Germany is by many seen as a leader in renewable energy development. Of the 615 TWh (1 TWh = 1 billion kWh)) produced in 2011 7.5 % was produced by wind and 3.1 % by solar (almost all is photovoltaic, PV). All renewable energy sources added up to 19.9 %. In 2012 the portion of renewable energy produced had grown to 22 %. On October 3 this year (2013) at noon wind and PV reached a record peak of 59.1 %.
Wind and solar is heavily subsidized by the German government/tax-payers. It is estimated the subsidies are in the magnitude of 20 billion Euros per year.
The driver for developing all the green energy with wind and solar is concerns about global warming and a recognition of the necessity to reduce greenhouse gases.
But there seem to be competing drivers at play as well. The bulk of the electric generation in Germany is from coal fired power plants. In 2011 lignite (“brown coal”) fired power plants produced 24.9 % of the electric energy and another 18.6 % came from power plants using anthracite (“hard coal”).
Coal, predominantly brown coal, is one of the few domestic energy resources Germany has. By hard history Germany has learnt the importance of domestic energy resources. The brown coal is also a low cost fuel, partly thanks to direct subsidies, about $6B annually, and indirectly, supported by a WWII era law from 1937, which allows brown coal mining companies to relocate people and communities more or less at will. Consequently, it is not surprising that the domestic brown coal has been the fuel of choice for German power generation. It seems to continue to be the choice for quite some time ahead.
The driver to support its coal fired generation is probably a contributing factor to the decision to phase out all its nuclear power plants, which emit zero carbon dioxide (CO2). This decision came shortly after the Fukushima March 11 2011 event in Japan, even though Germany is not exposed to earthquakes or tsunamis like Japan is. 8 reactors have now been shut down. Remaining 9 reactors are scheduled to be shut down by 2022.
The same driver may be at play when Germany is not replacing the coal plants with state-of-the-art combined cycle natural gas power plants (CCGT). Natural gas fired CCGT’s not only emit less CO2 but they also provide more flexibility to the grid operators, making it easier to bring on more intermittent green power, wind and solar! Contrary to the situation in USA the price of natural gas in Germany is not competitive with coal. Developing and importing shale gas from Poland and Ukraine would most likely make natural gas much more competitive, but it is not happening.
Instead there are more new coal fired power plants coming on line in Germany. 10 new coal plants with the total capacity of 11 000 MW have/will come into service during 2012 – 2014. For example RWE, the largest German electric utility, energized 2 new units in 2012 at Neurath, each at 1100 MW. Even though these new units are state-of-the-art supercritical steam turbines with 43 % net electric efficiency, still it is far from the 60 % net electric efficiency of a CCGT.
Bottom-line, near-term it looks like Germany will increase greenhouse gases. In fact in 2011, which was well before the full impact of phasing out the nuclear plants had been felt, CO2 emissions from the power plants increased by 4 % compared to 2010. Indications are that CO2 emissions in 2013 will be 5 % higher than in 2012.
The German government will continue to expand wind and solar. The stated target is to reach 45 % renewable energy by 2025. But, stated or not, without nuclear and no/slow adoption of natural gas fired CCGTs, it looks like the proportion of coal fired power plants will stay equally high.