Did Germany’s shift from nuclear power cause a rise in coal-fired electricity?

A coal-fired power plant in Berlin. (Photo by Osha Gray Davidson)

A coal-fired power plant in Berlin. (Photo by Osha Gray Davidson)

Everyone knows that Germany’s panicked decision to exit nuclear power following the disaster in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011, and fast-track renewable power has had the unfortunate consequence of increasing the use of coal-fired power plants and causing a spike in CO2 emissions.

Most recently, writing in the New York Times this Monday, reporter Melissa Eddy put it this way:

“The race to shutter the country’s nuclear reactors by 2022, for example, has resulted in many power providers using brown coal, or lignite, the cheapest and dirtiest of all fossil fuels to keep the power flowing to customers. This, in turn, has led to an increase in carbon emissions”

It’s a simple narrative (less nuclear = more coal) but it’s wrong on several fronts.

German-based energy writer, Craig Morris, has covered these myths in detail – including a piece today — so I’ll focus on what seems to me to be the error with the most important implications: that the anti-nuclear component of Germany’s energy transition has caused a rise in CO2 emissions.

First, the experts I’ve talked with on two reporting trips to Germany (in 2012 and again last October), are, indeed, concerned about a pattern of increasing CO2 emissions in Germany. None of them, however, blamed the 2011 closure of 7 nuclear power plants for the increased GHGs.

Here’s why (Click on the “Enlarge” link in the caption for a better view):

Changes in German electrical power generation by source, 2010-2014.

Changes in German electrical power generation by source, 2010-2014. (Enlarge)

Nuclear power did indeed decline between 2010 and 2014 – by 43.7 Terawatt hours. But, that was more than compensated for by increased electrical generation by renewable sources, such as wind and solar, which rose by 52.6 TWh over the same time period.

What renewables did not replace was natural gas, which declined by 30.8 TWh between 2010 and 2014.

Germany’s single largest supplier of natural gas is Russia — and that country has raised the price of this valuable commodity. German utilities have reduced the use of pricy gas and replaced it with cheap (and dirty) coal. Although natural gas burns cleaner than coal, it is still a significant source of CO2 — unlike the renewable sources that Germany is investing in.

Still, Germany needs to make changes to reduce the use of dirty coal. But this isn’t news to German experts either. The government has said it will force the closure of the dirtiest coal plants, and there remains the possibility that the European Union’s failed carbon cap-and-trade program (which Germany is bound by) will raise the price of carbon pollution to levels that will actually have an impact on emissions. And, it should be noted that German’s CO2 emissions actually dropped last year. Without these other changes, that trend may not continue, however.

One last point: In the chart above, you may have noticed that nuclear power generation began to fall in 2006. That’s because the nuclear phaseout was not an emotional reaction to Fukushima, but an integral part of German energy policy that began in 2000, more than a decade before the nuclear disaster in Japan.

Craig Morris goes into much greater detail here pointing out the flaws in the NYT article. (And he has far better graphics than the one I threw together above.)

Whistle blower: Former Arizona Utility Regulator Threatened Him Not to Reveal Inappropriate Activity

Arizona Corporation Commissioner Gary Pierce

Former ACC Chairman Gary Pierce accused of secret meetings with utility heads.

Former Chairman of the Arizona Corporation Commission Gary Pierce held about a dozen private meetings with executives of APS, the state’s largest electrical utility (and which is regulated by the ACC) — many of which took place while the commission was considering proposed rate hikes for APS customers, according to a letter written by an ACC employee who reported directly to Piece. The letter was addressed to Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, Susan Bitter Smith, current ACC chair, and ACC executive director, Jodi Jerich and sent on February 13, 2015.

The whistle blower, who has not been publicly identified, also claimed that Pierce ordered him to exert pressure on authorities to expedite paperwork to incorporate the Conservative Business League, a political consulting firm. CBL’s website lists Ron Ludders and Bob Thomas as directors of the firm.

According to the letter, on October 4, 2012, a month before elections for ACC commissioners, “Mr. Ludders reiterated how important it was that the filing be processed as soon as possible because they had checks to cash.” In the letter, the whistle blower writes, “Mr. Ludders said they had $186,000 in checks to destroy Commissions [Paul] Newman and [Sandra] Kennedy. He did so while patting the pocket of his suit jacket.”

2012 campaign sign for the "Solar Team."

2012 campaign sign for the “Solar Team.”

Democrats Newman and Kennedy, who billed themselves as part of a “solar team,” lost the November election.

The whistle blower thought nothing more of Ludders earlier comments until reading a December 11 news article about a “hit piece” mailer against the pro-solar pair, that, according the article, cost $186,000. In November 2013, the now all-GOP commission approved a measure allowing APS to impose a fee for customers with solar panels. APS proposed charging solar customers $8.00 per kilowatt — about $50 a month for a typical residential system. The commission instead imposed a fee of $.70 per kilowatt. Critics charge that although the new fee is small, it sets a precedent for future hikes which will discourage prospective customers from installing rooftop solar power.

The ACC whistle blower charged that in August of 2014 he told then-ACC Chairman Bob Stump about the improper meetings between Pierce and APS, his suspicions over “the dark money that funded the hit piece,” and other cases of “abuse of authority by current and ex officio members” of the ACC.

He ends his letter by stating that “to my knowledge nothing has been done with the information I provided.”

The man who heard thScreenClipe list of charges last summer, ACC commissioner Bob Stump, issued a statement last week saying, “Rest assured that this Commission takes all allegations seriously and I am confident that a through investigation will be conducted.”

In a twitter exchange in January, I asked Commissioner Stump about earlier charges of dark money influencing the ACC elections. Why not force donor disclosure? I asked. Stump didn’t answer directly, suggesting I track down his previous interviews and then dismissed the issue as “old campaign-stunt news.”



Poll: Germans Continue to Embrace Renewable Energy, but with an eye on the price tag



According to a new poll, 82 percent of Germans support the country’s transition to renewable energy, known as the Energiewende. The poll by the Federation of German Consumer Organizations (Verbraucherzentrale Bundesverband) found some discontent with some aspects of the project, however, particularly with the cost.

Some 52 percent of respondents called rising energy prices a disadvantage of the Energiewende. At $0.35 U.S per kilowatt hour kWh, the price German consumers pay for electricity is among the highest in Europe. Danes pay the most $0.40/kWh and Bulgarians the least $0.11/kWh.

Overall, the poll found that Germans are willing to pay more for electricity they consider safe, i.e., non-nuclear and non-polluting. Part of the increased cost comes from a surcharge for renewable energy that is paid to individuals or groups that produce “clean power” and sell it to the grid. The program, called a Feed-in Tariff FiT, has helped create a solar photovoltaic PV boom across Germany.

The installed capacity of PV the theoretical maximum amount of electricity that could be produced if all solar panels were running at 100 percent capacity in 2003 was less than half a gigawatt GW. A decade later, that figure stands at 34 GW – and growing.

Actual solar power production across Germany can be seen in real time on a site run by German solar technology manufacturer, SMA.

via Solar Power Remains Popular in Germany, Despite Cost | Earthzine.