Is Germany switching to coal?
The recent news that the German Environmental Minister opened a new coal plant made headlines around the world and lead people to believe once again that Germany's nuclear phaseout would only lead to greater coal consumption, thereby raising carbon emissions. But a single new coal plant does not a trend make.
Opponents of renewables in North America are pouncing on the news of a new coal plant in Germany, especially because German Environmental Minister Peter Altmaier cut the ribbon, so to speak. Altmaier said Germany will need the conventional fossil power plants for "decades to come," though he did not say it was, as Fox Business put it, to "complement unreliable and intermittent renewable energies such as wind and solar power." In fact, he stated that "fossil energy and renewables should not be played as cards against each other" and that we have to move beyond "making enemies of the two."
It took six years to build the plant, meaning that the process started in 2006. It is by no means a reaction to the nuclear phaseout of 2011. And as Altmaier himself points out, the new plant can ramp up and down by 150 megawatts within five minutes and by 500 megawatts within 15, making it a flexible complement to intermittant renewables. In the area, 12 coal plants more than 40 years old have been decommissioned, and the new 2,200 megawatt plant is to directly replace 16 older 150 megawatts blocks by the end of this year, so 2,200 megawatts of new, more flexible, somewhat cleaner capacity (the new plant has an efficiency of 43 percent, whereas 35 percent would be considered ambitious for most old coal plants) is directly replacing 2,400 old megawatts.
Germany has a target of 35 percent renewable power by 2020, rising to 85 percent by 2050 – meaning that 65 percent of its power supply will be conventional in 2020, and the country will still have 15 percent conventional power by mid-century. Obviously, Germany needs to build some new conventional power plants to reach even that ambitious goal for renewables.
There have been reports that Germany plans to construct some 23 coal plants, but as in Cologne these plans predate the nuclear phaseout of 2011. The question is how many of these will be built. German environmental organization BUND has a map (in German) of the power plants planned and those already blocked. In addition, Germany's Energy Agency (Dena), which is not considered a blind advocate of renewables (on the contrary, the renewables sector considered its Grid Studies subservient to grid operators' needs), estimates in a recent study (PDF in German) that 18.5 gigawatts of coal power capacity (both hard coal and brown coal) will be decommissioned by 2020, whereas only 11.3 gigawatts will be newly installed by that time. Most of the new capacity is expected to be gas turbines, with 20.7 gigawatts going up by 2020.
Finally, it is simply not possible for Germany to increase its carbon emissions from the power sector because the country has emissions trading, which sets a limit on emissions. If anything, the phase-out of nuclear will remove a chunk of low-carbon generating capacity, thereby raising the price of carbon, which will make future investments in coal plants expensive -- but the effects will not be felt for years because it takes years to build these plants. (Craig Morris)