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Germany's clean energy plans founder on dirty coal

Author : Alan Franck, Editor, HazardEx

10 May 2013

Germany's planned transition to green energy has taken a knock with the announcement in late April that coal-fired plants produced 6% more power in 2012. Most of the coal burned in German power stations is lignite, or brown coal, a dirty and heavily polluting fuel source. Industry association Debriv also said the country mined 5.1% more brown coal in 2012 than in the previous year.

A German lignite mine
A German lignite mine

Brown coal has a CO2 intensity of 1,153 grams per kWh versus 428 grams for natural gas, according to figures from the OekoInstitut, Germany's institute of applied ecology.

Germany's green energy policies subsidise renewable wind and solar energy, and following the Fukushima disaster last year, the government said it would close all its nuclear power plants by 2022. 

While brown coal mining grows, Germany also plans to phase out the use of the less polluting black coal by 2018, which provides around 20% of the country's power using mostly imported supplies.

Brown coal-fired plants produced 159 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) accounting for 25.7% of Germany's power production, industry figures showed.

Johannes Teyssen, Chief Executive of German utility E.ON, said in April: "Gas-fired capacity is being crowded out by wind and solar and, paradoxically, by coal-fired capacity."

E.ON uses lignite for 6% of its output, against 31% for the German arm of Swedish utility Vattenfall and 36% for RWE, according to a recent Reuters report.

RWE's Neurath and Niederaussem lignite power stations are the second and third largest CO2-emitting installations in the European Union.

New German coal plants with about 5,300 megawatts of capacity will start generating power in 2013, the IWR renewable energy institute says.

Power generators currently can earn more than 20 euros per MWh for benchmark 2014 power derived from brown coal while gas makes a loss of almost 14 euros per MWh.

While Germany's carbon output held steady in 2012 helped by improved energy efficiency, its broader emissions (of gases monitored under the Kyoto Protocol) rose 1.6% partly due to pollution from brown coal.

According to Forbes, these coal plants will emit over one million times more carbon this year than all of the nuclear plants would have over the next 20 years, and cost over twice as much to run as any one of the them. Germany‚Äôs present strategy seems unlikely to allow the country to reduce carbon emissions anywhere near the goal of 40% by 2020, while proving ruinously expensive. 

Time for a rethink on the nuclear plant closures, perhaps?

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