Coal consumption in Germany – a closer look
The big energy news this week in Germany was that power from brown coal has reached its highest level since 1990. But in reviewing the data, our Thomas Gerke noticed something: the difference between primary and final energy.
Coal power production is up this year both for brown coal and hard coal, a distinction not generally made in other countries. The distinction is justified, however. Hard coal is more densely packed and has energy content large enough for it to be shipped around the world, such as from Australia to Europe. In contrast, brown coal is just a step up from peat and is not traded internationally.
In 2013, according to preliminary figures (see this spreadsheet) electricity from both types of coal is up. Power from hard coal has reached a level not seen since 2008, while electricity from brown coal has now reached a level not seen since 1990 – the first year in which statistics for a reunified Germany could be taken.
But my colleague Thomas Gerke noticed something when comparing the numbers – the amount of brown coal used in the power sector (90 percent of total consumption) actually dropped in 2013 by 1.6 percent, though consumption of hard coal in the power sector was up by 6.7 percent last year. What’s going on?
Essentially, we are dealing with a difference between primary energy and final energy. The former is the energy contained in the lumps of coal; the latter, the electricity that comes out of the power plant. Recently, Germany has replaced a number of its old brown coal plants with a smaller number of new, bigger, and more efficient facilities – a move that has drawn international criticism. But the trend does make German coal consumption more efficient overall. Gerke put together this chart showing that the amount of coal going in per energy unit coming out has indeed improved over the past 20 years – and noticeably did so in 2013.
Still, why the difference between brown coal (down) and hard coal (up)? I assume it has to do with the merit order. Nuclear and brown coal plants generally run as often as possible, so when renewables dip into the baseload, they offset hard coal first (after having completely wiped out natural gas, which is even more expensive). Quite likely, the power plants fired with hard coal are ramping up and down so much that consumption of primary energy is becoming less efficient.
The finding is mixed news, in a way. On the one hand, it is interesting to note that coal consumption is generally becoming more efficient, meaning that we get more electricity (final energy) out of each lump of coal (primary energy). On the other, that efficiency is lost, the more these plants have to ramp up and down. While German coal power production (not consumption, however, because this power was needed for export, not domestic use) was up in 2013, consumption of coal remains relatively flat.
Finally, Gerke took a look at per capita coal consumption (the lumps, not the electricity) between Germany and the US and found that the Germans consumed more up until the mid-1980s, but have since roughly cut consumption in half. The drop in coal consumption in the US brought about by the financial crisis and the rise of shale gas came some two decades later, and the Americans still consume roughly 50 percent more coal per person.
Tomorrow, we take a look at carbon emissions from the power sector in 2013. (Craig Morris)