Coal's dark cloud hangs over Germany's energy revolution

| 22nd January 2015
Tagebau Garzweiler strip mine, Germany. Photo: Bert Kaufmann (CC BY-SA 2.0).
Tagebau Garzweiler strip mine, Germany. The mining is moving westward and has crossed the Autobahn 44 between the A46 and Jackerath. Beyond are the RWE power plants Grevenbroich-Frimmersdorf and -Neurath, which use most of the coal from Garzweiler I and II. Photo: Bert Kaufmann (CC BY-SA 2.0).
Germany cut emissions and boosted renewables to record levels last year, writes Henner Weithöner. Yet the country's coal burn remains the EU's highest - and ambitious emissions targets can only be met by closing coal-burning power stations.
My most urgent wish for the energy future is that Germany must stop using coal. Otherwise we have no chance of achieving our climate targets.

The energy market in Germany saw a spectacular change last year as renewable energy became the major source of its electricity supply - leaving lignite, coal and nuclear behind.

Wind, solar, hydropower and biomass reached a new record, producing 27.3% (157bn kilowatt hours) of Germany's total electricity - and overtaking lignite (156bn kWh) - according to AGEB, a joint association of energy companies and research institutes.

This was an achievement that many energy experts could not have imagined just a few years ago.

Beyond that, Germany's primary energy consumption - which includes the energy used in power generation, heating and transport - fell to its lowest level since reunification with East Germany in 1990, AGEB report: it shrank by 4.8% compared with 2013.

Estimates by AGEB indicate that Germany's CO2 emissions will have fallen in 2014 by around 5% compared with 2013, as consumption of all fossil fuels fell and the contribution from renewables rose. Half the CO2 savings came from power generation.

Germany's use of hard coal (aka black coal) was 7.9% lower in electricity generation than in 2013, while the use of the more carbon-polluting lignite (aka brown coal) fell 2.3%. The share of fossil fuels in the overall energy mix fell from 81.9% in 2013 to 80.8%.

Success? Yes, but ...

At first sight, that looks like a big success story. But it comes after several years of rising emissions that have cast doubt on the 'Energiewende' - the ambitious German energy transition plan for a simultaneous phase-out of nuclear power and a move to a carbon-free economy.

And researchers calculate that - after allowing for the mild winter of 2014 - the cut in fossil fuel use in energy production meant CO2 emissions fell by only 1%.

In July 2014, a group of NGOs published a study on the EU's 30 worst CO2-emitting thermal power plants. German power stations featured six times among the 10 dirtiest.

Never heard of Neurath, Niederausssem, Jänschwalde, Boxberg, Weisweiler and Lippendorf? These are the sites of Germany's lignite-powered stations, which together emit more than 140 megatonnes of CO2 annually - making Germany Europe's worst coal polluter, followed by Poland and the UK.

And while all of Germany's remaining nine nuclear power plants must by law be shut down no later than the end of 2022, there is no such legally-binding phase-out for the coal industry. So no one can tell how long Germany will go on burning the worst climate change contributors, lignite and hard coal.

How can Germany meet its emissions targets?

My most urgent wish for the energy future is that Germany must stop using coal. Otherwise we have no chance of achieving our climate targets.

Germany has one of the most ambitious climate targets worldwide: by 2020, its CO2 emissions are due to be 40% below their 1990 level, a cut of nearly 80 million tonnes. But how can it achieve this?

The latest Climate Protection Action Plan, adopted by the German Cabinet on 3 December last year, says that 22 million tonnes of CO2 will be saved "by further measures, especially in the power sector". Which is great - but well short of the target 80 million tonnes.

Does that mean less power from coal? The Greens pointed out that a coal-fired power plant such as Jänschwalde alone produces more than 22 million tonnes of CO2 - and Jänschwalde is not even the biggest German polluter.

So, right now, the Energiewende seems a story both of success and of failure. Mojib Latif, the German meteorologist and oceanographer who co-authored the IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report, says:

"The only way of countering the rise in CO2 is to expand renewables. The technology is there - it just has to be used. My most urgent wish for the energy future is that Germany must stop using coal. Otherwise we have no chance of achieving our climate targets."



Henner Weithöner is a Berlin-based freelance journalist specialising in renewable energy and climate change. He is also a tutor for advanced journalism training, focusing on environmental reporting and online journalism, especially in developing countries. LinkedIn:öner/48/5/151/; Twitter: @weithoener

This article is an edited version of one first published by Climate News Network.

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