“The Energiewende is Germany’s ‘Man to the Moon’ project”

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier

Speaking at the first international conference on Germany’s transition to renewable energy (in German: Energiewende) last week, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier described the shift away from fossil fuels and nuclear power as his country’s “man to the moon project.”

The Berlin “Energy Transition Dialogue 2015” drew nearly 1,000 representatives from 60 countries, according to event sponsors. The Energiewende was formalized into German law in 2000 with the passage of the Renewable Energy Act. That law mandates a phase-out of nuclear power by 2022, steep reductions in CO2 emissions, and aims to generate 80 percent of the country’s power supply by renewable sources by 2050. (Germany today gets 27 percent of its electrical generation from renewables, including wind, biomass, and solar power.)

The conference was timed to precede — and shape — the United Nations Global Climate Conference COP21, scheduled for this December in Paris.

In his opening remarks, German Economic Affairs Minister Sigmar Gabriel, addressed his country’s decision to phase out nuclear power despite the low GHG emissions from that energy source — a choice that is controversial elsewhere, but is widely supported across the political spectrum in Germany:

The ecological sense of the use of nuclear energy is not the point, because we now know that this is the most inefficient and most expensive  energy supply. That’s how the debate has switched from an environmental to an economic discussion about the future of our country.

Note: Clean Break, my e-book about the Energiewende, produced for InsideClimate News in 2012, can be found here. My more recent reporting from Germany on developments in the energy transition will appear in Discover magazine this summer.

Greenpeace’s misleading claims

I’m going to keep today’s rant short. If you use social media, you’ve probably seen this graphic touting China’s growing use of wind power. (Minus the red stamp that I added.)



China has installed an impressive number of wind turbines over the last few years — but nothing close to what the above graphic implies. Here are the numbers you need to see why the Greenpeace claim is misleading:

First: In 2014, wind turbines generated an amazing 153.4 TWh of electricity. That’s more than the total generated by Norway (147.8 TWh in 2012). And, as you can see in the chart below, it’s also more electricity than China generated from nuclear power (130.5 TWhs).

Wind and nuclear electrical generation in China, 1993-2014.

Wind and nuclear electrical generation in China, 1993-2014.


And here’s a chart from the U.S. Energy Information Agency showing electricity generation in the United States by source. (I’ve highlighted nuclear generation for 2014.)

Electricity generation, nuclear power, 2014. EIA.

Electricity generation, nuclear power, 2014. EIA.

The grand total for nuclear is 797.0 TWhs in 2014. Admittedly, math isn’t my strong point. But I’m pretty sure that 797 > 153.54.

There’s a bit of sleight-of-hand going on in the Greenpeace graphic and it centers around the word “can.” As in, “China’s wind farms can now produce…” I suspect they’re using what’s known as the “installed capacity” for wind turbines in China. Installed capacity is the theoretical output from a given source. Under optimal wind conditions, a 3 MW wind turbine will produce 3 MW of electricity at any given moment. But to compare the capacity factor of a wind turbine with that of a nuclear power plant is woefully misleading.

China’s installed capacity for wind stand at around 115,000 MW. U.S. nuclear power plants have an installed capacity of 100,000 MW. So, it looks like this is the voodoo-math Greenpeace used for their claim in the graphic.

China is adding sources of renewable generation at a fevered-pitch. Misleading numbers only detract from that story.

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.)