Is Germany decommisioning coal faster than it is building it?

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The recent book Clean Break on Germany’s Energiewande made the following claim:

Germany’s old coal plants are being decommissioned faster than new ones are coming online.

This fact is a key part of the author’s explanation of why Germany’s nuclear shutdown is not having the effects some of its critics claimed it would. The problem however is that what the author claims has absolutely no basis in reality. Germany is building coal plants faster than it is decommissioning them. This can easily be checked by looking at the list of power stations the German government says are being built and decommissioned between now and 2015. (see the second spreadsheet).

In total, between now and 2015, Germany is decommissioning 1.8 GW of coal plants, but building 8 GW. This is not a healthy ratio. In contrast it is only building 1.5 GW of gas, which could provide the electricity with half of the emissions. So, quite astonishingly the carbon intensity of Germany’s new build fossil fuels is actually higher than its existing fossil fuel capacity. The percentage of Germany’s electricity from fossil fuels quite likely won’t decrease in the next decade, and their preference for coal over gas now looks like making their electricity more carbon intensive in the next decade.

(h/t Jani-Petri Martikainen for the link to the official statistics of German coal build)

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14 thoughts on “Is Germany decommisioning coal faster than it is building it?

    Gray said:
    November 26, 2012 at 1:19 am

    Would you pls provide a source for the claim that gas is so much cleaner? Thx. Also, did you check if there is sufficient supply to allow the operation of so many gas plants as you suggest?

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    Jessica Lovering (@J_Lovering) said:
    November 26, 2012 at 5:52 pm

    Most studies conclude that burning natural gas emits somewhere between 30-50% less carbon dioxide per amount of energy compared to burning coal.
    http://www.worldwatch.org/system/files/pdf/Natural_Gas_LCA_Update_082511.pdf

    Also, since natural gas is mostly pure, it has next to zero emissions of heavy metals and toxins like mercury, arsenic, sulphur dioxide etc. Much cleaner in terms of local air pollution.
    http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/our-energy-choices/coal-and-other-fossil-fuels/how-natural-gas-works.html#enviroimpacts

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      jmdesp said:
      November 26, 2012 at 8:15 pm

      WRT this study the newest capacity being put in place in Germany has an efficiency of 43% (the BoA plant) whilst the newest capacity for gaz is CCGTs that hit the 60% barrier.

      However I wonder if the new methodology really completely takes accounts of all methane emissions, the gas companies are certainly not boasting it, but they appear to have very frequent gas leaks, as seen in this report :
      http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/20/methane-is-popping-up-all-over-boston/

      And emissions at production place also sound likely to be underestimated. It’s costly to reduce them, and it doesn’t bring much value when they are in the 1/2% range. However the impact on greenhouse effect is a lot larger.
      Will try to read this study really when possible, since they seem to actually have taken the time to try to take into account most of those effects.

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        jmdesp said:
        November 26, 2012 at 8:43 pm

        Another point is the newest 43% plant replaces older at around 35% efficiency. So putting in on line it does reduce a bit the CO2 emissions. However building such a capital intensive plant means that it would be very surprising that you don’t use it for around 40 years (the coal plants that will soon close in France were built at the end of the 60’s/early 70’s). So those emission are “locked-in” for 40 years except if you do a costly shut-down of the plant before it’s fully amortized, which is very unlikely to happen.

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      Gray said:
      November 27, 2012 at 11:37 am

      Thx, Jessica! Will look into this. Ineresting.

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      Gray said:
      November 27, 2012 at 11:53 am

      After an initial look, I see two problems:
      Firstly, the data is about the conditions in the US. German coal and coal plants may be different in their efficiency and other regards.
      Secondly, It looks as if the study simply adds Methane on top of the CO2 emissions, 1 on 1. But if you look at the consequences for the environment, that’s dead wrong and will provide a misleading picture. Here’s what the US EPA website says: “Methane is over 20 times more effective in trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide (CO2) over a 100-year period”
      Apparently, natural gas power generation emitts about double the Methane volume than coal based one. That amount (*20) may make up all the difference in CO2 generation, regarding the impact on global warming. Hmm.

      I don’t have the time now to dig deeper into this, but I’ll return to the issue later.

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    Lauri Muranen said:
    November 26, 2012 at 7:57 pm

    Sometimes these discussions seem to forget that it is private companies that make the investment decisions on lignite/coal plants, CCGTs, wind farms (at least partly) and their motivation is pretty obvious. Germany isn’t building a thing but rather the companies that operate there and they know how to count. The EUA prices are currently favouring coal over gas as the fuel is quite a bit cheaper. Secondly the central European power market is flooded with variable renewables that virtually have no opex. Therefore a number of German gas plants are sitting idle and it is only getting worse. They are there to support the electricity system but only at the expense of the power companies. I don’t think this will last for long – no wonder they are looking for capacity payments since there is no way of keeping those plants profitable under the current system.. So ironically we are likely to see subsidies for fossil plants due to the variability that has been brought upon with too generous renewable subsidies and too little attention to the grid and rest of the system.

    Thanks for the blog, it’s a good read.

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      Robert Wilson said:
      November 26, 2012 at 8:58 pm

      Thanks Laura

      It’s true that the German government isn’t building the plants. However the only reason solar exists is the fit. So, government policy largely determines the scale of current renewables. The same is true for coal. The gov could very easily regulate it out of business, which the UK has effectively done.

      Something has to give over gas capacity in Germany. Just looking it the numbers it seems that solar is helping pushing it out of the market. As you say the big problem is that the capacity is still needed. There was a recent report that indicated something like 30 plants want to close, but the government doesn’t want them to close. So, it may be a choice between subsidizing fossil fuels, or blackouts.

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    Craig Morris (@PPchef) said:
    December 5, 2012 at 10:42 am

    I tried to follow your numbers, but the figures in slide two (Bund Diagramm) seem to indicate that 4,730 megawatts of brown and hard coal capacity will be added net. You write: “between now and 2015, Germany is decommissioning 1.8 GW of coal plants, but building 8 GW”, which would put us at 6.2 gigawatts – a difference of around 1.5 gigawatts, which is quite significant. Am I missing something?

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    Robert Wilson said:
    December 5, 2012 at 11:08 am

    Thanks Craig. You may be correct. I went through the spreadsheet with Google Translate.

    However, the main point of the post was to ask whether the claim that Germany is decommissioning coal plants faster than building them. So, this doesn’t really change the answer to that question.

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