We’ve said many times before – transitioning to renewable energy is not a quick process. The key is to eliminate the worst fossil fuels with sources like nuclear or natural gas, which has significantly less carbon emissions. However, failed governmental policies can affect whether this switch is even possible.
For our latest Quest for Renewables entry, we’re looking at Germany. While their Energiewende policy pledges a 95% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050, they have taken many steps in the wrong direction of that goal – like increasing coal production.
- While keeping two nuclear power plants running is better than the original plan of shutting them all down, this short-sighted policy has forced the country to turn back to coal.
- Returning to coal is a significant step in the wrong direction, highlighting failed policies that put energy security taking precedence over energy transition.
- While Germany has turned to building LNG import terminals, some argue the current energy crisis could’ve been avoided had the government heeded the calls to build them sooner.
Halting the planned shutdown of nuclear power
At the end of September, Germany announced that they would keep two of its remaining three nuclear power plants running until at least April, Economy Minister and Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck said.1 The two nuclear reactors, Isar 2 and Neckarwestheim, are located in the southern states of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, respectively.
It was a reversal to an announcement earlier in the month that said they would stick with the long-held plan of shutting down the three remaining nuclear power plants this year, with the option of reactivating two in case of an energy shortage in the coming months.2
Germany has already shut down three nuclear reactors in 2021 – a process that will take two decades and cost €1.1 billion (CAD 1.48 billion) per plant.3 Shutting down the remaining three would officially mark the end of the nuclear phase-out that first began under former Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Keeping all three nuclear power plants in operation through March 2023 would save a significant amount of carbon emissions. To generate 1.2 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity, hard coal produces around 1.4 million tonnes of CO2, whereas nuclear would only produce 78,000 tonnes – a difference of approximately 1.3 million tonnes of CO2.4
Nuclear power is an important low-emission source of electricity, complementing renewables in cutting emissions while also producing low-emission heat and hydrogen. Lifetime extensions of existing nuclear power plants is one of the most cost-effective sources of low-emission electricity, but further action is needed to take full advantage of these opportunities.
Intending to keep only two plants in operation is a grave mistake. Instead, now more coal-fired plants will need to be connected to the grid, pumping out more carbon emissions that could otherwise be avoided.
Returning to coal
Germany made an equally important announcement recently that received far less media attention: the reopening of five power plants that burn lignite5 – a brown, sedimentary rock that emits more carbon dioxide than any other form of power generation. This return to coal – especially lignite – contradicts every climate goal Germany has announced. Their much-celebrated Energiewende policy has pledged to eliminate 95% of its total greenhouse emissions by 2050,6 yet they are seemingly moving in the wrong direction.
But this energy regression goes further than reopening coal plants. The Keyenberg wind park, which consists of eight turbines, is slowly being dismantled to make way for the expansion of the Garzweiler mine, an open-pit lignite coal mine.7 One turbine has already been dismantled, while two others will be removed at the beginning of next year. The remaining five turbines are expected to be dismantled by the end of 2023.8
This expansion highlights the country’s energy crisis and failed policies, as energy security takes precedence over clean energy. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Several coal-fired power plants nationwide were scheduled to be shut down by the end of 2022, maintaining Germany’s commitment to phasing out coal by the end of this decade. But when they shifted away from nuclear over the past decade, Germany became one of Russia’s biggest natural gas customers. Now that Russia has cut natural gas deliveries to Europe, Germany has no quick option to replace that energy. Forced to turn to its most reliable – and environmentally destructive – source, at least 20 coal-fired power plants are being resurrected or extended past their closing dates to ensure the country has enough energy to get through the winter.
Locking in LNG
Since Russia curtailed gas shipments to Europe over the summer, Germany has been scrambling for alternatives. As part of these efforts, the government is looking to build up the country’s own import infrastructure for liquified natural gas (LNG). LNG is natural gas that has been cooled to (-162°C) to a liquid state that’s easier for storage and transportation, as it has 600x less volume in liquid form.
Natural gas emits the least amount of carbon dioxide when burned, prompting many to see it as a bridge between dirtier fossil fuels like coal and carbon-free sources. However, natural gas is primarily composed of methane, which is a powerful greenhouse gas, and the rate of methane leaks in its production, transport, and storage is 60% higher than previous estimates.9 Nevertheless, by 2025, global LNG trade is expected to increase by 21% from the heights seen in 2019.10
Germany is working fast to build LNG terminals to secure the country’s energy supply without Russia. The first of the floating terminals – known as floating storage and regasification units (FSRU) – is due to go into operation by the end of this year. However, some have criticized the government for not heeding calls to build these terminals sooner. Dr. Claudia Kemfert, the head of the Energy, Transportation, and Environment department at the German Institute for Economic Research, believes the current energy crisis could have been avoided had the government listened earlier:
“As our studies show, for over 15 years, we have called for the construction of at least one LNG terminal in Germany. As we know, the decision was made in favour of gas pipelines and not LNG terminals, thereby increasing dependence on Russia to dangerous heights. This turned out to be a mistake, and one should have insisted at the time on LNG.”11
Announcing a policy that pledges to eliminate 95% of carbon emissions is great, but it’s following up on said pledge that is important. And yet, failed policies like shutting down nuclear power plants forced Germany to become more dependent on a country like Russia. And failure to heed calls to build LNG import terminals earlier forced them to turn to coal and lignite to keep the lights on when Russia curbed its exports. But all is not doom and gloom, and reversing the decision to close the remaining two nuclear power plants is a step in the right direction. We wouldn’t need energy sources like nuclear or natural gas in a perfect world. Unfortunately, this is not a perfect world, and we must face reality on reality’s terms. Eliminating coal and lignite in favour of nuclear and natural gas needs to be the first step in any energy plan, and Germany is now learning the hard way as the planet suffers the consequences.
The quest to achieve carbon neutrality in the face of these obstacles will challenge countries, industries, and business models around the world. As a result, the energy transition sector is becoming a priority for countries around the world and the face of the future for many industries, presenting a source of new job opportunities and economic growth. The Purpose Energy Transition Fund is designed to capture the tailwinds from the fight against climate change by investing in transformational technologies, energy transition opportunities, and sustainability leaders across the world.
- “Germany’s energy crisis puts Robert Habeck under pressure,” Deutsche Welle: https://www.dw.com/en/germanys-energy-crisis-economy-minister-robert-habeck-under-pressure/a-63186583
- “Germany sticks to plan of shutting down nuclear power but leaves loophole,” Global News: https://globalnews.ca/news/9107382/germany-plan-shutting-down-nuclear-power-leaves-loophole
- “Germany closes half its remaining nuclear power plants,” Deutsche Welle: https://www.dw.com/en/germany-closes-half-its-remaining-nuclear-power-plants/a-60302362
- “Keeping Germany’s nuclear plant in operation would save 1.3 mio tonnes of CO2 – economy ministry,” Clean Energy Wire: https://www.cleanenergywire.org/news/keeping-nuclear-plants-operation-would-save-13-mio-tonnes-co2-economy-ministry
- “Germany Reopens 5 Lignite Coal Plants,” Prospero Events Group: https://www.prosperoevents.com/germany-reopens-5-lignite-coal-plants/
- “Germany’s Energiewende,” World Nuclear Association: https://world-nuclear.org/information-library/energy-and-the-environment/energiewende.aspx
- “In clean energy backslide, Germany ditches wind farm for coal mine expansion,” EcoWatch: https://www.ecowatch.com/germany-coal-wind-energy-crisis.html
- “Coal mine demolishes neighboring wind farm to boost country’s energy supply, drawing ire of climate activists,” Fox Business: https://www.foxbusiness.com/energy/coal-mine-demolishes-neighboring-wind-farm-boost-countrys-energy-supply-drawing-climate-activists
- “Large Mthane Leaks Threaten Perception Of ‘Clean’ Natural Gas,” NPR: https://www.npr.org/2018/06/23/622727843/large-methane-leaks-threaten-perception-of-clean-natural-gas?t=1529926542258
- “2021-2025: Rebound and beyond,” IEA: https://www.iea.org/reports/gas-2020/2021-2025-rebound-and-beyond
- “Energy & Infrastructure Insights – The Importance of LNG for Germany’s Energy Supply,” Latham & Watkins: https://www.lw.com/en/insights/2022/10/energy-infrastructure-insights-importance-of-lng-germany-energy-supply
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