A power plant in Boxberg, Saxony. In the foreground, the open cast lignite mine that feeds it.

Goodbye to nuclear, welcome back coal

Instead of causing an explosion of “green energies”, the exit from nuclear that Angela Merkel announced in 2011 will bring about the building of new – and highly polluting – coal-burning plants. It’s an option that hasn’t annoyed Germany’s environmentalists.

Published on 5 September 2012 at 11:00
A power plant in Boxberg, Saxony. In the foreground, the open cast lignite mine that feeds it.

When Germans start saying they have the right to something, a warning bell sounds in Polish ears. So what is it that the Germans have the right to?

According to the latest report from the Heinrich Böll Foundation, it’s polluting the environment! The report concludes that Germany has the right to increase its carbon dioxide emissions because it has already reduced them sufficiently. Now Europe’s largest economy can generate power even from brown coal, though probably only burning old tyres would produce more pollution than that. But Germany has the right to do it.

After such words from a country that has led the green energy revolution, one can easily imagine most ecologists fainting from shock. But the German Greens aren’t fainting because they have helped to draft the report themselves.

The Heinrich Böll Foundation is a think tank of Germany’s Green Party. The world is ending. And Peter Altmaier, minister of the environment, agrees with the ecologists. “We want to be generating 35 percent of our electric power from renewable sources by 2020,” he recently told Die Zeit. “But we need to generate the remaining 65 percent from something too.”

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Ecologists gone mad?

It is to Mr Altmaier’s credit, among others, that Germany is returning to coal. Nowhere in the world are more coal-fuelled power plants being currently built – the number stands at twenty three today. Most will burn brown coal, the dirtiest conventional fuel there is. For the atmosphere, this means an extra 150 million tons of CO2 a year – with the full support of Germany’s Green Party.

Have the German greens gone mad? In a way, yes. Chancellor Angela Merkel became their idol when, in March 2011, a few days after the failure at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant, she pledged to close down eight of Germany’s seventeen reactors, even though at the beginning of her term she wanted to keep them operative until 2036.

On May 30, 2011, the German government made an even more radical decision – to decommission all of the country’s nuclear power plants by 2022. And so the ecologists’ dreams were fulfilled and a green revolution began in Germany.

ETS fiasco

The decision to relinquish atomic energy generation didn’t require much political bravery from Chancellor Merkel, because the proportion of the German public opposed to it had jumped to 70 percent following the Fukushima disaster. But such a decision required precise forecasts, and such were missing.

Originally, it was planned that Germany would get rid of nuclear power at such a pace so as to allow renewable sources to fill the resulting gap in the country’s energy balance. Now, however, it’s become clear that shutting off the reactors will have reduced Germany’s power output by some 20 percent by the end of the decade.

At first, natural gas was supposed to serve as a natural replacement for nuclear power. But the EU’s Emissions Trading System has proved a failure. Until now, it awarded carbon dioxide emission permits to companies, including power producers, based on their previous performance. If a company was able to reduce its CO2 emissions, it could sell the unused the permits to companies that had exceeded their limits.

If the ETS had worked well, coal as an energy source for power generation would not have stood ground against natural gas, which emits three times less carbon dioxide. But the makers of the ETS had failed to foresee that Europe would be hit by an economic crisis, which caused a significant drop in the demand for electric power, meaning that most energy producers did not use up their CO2 emission permits.

The result is that the permit for the emission of one ton of carbon dioxide costs some seven euros today. It would have to cost a least thirty five euros for power generated from natural gas to be cheaper than that obtained from coal, according to the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.

But when appeals were made in spring in the Bundestag for at least some of the nuclear sector to be preserved, the Green Party – the first such case in world history – stood firmly for coal. “We can accept a temporary return to coal as an energy source to protect Germany from the environmentally destructive atom. After all, we’re all interested in protecting the environment,” the party’s leader, Jürgen Trittin, explained to the parliament.

But is it really so? The tortuous argumentation notwithstanding, the fact that Mother Earth hasn’t yet been sold to energy companies can be the result of the unique coincidence that her well-being is consistent with those companies’ interests. But it is certainly not most important, as the sad case of the German solar energy sector attests.

Growing pineapples in Alaska

To say that the Germans are crazy about solar power would be an understatement. Although Germany receives no more solar radiation than, say, Alaska, the combined output of the country’s solar installations almost equals that of the rest of the world. “It’s as if the inhabitants of Alaska started growing pineapples there,” Michael Fuchs (CDU) recently argued in the Bundestag.

These pineapples have proved particularly costly for the Germans. The well-known economist, Joachim Weinmann, has demonstrated the absurdity of subsidising the German solar power sector by calculating that the nine billion euros spent already this year on solar power would have produced five times more power if invested in wind technology and even six times more if spent on hydropower.

To use another example, reducing CO2 emissions by one ton requires spending five hundred euros on solar power, but only twenty euros on gas-fuelled technology and just five euros on building insulation.

Despite such horrendous costs, the German government has for years subsidised the solar sector in the hope, Weinmann suggests, that the German photovoltaic cell manufacturers, empowered by the generous subsidies, would dominate the global markets.

Two years ago, when it had become clear that the Chinese were able to manufacture the cells for half the price, Berlin withdrew the support, which has already led to a series of corporate bankruptcies in Germany.

If the logic of spending on renewable energy sources had really been governed by the desire to protect the environment, solar energy would never have happened in Germany. But the German green revolution has not really been about the environment but about profits, about creating a highly specialised niche where German companies would have no match in the world.

If Chancellor Merkel has succeeded in convincing the greens to accept coal, she would have probably got them to embrace nuclear energy as well. But this wouldn’t have made economic sense to German industry because nuclear power is a French domain. And environmental protection has to be profitable.

Renewable energy

A law that works too well

One of the main problems of the ambitious "green revolution" launched a year ago by Angela Merkel is what it is costing users, writes Der Spiegel. Germany’s Renewable Energy Act (EEG), the linchpin of the revolution, provides in effect that —

Operators of wind farms, solar arrays and biogas plants get a guaranteed, fixed feed-in price for all electricity they generate over a period of many years. Power companies are required to purchase this energy, but at a price much higher than what they get for it on the market. The difference is paid for by consumers through their electricity bill. The EEG guarantees big profits to those who invest in renewable energy and makes building new plants attractive. There's just one problem with the EEG: it’s been too effective. Green electricity plants aren't being built gradually but, rather, as quickly as possible. Consequently, the costs are rising at a faster-than-expected rate. The average household in Germany currently pays €144 a year for these subsidies, and that figure looks set to rise to more than €200 in 2013.... Such numbers are big enough to exacerbate social inequalities in Germany. Recipients of ‘Hartz IV’ welfare benefits for the long-term unemployed, for example, receive a fixed sum for electricity and can't afford energy-saving fridges or washing machines.

This is why the Environment Minister, Peter Altmeier, plans to change the subsidy system, writes Der Spiegel.

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