Less electricity from coal
To meet the climate targets, Germany must reduce electricity from coal. In the interim, coal consumption might increase slightly, as it did in 2011 and 2012, but the rising price of carbon and the increasing competitiveness of renewable power will make this trend short-lived – and Germany will stay within its carbon emission limits during the process. Furthermore, carbon capture and storage is expensive and unsafe, and the German government has already stated that it will not promote the technology against popular will.
When Germany resolved to shut down eight of its seventeen nuclear plants in 2011 and phase out the rest of them by 2022, there was concern that coal power would be ramped up to fill the gap left behind by nuclear – but that is not the plan, because the country cannot meet its climate targets with coal power. After all, roughly half as much carbon is emitted when natural gas is burned instead of hard coal. Lignite, which is domestically available in Germany in large quantities, is three times more carbon intensive than natural gas. Furthermore, coal plants do not ramp up and down as fast as flexible turbines fired with natural gas do, making the latter a better way of filling in hourly gaps in renewable power production. For more information on natural gas as a bridge to a future with renewable gas supplies (see 2 – H Flexible power production (no more baseload)).
For a number of reasons, however, coal power consumption has temporarily increased:
- The decision to shut down eight nuclear power plants came suddenly, and industry has not yet had time to replace the missing capacity, so power providers have no choice but to fall back on existing power plants.
- The economic downturn within the EU has reduced energy consumption, thereby indirectly reducing carbon emissions and making the price of carbon – and hence, the price of coal power – lower (see Emissions trading).
- In 2011 and 2012, a few new coal plants went online that had been planned and constructed many years before the nuclear decision.
Plans for new coal plants
Just a few years ago, Germany’s biggest four energy firms planned to build more than 30 new coal plants, but their current plans are much more modest. A number of projects have been abandoned for various reasons ranging from tremendous local protests to difficulties in procuring water rights and – most of all – a reassessment of profitability in light of the boom in renewables. At present, ten hard coal power plants and four brown coal power plants are still on the drawing board, but they will mostly be needed to replace old plants that are being decommissioned.
CCS not an option for coal power
Over the past decade, there has been a lot of talk worldwide about carbon capture and storage (CCS), which the technology’s proponents misleadingly call “clean coal.” Essentially, this technology captures pollutants and carbon dioxide for separate storage. For industrial processes such as cement production, in which it is extremely difficult to reduce emissions further, CCS could be an option to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In power plants, however, CCS is viewed by most energy experts as unattractive because it drastically reduces the efficiency of the power plants, thus severely increasing fuel costs.
Furthermore, CCS investments turn out to be prohibitively expensive. Germany set up the first such test facility designed by Siemens in 2006 at Schwarze Pumpe, a coal plant run by Swedish utility Vattenfall. The results were apparently not encouraging, since Vattenfall announced at the end of 2011 that it had abandoned plans for a second demonstration project of 300 megawatts, which would have been ten times the size of the pilot facility at Schwarze Pumpe, thereby even foregoing funding from the EU for the first full-size CCS plant. Vattenfall said it was unable to go ahead with its plans because the German states with suitable storage potential refused to accept the risk.
In addition, environmentalists are generally not excited about the technology, as stored pollutants and CO2 will only create further problems for future generations, who will have to make sure that the storage facilities do not leak. Local communities do not wish to have repositories for carbon dioxide near them, so Merkel’s coalition – which supports CCS – reached a compromise with the German states in 2012. Now, the states will be able to veto plans to construct carbon dioxide repositories, making it highly unlikely that any such repository will ever be built. The agreement also specifies that the states – and hence taxpayers – will be liable after the first 40 years of operation, with the company liable for the first 40.
Furthermore, the target for storage has been reduced from eight million tons per year to four million. To put this into perspective, it has been estimated that 3.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide would need to be stored away each year worldwide if we are to stay within our emissions targets. In other words, Germany now plans to contribute roughly 0.1 percent of carbon storage towards that goal.
In July 2012, Germany’s Energy Minister Peter Altmaier himself gave up on the idea of CCS within Germany: “We have to be realistic. We cannot store carbon dioxide underground against the will of the population. And I do not see any political acceptance in a single German state for CCS technology with hard coal and brown coal power plants.”