Where wind and coal meet

Materials World magazine
1 Feb 2018

Kathryn Allen looks at Germany’s changing energy mix as it attempts to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

In July 2017, the G20 Summit was held in Hamburg, Germany. The Leaders’ Declaration acknowledged a continuing commitment to mitigate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by increasing innovation in sustainable and clean energy. Members’ commitment to the 2016 Paris Agreement was also reaffirmed. 

But, are these empty promises? The host country is under pressure to deliver on clean energy policies and invest in renewable sources, having decided to phase out its nuclear reactors by 2022, following the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident, and pledged to reduce its GHG emissions by 40% below 1990 levels by 2020. Germany has also set additional GHG emissions reduction targets of 55% by 2030 and 80–95% by 2050, relative to 1990 levels. 

Environmentally unfriendly

Despite these pledges, Germany’s GHG emissions have not dropped since 2009, according to a report released in November 2017 by Oil Change International, a research and advocacy organisation focused on the costs of fossil fuels and clean energy transition. The report attributes this stagnation to the country’s reliance on coal – particularly locally mined lignite, a low-quality form of coal – backing up the intermittency of the its renewable energy. The increase in renewable energy generation hasn’t significantly reduced reliance on coal, instead filling the gap left by the ongoing phase-out of nuclear reactors. 

The report also claims that between 2014 and 2016, Germany contributed US$12.6bln in public finance for fossil fuel expansion abroad, with 99% of this funding oil and gas infrastructure. While Germany is in the process of shutting down domestic hard coal mining, hoping to achieve this by the end of 2018, the country’s reliance on large coal-fired power plants and fossil fuel imports has tainted its environmental image. 

Alex Doukas, co-author of the Oil Change International report, commented, ‘German taxpayers are financing the climate crisis because their government continues to provide handouts for fossil fuel production abroad. As a champion of clean and renewable energy at home, it is deeply hypocritical that Germany is still pouring billions into dirty energy beyond its borders.’

In the same month as the report was released, protests took place at an opencast coal mine, run by provider RWE, near Hambach forest as part of the Ende Gelände (Here and No Further) campaign, which aims to shut down lignite mines and coal-fired power plants. Currently reaching a depth of 370m, the mine extracts around 40 million tonnes of lignite a year. Ende Gelände reports that 3,000 activists reached the mine pit on 5 November, forcing the excavators to stop work.  

Tadzio Mueller, a spokesperson for the Ende Gelände campaign and a climate policy expert for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, Germany, explained why the Hambach mine was targeted. ‘It’s one of the three big lignite mines in the Rhenish coal district, which is just a stone’s throw away from Bonn, where last year’s UN climate summit (COP23) was held. So Hambach provided us with the perfect opportunity not just to take direct action against climate injustice, but also to highlight Germany’s environmental hypocrisy to the world.’ 

While stating that the German Government will continue to rely on fossil fuels to drive economic growth, taxes and jobs, Mueller points out, ‘It is insane to believe that you can have infinite economic growth on a finite planet.’

Fossil fuels

Germany has few domestic fossil fuel resources, relying on imports for around two thirds of the oil, gas and hard coal it uses. This reduces its energy security as it sources fossil fuels from geopolitically unstable regions – a third of its oil and gas resources come from Russia, and it imports oil from the Middle East. The International Energy Agency (IEA) noted in 2013 that projections indicated natural gas would remain an important energy source for Germany, increasing to 25% of total primary energy supply by 2030. 

However, according to a report released in 2017 by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety, titled Climate Action in Figures: Facts, Trends and Incentives for German Climate Policy, German expenditure on fossil fuel imports decreased from €81bln in 2014 to €57bln in 2015. The low price of oil contributed to this fall. But, in 2015, the energy sector was still the largest contributor to GHG emissions, accounting for 39%, and almost 80% of these emissions came from burning hard coal or lignite – highlighting the country’s continued dependence on fossil fuels. 

An energy transition 

Despite this reliance on coal, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has earned the nickname Klimakanzlerin (climate chancellor) from the German press due to her seemingly tough stance on clean energy. The 2017 Renewable Energy Sources Act, which has been modified since its establishment in 2000, forms part of the country’s Energiewende (energy transition) and aims to develop energy supply in a sustainable way to mitigate climate change, promote renewables and conserve fossil fuels. It also sets out targets of obtaining 40–45% of electricity generation from renewables by 2025, and 80% by 2050. 

The German Renewable Energy Federation, an umbrella organisation for German renewable energy associations, has outlined objectives necessary to achieve this transition, including a schedule to phase out coal, a carbon tax and more flexibility in the electricity market, preventing the frequent occurrence of renewable energy systems being taken off grid in favour of fossil fuel power plants. 

Agora Energiewende, a think tank supporting the energy transition in Germany, funded by Stiftung Mercator and the European Climate Foundation, claims that in 2017, 36.1% of Germany’s electricity was supplied by renewables, including biomass, wind, solar and hydroelectric power. In December of the same year, German energy consumers were paid to use power, as surges in supply from wind and solar sources outstripped demand, resulting in power prices dropping below zero on 24 and 26 December. This investment in renewables forms part of Germany’s Climate Action Plan 2050, established in 2016, which proposes non-legally binding targets for reducing GHG emissions, and increasing renewable energy to 60% of final energy consumption by 2050. 

On the brink of failure 

Despite this investment in renewables, in January 2018 Dr Patrick Graichen, Director of Agora Energiewende, commented, ‘The current trend is that by 2020 Germany will cut its emissions by only 30% compared with 1990 levels, instead of 40% as planned.’ Graichen attributed this failure to increased energy consumption driven by economic and population growth, as well as a rise in Germany’s electricity sales abroad. 

However, Craig Morris, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, Germany, told Materials World, ‘The 2020 carbon reduction target was at risk since it was adopted. It was unrealistic from the beginning. In 2007, Germany wanted other EU countries to pledge a 30% carbon reduction by 2020, so the German Government offered a 40% reduction, with the extra 10% being a one-off effect due to reunification (when East German industry was cleaned up). But everyone knew at the time that the target was unrealistic without dramatic policy changes, which no governing coalition since has seen fit to adopt.’ 

In spite of this, Morris is not concerned that Germany will miss 2030 emissions targets, explaining that the phase-out of nuclear will be complete before then and a growth in renewables will offset emissions from coal in the power sector. 

Germany’s Energiewende is made up of many climate change and energy policies, however its environmental image is corrupted by its current reliance on fossil fuels. Graichen commented, ‘With renewables, we made good progress in 2017 in terms of their expansion and cost reduction. However, when it comes to protecting the climate, Germany as a pioneering country is on the brink of failure.’

To read Oil Change International’s report Time to Stop Digging: Why German Climate Leadership Requires a Rapid Phaseout of Fossil Fuel Production and Finance, visit bit.ly/2CRxPMB

To read Climate Action in Figures: Facts, Trends and Incentives for German Climate Policy, visit bit.ly/2CtTuJS