10.02.2014
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Power trading

German coal power for export

Coal power continues to make up a large share of Germany's power generation, but the main culprit is often overlooked: power exports. Today, we take a look at German utility organization BDEW's comments on the issue, which confirm ours.

The charge that Germany is switching to coal power to replace nuclear is widespread not only in the Anglo world, but even in German. Recently, German weekly Die Zeit had this to say: "Despite gigantic investments in wind and solar energy, Germany is generating more and more coal power – and more and more greenhouse gases."

We have already talked about how carbon emissions are probably not up in the power sector for 2013, and over at EnergyTransition.de I recently talked about how power exports are the main reason behind the sustained high level of coal power generation in Germany – meaning that the Netherlands and France, in particular, are the main culprits. Obviously, such statements quickly get you labeled as a spin doctor, so I wanted to share with you the findings of German utility organization BDEW (see this PDF in German from January).

First, there is this chart showing that the share of renewables in "gross power generation" was 23.4 percent in 2013.

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BDEW

Next, we have a chart showing that renewables made up around 25 percent of "gross domestic power consumption."

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BDEW

Notice also the difference in terawatt-hours in the two charts: 629 TWh in the top chart for gross power generation, compared to 596 TWh for power consumption. The difference is 33 TWh, the amount that Germany exported (net) in 2013.

In other words, the BDEW subtracts power exports from "conventional and nuclear energy" (the big red piece of the second pie). The result is a noticeably larger share of renewables in terms of domestic power consumption.

The organization has no choice in displaying the figures this way, nor did I in my recent article. The BDEW and I are both just reporting the facts: renewable electricity has a priority on the German grid and offsets conventional power generation. Net power exports directly increase power generation from conventional plants.

That's not to say, however, that France and the Netherlands are ordering power directly from German coal plants. Rather, they simply export electricity from Germany, and what they get is the German power mix at that given minute – or, as the BDEW put it in a background paper published on January 14 entitled (in German) "Power trading between Germany and neighboring countries" (PDF):

"In the context of European power flows, it would be counterfactual and methodologically impossible to say that the increase in power flows to foreign countries in 2013 mainly came from hard coal power plants and renewables. In specific cases, the power mix largely depends on the specific load and generation situation. Such claims are methodologically unfounded because no specific source of electricity / no specific power mix is exported."

In other words, Germany's neighbors that are net importers from Germany (not all of them are; Poland and the Czech Republic generally are not, for instance) do not directly order electricity from German coal plants or wind farms, and roughly a quarter of the electrons they get are from renewables – because that is the average power mix in Germany. But at any given moment, that mix can look quite different.

Nonetheless, the effect of net exports on German power production is to raise the share of conventional electricity, which would otherwise be offset by renewables. Otherwise, the BDEW would not increase the share of renewables when factoring out exports.

Before we close, it is worth noting one major difference in the motivation behind foreign and German reports about the rise in coal power without a mention of exports as the main cause. Anglo proponents of nuclear wish to demonstrate that a switch to renewables means a switch to coal power, and reference to the role of exports undermines that argument. The Germans, in contrast, largely oppose coal power, and reference to the responsibility of Germany's neighbors also undermines their campaign for a coal phaseout. (Craig Morris)

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4 Comments on "German coal power for export "

  1. Kimi Arima - 12.02.2014, 06:54 Uhr (Report comment)

    There's a rather simple explanation for this: lack of flexibility. Large thermal power plants, specifically older ones, are not capable of changing output very quickly. Moreover, shutting down a large nuclear or coal plant might take a day, followed by a minimum downtime of a day or two, followed by a startup procedure lasting one to three days to get back to full load. Finally, every shutdown/startup cycle entails considerable long-term costs in terms of increasing maintenance requirements.
    Understandably, operators of such plants will look at any and all options to keep their plants running. If push comes to shove, they're often willing to pay someone - as in negative pricing - a modest amount to take their electricity, just to keep from shutting down.
    And that's it. Just the other day, Craig, you wrote about a Fraunhofer study on the system impact of decreasing the amount of must-run capacity. I claim that if and when that does happen in Germany, this "exporting coal" thing will disappear, as well.

  2. photomofo - 10.02.2014, 23:07 Uhr (Report comment)

    We track electricity trades with contracts - we call them E Tags here... don't know what you call them there. In the US we don't yet mandate that the contracts specify what kind of source is being shipped but in Germany you have to do source tracking to determine priority - i.e. Your rules are set so that you cut coal contracts before wind contracts if a power line is overloaded.
    If you know what load is (estimated), what contracts and sources are (known) and what actual flows are (known) you can figure out how much of what goes where and when. This wouldn't be an exact calculation but it would give you a good idea of what's going on.

  3. James Wimberley - 10.02.2014, 22:45 Uhr (Report comment)

    It takes two to make a trade. France and the Netherlands as importers of German coal power share responsibility with Germany as the coal dumping exporter. It's up to Germany to close the lignite power plants!

  4. Thomas - 10.02.2014, 13:34 Uhr (Report comment)

    Hi Craig,
    great article. I think it's ok to say that neighbouring countries import approx. 75% conventional power because the powergrid is often seen as a big lake that is feed by many sources. I can understand why the BDEW likes to stick to this simplification.
    Sticking to this water metaphor: However I think it's even better to point out that the grid is more like an interconnected irrigation system that is based on a national reservoir supplying multiple regional reservoirs that supply local demand.
    The national reservoir (high voltage transmission grid) is what's connected to neighbouring countries. It's almost exclusivly directly feed by conventional power stations.
    Renewables on the other hand mainly feed regional reservoirs, which reduces demand from the national reservoir. Some renewables (mainly solar) even reduce or eliminate local demand.
    That's why high renewable supply reduces demand from the national grid (see any windy/sunny day at Entseo). While at some moments the national grid gets fed by renewable saturated regional resevoirs, the mix inside the "national reservoir" will always remain mainy conventional power.
    Long story short: While we can't be 100% sure how the exported electricity was produced... it's fairly certain that it's dominated by lignite, nuclear and hardcoal... to a minor extend natural gas and renewables...

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