08.01.2014
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Primary and final energy

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.

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Thomas Gerke

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.

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Thomas Gerke

Tomorrow, we take a look at carbon emissions from the power sector in 2013. (Craig Morris)

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5 Comments on "Coal consumption in Germany – a closer look "

  1. Mark Bahner - 10.05.2014, 06:31 Uhr (Report comment)

    "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."
    Possibly the collapse of the former East Germany economy had something to do with that?

  2. heinbloed - 10.01.2014, 11:27 Uhr (Report comment)

    @ Ulenspiegel:


    About modern hard coal power plants: these are very efficiently ramped up and down, therefore more electricity was generated and sold, profits made.
    During 2013 over 3 GW of new coal power plants came into the market, the test-and rial phase (aligning) for each of them takes several weeks/month. In the meantime back-up capacities (NG and hard coal ramping up and down) as well as base load (old bangers) has to be available. This is another reason why so much electricity was generated from coal in 2013 , several plants run paralel when a new one is made ready for production.
    There are now modern lignite power plants available with a similar efficiency as modern hard coal plants, capeable to ramp up and down very fast. But more of these more of these modern coal plants can not be economically justified, so RWE. Building projects are put on hold:
    http://www.manager-magazin.de/unternehmen/energie/rwe-power-und-rwe-generation-chef-matthias-hartung-ueber-braunkohle-a-938963.html

  3. Ulenspiegel - 10.01.2014, 09:46 Uhr (Report comment)

    CM wrote "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."
    Or a more simple explanation: Hoard coal power plants were traditionally used as mid-load power plants in Germany an are still available, therefore, high NG and low CO2 prices allow a simple substitution of mid-load NG output with coal. IIRC the avarage number of ramping-up-and-down cycles of the hard coal power plants did not change much.

  4. heinbloed - 09.01.2014, 13:28 Uhr (Report comment)

    You are great, Mr. Morris!
    Top journalism!
    I've linked your articels here
    http://www.klimaretter.info/energie/hintergrund/15432-so-viel-braunkohlestrom-wie-nie-zuvor
    and in the Wiener Zeitung
    http://www.wienerzeitung.at/nachrichten/wirtschaft/international/598691_Die-schmutzige-Energiewende.html
    Who published these headlines first? They were in the international media yesterday but no one actually seemed to have bothered to check the data.

  5. heinbloed - 08.01.2014, 00:35 Uhr (Report comment)

    Thanks for the 'hard' facts, for the links to GVSt and DEBRIV !
    Another question is - with the more frequent usage of the modern hard coal power plants in mind - if the storage capacities had been increased. Not all coal imported in 2013 will be burned in 2013, so for more frequent usage ramping the power plants up and down larger stocks of hard coal would be stored on-site.

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