For critics who scoff that Europe’s carbon emission reduction goals are unachievable, Germany has become Exhibit No. 1. Since Chancellor Angela Merkel decreed in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident that Germany would phase out its nuclear power industry, coal use in Germany has been on the rise, and the country’s carbon emissions have remained stubbornly high.
Now it appears that tide may be turning. According to AG Energiebilanzen (“Working Group on Energy Balances”), an energy research firm, total energy consumption in Germany is projected to fall by 5% in 2014, compared to 2013, to the lowest level since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Coal consumption for the year is expected to be down more than 9%.
Those declines are due mostly to the mild winter in 2013-2014, but clean energy is expanding as well: Renewable energy use grew by 1.6% over the first 9 months of 2014, compared to the previous year.
The Brown Stuff
Germany’s coal use carries particular importance not only because it is Europe’s biggest economy, but also because Germany burns mostly lignite or “brown coal,” the dirtiest form of coal, and because Germany’s green energy program, known as the Energiewende, is among the most ambitious in the world. While renewable energy production has expanded rapidly in Germany – accounting, at times, for 100% of the country’s power demand and forcing utilities to pay customers to consume electricity from conventional power plants – the nuclear phase-out has led to a rise in the burning of coal for baseload power supply.
Now, the government is at least considering shutting down coal plants. German minister Rainer Baake of the Green Party told reporters in late October that the government could come up with a plan as early as December to eliminate coal-fired capacity and boost energy efficiency programs. Earlier Der Spiegel reported that the government wants to eliminate as much as 10 GW of coal capacity. A decision will likely not come until next year.
Getting rid of coal is critical if Germany is to reach its target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions 40% compared to 1990 levels by 2020. The environment ministry has said that if current trends continue, the country will fall short of that goal by 5 to 8 percentage points.
Meanwhile Swedish energy giant Vattenfall, one of Europe’s largest operators of power plants, said it will seek to sell off its coal-fired plants in Germany. Vattenfall’s coal operations in Germany produce some 60 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) a year – more than Sweden’s total CO2 emissions.
Like a drunk uncle at a wedding, Germany’s coal industry is an embarrassing and unwelcome guest that everyone would like to usher to the exit. Getting it out the door, though, remains a tough task.
Tags: Carbon Emissions, Coal, Policy & Regulation, Power Generation, Renewable Energy, Smart Energy Program
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