in carbon emissions of 27 percent between 1990 and 2009 has gone into reverse, with a 4 percent rise in emissions since 2009. But on a visit to Germany last month, I met many NGOs, politicians, and energy academics
Some say the decision to phase out nuclear power left Germany with one arm tied behind its back.
and professionals who say there is no turning back, and that the targets will be met.

Germany has in the past decade embraced renewables big-time. The country last year got 24 percent of its power from solar and wind — more than any other major industrialized nation. On some sunny weekends, more than a million mini-solar power plants on roofs and land across the country deliver half Germany’s electricity needs. On stormy winter nights, thousands of wind turbines can achieve the same.

“Germany has become a laboratory for finding out how to get a system that works 24 hours a day based on wind and solar,” says Patrick Graichen, director of the environment think tank Agora Energiewende.

Getting this far has undoubtedly been expensive, with investment underpinned by guaranteed prices for renewable power and priority access for that power to the grid. Enthusiasts say that as technology advances, the price of renewables is coming down fast. There is, however, a limit to what solar and wind can contribute, however much capacity is installed. Put simply, there needs to be a back-up for when the sun doesn’t shine and the winds don’t blow. Otherwise the lights go out.

Germany is the first major country in the world to face up to the crucial question of how best to achieve that. And so far, it is doing a dreadful job of it.

The decision to phase out nuclear power has, some argued, left Germany aiming for a low-carbon economy with one arm tied behind its back. Arguably, Germany has further hobbled its chances by so far rejecting technology for capturing and burying carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels. And with fossil fuels still a large part of the fuel mix, the one profiting most from energiewende is the dirtiest — lignite.

German environmental concerns about energy are not just about CO2 emissions. Opposition to nuclear energy in much of Germany runs deep. If anything, Germans are more fearful of nuclear power than climate change. And when the government in 2011 decided to shut eight nuclear power plants and announced that the rest, which still provide 15 percent of the country’s electricity, would be closed by 2022, there was relief that a long and
Lignite generates 26 percent of Germany's electricity, more than solar and wind combined.
divisive debate was finally over. Germany is very unlikely to change tack now. Meanwhile, the country has turned against the idea, strongly backed in the most recent reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, of burning fossil fuels while capturing their carbon emissions and burying them underground — a nascent technology known as carbon capture and storage (CCS).

German greens are adamantly opposed to CCS, fearing it could be unsafe. They fear that a catastrophic release of the gas from some underground store could suffocate those living nearby and also be a threat to future climate. One official told me that some saw buried CO2 as “almost as dangerous as nuclear waste.” No state government will now countenance the idea of even pipelines carrying CO2 across their land, says Pao-Yu Oei, an infrastructure policy analyst at the Technical University Berlin. The federal government has no appetite to take on that view. In December 2011, the mining and power station conglomerate Vattenfall abandoned plans for a 2-billion-euro pilot plant that could capture CO2 emissions from a lignite-burning power station.

So what are the alternatives for keeping the lights on when renewables cannot do the job? So far, the answer has been lignite, one of the world’s filthiest fossil fuels.

Lignite was the mainstay of power generation in communist East Germany, before Germany was reunified in 1990. Most of the old open-cast mines that once peppered the landscapes of states like Brandenburg, east of Berlin, subsequently shut. But now companies such as Vattenfall are opening new ones, along with new power stations to run on their output.

Lignite burning is higher today than at any time since the 1990s. It generates 26 percent of the nation’s electricity, more than solar and wind combined. No other nation burns so much.

Lignite emits far more CO2 than other fossil fuels — 1,100 grams per kilowatt-hour, compared to between 150 and 430 grams for natural gas. It is the main reason why German CO2 emissions have started rising.

The expansion of lignite is, says Carel Carlowitz Mohn of the European Climate Foundation, “the blind spot of energiewende.” Why this blind spot? One reason is that lignite is cheap and abundant. Existing mines in the Brandenburg area could deliver fuel for 50 or 60 years at least. Another is that the lignite mining and power industry is a rare source of jobs in eastern Germany, the poorest part of the country. “If they dismantled lignite here it would lead to massive social upheaval in the region,” says
Lignite power plants spew CO2 over long periods when their energy is not needed.
Wolfgang Krüger, managing director of the Chamber of Commerce in Cottbus, Brandenburg.

A third factor is the reluctance of greens to campaign against it. This seems strange because lignite is pretty much the worse possible fuel to supplement renewables. Its high carbon content is one reason. The other is its inflexibility, which results in lignite power plants spewing CO2 into the atmosphere over long periods when their energy is not even needed.

The fundamental requirement for an energy source designed to be turned to when renewables can’t deliver is that it can be switched on and off quickly. But lignite plants are very slow to switch. Kerstin Schilling, information officer at Vattenfall’s Schwarze Pumpe lignite power plant, said it takes that facility up to eight hours to power up. And constantly flipping the switch cuts the lifetime of its furnaces. So the company tries to keep the plant running at a minimum of 40-per-cent capacity, come rain or shine.

Nobody planned this madness. But it has been the inevitable consequence of a decision to phase out nuclear while failing to restrict lignite burning. "We have two parallel energy systems: renewables and fossil fuels. They no longer fit together," admitted Jochen Flasbarth, a senior official at the Federal Ministry of the Environment, Nature Conservation, and Nuclear Safety Construction.

There has to be a better way, and there is. It is not nuclear, which as Flasbarth pointed out, would be even slower to turn on and off than lignite. “The nuclear system does not fit with renewables,” said Flasbarth. “It is even less flexible than lignite.”

The obvious alternative back-up option is natural gas. Burning natural gas emits much less CO2 than lignite. Just as important, modern open-cycle gas turbines can be switched on or off in less than 10 minutes. Thus the CO2 emissions from running gas plants on standby to take over if renewables falter is much lower than for lignite.

The trouble is that gas is much more expensive right now than lignite. Again this is not the way it was supposed to be. The European Union’s internal carbon cap-and-trade system was supposed to push up the cost of burning lignite by requiring big CO2 emitters to buy emissions permits, thus closing the price gap between gas and lignite. But the European economic downturn has created a surplus of permits, and their market price has collapsed, says Flasbarth.

German politicians are in no hurry to halt the lurch to lignite. For one thing, high energy prices are increasingly unpopular among Germans, who already pay three times as much as Americans. For another, a third of the country’s gas comes by pipeline from Vladimir Putin’s Russia, making Germany dependent on a country whose leader is now openly
Germany aims to cut CO2 emissions by at least 80 percent from 1990 levels by mid-century.
hostile to his western neighbors. Increased dependence does not look like smart geopolitics.

In the long term, as energy systems become smarter, the problem of how to provide electricity when renewables falter may disappear. Rather than having to constantly match supply to fluctuating demand, the hope is that demand can be molded to match fluctuating supply.

Research is going on to perfect ways of storing surplus electricity, which could then be released to the grid when demand exceeds supply. Spare power could be used to manufacture hydrogen from water, for instance, with the energy swiftly recovered later by reversing the process. Or it could also be used to pump water uphill between hydro-electric reservoirs on rivers, and then reclaimed by releasing that water downstream through turbines.

With the right incentives, big but flexible industrial energy users, like refrigeration plants, could also help balance the system by taking their energy at times of surplus. As could the fleets of electric cars likely to be an essential element in a transportation energiewende. They could be left plugged in when parked, ready to absorb or release energy according to the needs of the overall system.

But most of these methods for mass storage of electricity are, for now at least, expensive. Flasbarth says they will only happen on the scale required once renewables get above half total Germany electricity supply sometime in mid-century. Before then, grid extensions — including more international links — can, by moving power around, even out


UN Panel Looks to Renewables as the Key to Stabilizing Climate

UN Climate Report Looks to Renewables as Key
In its latest report, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change makes a strong case for a sharp increase in low-carbon energy production, especially solar and wind, and provides hope that this transformation can occur in time to hold off the worst impacts of global warming.
fluctuations in both supply and demand. Germany can swap its solar and wind power for hydroelectricity from Scandinavia, nuclear power from France, wind from the British Isles, or even Icelandic geothermal energy and North Africa solar power. Grid links with Scandinavia and France already exist.

For now, as the contribution of renewables grows, so, perversely, does that of lignite. German policymakers have yet to resolve what they call this “paradox” of energiewende. They insist, however, that it will be done in time to meet their targets for cutting CO2 emissions — by 55 percent from 1990 levels by 2030, 70 percent by 2040 and at least 80 percent by 2050.

Revolutions are seldom straightforward. Germany is still feeling its way toward a new model for how industrial societies can meet more and more of their energy needs from intermittent renewables.

“We want to be a role model for implementing climate policy while maintaining economic success,” says Andreas Jung, who chairs the Committee on Sustainable Development in the German parliament. “Only then will other countries follow.”

The stakes are high — not just for Germany, but for the world as a whole.

POSTED ON 29 May 2014 IN Business & Innovation Climate Climate Energy Policy & Politics Science & Technology Water Europe North America 


Did Germany really get 24 percent of 2013 electricity from solar and wind, or was it biomass, wind, hydro and solar?
Posted by Karen Street on 29 May 2014

Rapid ramping up or down (or load following) is technically possible for nuclear power plants. It just depends upon the design. Naval submarine and aircraft nuclear reactors, for instance, are designed to allow for extremely rapid changes in power output. Also, countries like France with a very high percentage of electricity coming from nuclear have had to find ways to modify some of their reactors for load following and have been doing this successfully for decades. So Flasbarth's comment might be true for the specific nuclear power plants in Germany, but those comments are not true for nuclear in general. The same can be said of coal. Older designs, like many of these lignite power plants, might be unable to load follow. But many newer commercial coal power plant designs allow for it.
Posted by Marc on 29 May 2014

In 2013 Germany got a little less than 14% of its electricity from wind and solar. The 24% figure must also include hydro-electricity and biomass, which are also renewable. I wanted to also note that the numbers for carbon dioxide emission from natural gas plants cannot possibly be correct. If you burn natural gas and somehow manage to generate electricity with 100% efficiency then your carbon dioxide emissions would be about 200 grams per kWh. So a really high efficiency combined cycle natural gas (50% efficiency) would have emissions of about 400 grams per kWh. But the best natural gas plants for load following are single cycle, which are less efficient, with emissions closer to 500 grams per kWh.

Geopolitics aside, the biggest problem with natural gas is its potentially large fugitive emissions. Natural gas itself is 20 times worse than carbon dioxide from a greenhouse gas point of view so if fugitive emissions in the supply chain, e.g. well heads, fracking sites, and pipelines, are between 2 and 3% of the amount combusted then gas is as bad as coal. I have seen estimates for this value ranging from as high as 9% in Russia to less than 1% for America. Given the importance of this parameter, there is precious little work that I am aware of, in measuring it. For all of its faults one thing you can't say about coal is that it leaks.
Posted by Michael Ivanco on 29 May 2014

I think this article spins a pretty bad light on the Energiewende and fails to highlight the statement it makes. The article hints at the fact that Germany has the largest brown coal reserves in the world, and so economically it makes sense to use it to fill the void in the meantime. Granted, as an environmentalist, this is hardly a good back-up option, but I don't think it's fair to spin the Energiewende as madness. If anything, these are baby steps with obstacles. What Germany is doing is fairly impressive, and most reports indicate that the Germans are on pace to meet some of their more immediate targets. It's not to say that the Energiewende comes without any issues at all, but you can't designate "pessimists" from "optimists" and then incorporate such pessimistic tone into your article. Give Germany a chance, because at least they're trying, unlike the United States.
Posted by Louis on 29 May 2014

Well-written article. More information on the recent significant increase in German power prices would be helpful to provide context, as would information on domestic and imported gas resources and prices. Also, the tone could be improved by eliminating the use of less than scientific terms like "dirty" and "filthy". Those terms generally infer a lack of objectivity.
Posted by Steve on 29 May 2014

Thank you for this balanced and informative piece. The following are a few comments:

1) The Energiewende in fact started long before 2011. The Merkel Administration strengthened its commitment to the movement after Fukushima, but the energiewende had its beginnings in the oil crisis of the 1970s and the Chernobyl disaster of the 1980s. Germany passed a federal law in 2002 to phase out nuclear power, and when she took office, Merkel threatened to extend the deadline for the phase out. But backed down after the disaster in Japan. Energytransition.de has a timeline of the movement's history.

2) Readers might get the impression that Germans are using more coal to make up for the nuclear power plants that have so far been shut down. According to German utility statistics, however, the increased coal production has mainly been for export to other countries. http://www.renewablesinternational.net/german-coal-power-for-export/150/537/76783/ As the piece points out, the carbon market in Europe is pricing carbon very low, which is making coal power comparatively cheap for EU countries to buy, and this outside hunger for cheap coal power is driving the increased coal generation within Germany - not the German phase out of nuclear power. It seems the messed up European carbon emissions trading system needs to change, not just German policy.

3) Coal power generation was actually down in Germany in Q1 of 2014, while renewable power generation was up. http://www.renewablesinternational.net/coal-down-renewables-up/150/537/79063/.

4) Some stats suggest GHG from the power sector in Germany is going down over all. http://www.renewablesinternational.net/carbon-emissions-from-german-power-sector-balanced-in-2013/150/537/77625/

And lastly an opinion: I fully share the wish that Germany does not backtrack on its leadership on climate and renewable energy for everyone's sake. I also think that we in the U.S. ought to be careful about appearing to point fingers at Germany on the climate battle. As of the end of 2013, Germany had cut GHG emissions more than 23\% below 1990 levels, while the US was still emitting more GHG than in 1990.
Posted by Diane Moss on 30 May 2014

Germans are more fearful of nuclear than climate change, and fossil fuels in general, despite all the facts, data, and universal scientific consensus saying that fossil fuels' non-climate change (i.e., air pollution) effects alone are orders of magnitude more risky and harmful than nuclear.

CCS risks "almost as high as nuclear waste"?? CCS risks are almost certainly higher, although that's not saying much, as health risks associated with nuclear waste are negligible.

And finally, the discussion on how nuclear is "even worse than lignite," solely because it may be somewhat less flexible than lignite plants, and therefore may be somewhat less able to dovetail with intermittent renewables. As though that's the only factor. As though maximizing renewables is the only goal. No, reducing pollution and CO2 emissions is the goal. And yet, their discussion did not even consider the horrendous pollution and CO2 impacts of lignite (even worse than coal).

And yet, the German is in "no hurry" to do anything about lignite, despite its being 1000 times worse than nuclear. How about keeping the nuclear plants open, eh? Would be far less expensive and would result in far greater reductions of pollution and CO2 emissions.

I've lost whatever respect I ever had for the German people, as well as their government.
Posted by Jim Hopf on 30 May 2014

The problems in the German energy sector will get much worse soon. Over the past decade base load generators have been pushed aside by wind and solar. This means tumbling profits, as base load power plants require high 'capacity factor' to make money. The only way to restore profit is to destabilize the system - by having less base load available than is needed, price spikes will bring back profits on coal plants. The owners of these baseload plants have been patriotic. The baseload operators have now lost patience and will soon shut down a few plants. This will cause a temporary cheer for the green types, followed by industrial shutdowns on low wind days.

Then bills will spike, even more industry will start generating their own power, and a downward spiral of fewer people paying for a huge complicated power bureaucrat designed system that in the end provides neither good value or low levels of pollution will result.

The article also failed to mention that there are an increasing number of German households who can no longer pay for power, and are unplugged. Its been shown that energy poverty leads to more deaths in the winter.

There is only one solution that is proven. If the stakes actually get high one day, then it will be obvious that fairy tale ideals cannot create real useful change.

Biomass - mentioned only marginally in the article, is undergoing a huge push in Europe right now. Translated to real world terms, people are making lots of money clear cutting North Carolina forests, chipping them, drying with natural gas, and diesel shipping them to mix with coal and increase pollution in Europe.
Posted by Tom Andersen on 30 May 2014

Diane, the reference used (http://www.renewablesinternational.net/carbon-emissions-from-german-power-sector-balanced-in-2013/150/537/77625/) for your point 4 states that the emissions are basically unchanged per kWh produced. But Germany has compensated for this by using more energy leading to increased CO2-emissions in absolute numbers. (http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/EE-Coal-taints-Germanys-energy-mix-1203141.html)
Posted by E on 02 Jun 2014

Outstanding article.
Energy transition
Energiewende (German for "Energy transition")
designates a significant change in energy policy:
The term encompasses a reorientation of policy
from demand to supply and a shift from
centralized to distributed generation (for
example, producing heat and power in very
small cogeneration units), which should replace
overproduction and avoidable energy
consumption with energy-saving measures and
increased efficiency.
The key policy document outlining the
Energiewende was published by the German
government in September 2010, some six
months before the Fukushima nuclear accident.
Legislative support was passed in 2011.
Important aspects include:
•      greenhouse gas reductions: 80–95\%
reduction by 2050
•      renewable energy targets: 60\% share by
2050 (renewables broadly defined as hydro,
solar and wind power)
•      energy efficiency: electricity efficiency up
by 50\% by 2050
•      an associated research and development
The policy has been embraced by the German
federal government and has resulted in a huge
expansion of renewables, particularly wind
power. Germany's share of renewables has
increased from around 5\% in 1999 to 22.9\% in
2012, reaching close to the OECD average of
18\% usage of renewables. Producers have been
guaranteed a fixed feed-in tariff for 20 years,
guaranteeing a fixed income. Energy co-
operatives have been created, and efforts were
made to decentralize control and profits. The
large energy companies have a
disproportionately small share of the renewables
market. Nuclear power plants were closed, and
the existing 9 plants will close earlier than
planned for, in 2022.
In May 2013, the International Energy Agency
commended Germany for its commitment to
developing a comprehensive energy transition
strategy, ambitious renewable energy goals and
plans to increase efficient energy use and
supported this approach. Nevertheless, the scale
of Germany’s energy policy ambitions, coupled
with the large size and energy intensity of its
economy, and its central location in Europe’s
energy system, mean that further policy
measures need to be developed if the country’s
ambitious energy transition, or Energiewende, is
to maintain a workable balance between
sustainability, affordability and competitiveness.
Susbsidies aimed at stimulating the growth of
renewables have driven up concumer energy
prices by 12.5\% in the year to 2013. To date,
German consumers have absorbed the costs of
the Energiewende, but the IEA says that the
debate over the social and economic impacts of
the new approach has become more prominent
as the share of renewable energy has continued
to grow alongside rising electricity prices. The
transition to a low-carbon energy sector requires
public acceptance, and, therefore, retail
electricity prices must remain at an affordable
level. Presently, German electricity prices are
among the highest in Europe, despite relatively
low wholesale prices. At the same time, the IEA
said that the new energy policy is based on long-
term investment decisions, and a strong policy
consensus in Germany in favour of large-scale
renewable energy commercialisation exists.
“The equity of the renewables surcharge isn’t the
only criticism of Germany’s power
transformation. Along with cutting out fossil fuel-
generated energy to a large extent, the
transition to renewables includes completely
phasing out nuclear power. These goals are only
achievable in combination with greatly reduced
energy demand. Instead, coal imports are
increasing in order to meet the country’s
baseload power demands. And retail electricity
rates are high and rising, putting pressure on
lower income individuals in particular.
But many of the criticisms are largely overblown,
according to Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain
Institute. The modest uptick in coal-fired
generation was substituting for pricier natural
gas, not representative of a return to coal as it’s
often mischaracterized. In fact, last December,
as renewable energy production continued to
grow and energy demand shrank, Germany’s
largest utility chose not to renew two long-term
contracts for coal-fired power.
And while much is made of rising industrial
electricity prices, Lovins points out that in fact,
“giant German firms enjoy Germany’s low and
falling wholesale electricity prices, getting the
benefit of renewables’ near-zero operating cost
but exempted from paying for them.”
And as for the impact on the consumer, “the FIT
surcharge raised households’ retail price of
electricity seven percent but renewables lowered
big industries’ wholesale price 18 percent. As
long-term contracts expire, the past few years’
sharply lower wholesale prices could finally reach
retail customers and start sending households’
total electricity prices back down.”
What’s more, “in Germany you have the option
of earning back your payments, and far more,
by investing as little as $600 in renewable
energy yourself,” Lovins writes. “Citizens,
cooperatives, and communities own more than
half of German renewable capacity, vs. two
percent in the U.S.”
In the first quarter of 2014, renewable energy
sources met a record 27 percent of the country’s
electricity demand, thanks to additional
installations and favorable weather. “Renewable
generators produced 40.2 billion kilowatt-hours
of electricity, up from 35.7 billion kilowatt-hours
in the same period last year,” Bloomberg
reported. Much of the country’s renewable
energy growth has occurred in the past decade
and, as a point of comparison, Germany’s 27
percent is double the approximately 13 percent
of U.S. electricity supply powered by renewables
as of November 2013.Observers say the records
will keep coming as Germany continues its
Energiewende, or energy transformation, which
aims to power the country almost entirely on
renewable sources by 2050.
Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

Posted by Dr.A.Jagadeesh on 14 Jul 2014

How about gasification projects using low-grade fossil fules?
Posted by Daniel Alamanda phillips on 11 Nov 2014

The best possible energy solution is safe, economic, green Thorium MSR. No CO2 output.
Posted by K. Martens on 29 Jun 2015


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Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in the UK. He serves as environmental consultant for New Scientist magazine and is the author of numerous books, including The Land Grabbers. Previously for e360, he has reported on two recent United Nations climate reports and tensions surrounding oil exploration in Virunga National Park.



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