Does the German nuclear phase-out leads to a greater use of coal and lignite?

Just a quick post on the second myth of the “9 myths about the German Energiewende debunked” brochure of Greenpeace. There are already two posts on this myth, but they were based on some statements that were made in that chapter, not about the basis of that myth itself. To recapitulate, the subject of the myth they want to debunk is:

The German nuclear phase-out leads to a greater use of coal and lignite

So, does Germany uses more lignite and coal to compensate for the nuclear phase-out? Hard to say. As presented in the brochure, they debunk the myth threefold:

  1. More electricity is produced by renewables than by nuclear power plants since 2003 (after the first closure of a nuclear plant in Germany). Therefor they conclude that “the growth of renewable energy production more than compensates the nuclear phase-out”. Apparently they are trying to say that there is no gap to fill by coal or lignite, because renewables did already that.
  2. No more lignite and coal power plants were build since the energiewende in 2011, which is not true: installed capacity of lignite and coal increased every year since 2011.
  3. Renewables were the largest supplier of electricity in 2014, therefor dethroning lignite as most important energy source for the first time.

While I can agree with the facts that on average more electricity was produced by renewables than by nuclear since 2003 and that more electricity was produced by solar, wind, biomass and hydro than by lignite in 2014, I fail to see how this has relevance to the myth they are trying to debunk.

Those who claim that more lignite/coal is used to fill in for nuclear, talk about something else than the electricity production by renewables since 2003, so I am not really sure how that could be an argument to debunk the myth. Even if it would be an argument, it will only be meaningful in this context if 1 kWh produced by renewables displaces 1 kWh by nuclear energy. Wind and solar, both being intermittent energy sources, will never be able to displace a continuous energy source one-by-one.

That renewables had the largest share in 2014 is true. This is where the statement comes from:


Germany’s energy mix 2014 Source:

The share of renewables (meaning: wind, solar, biomass and hydro) is 26.2%., while the share of lignite is 25.4%. Therefor renewables are the largest producer. I however fail to see how it has relevance towards the myth they want to debunk. Maybe they think that if the share of lignite is decreasing compared to that of renewables, that less lignite is used? That is not necessarily the case. It depends also on for example the electricity consumption, the production of electricity by renewables, the efficiency reduction of the lignite backup plants and so on. In 2014 there was a lower electricity consumption, so the use of lignite will automatically be lower (renewables get priority), despite the higher installed capacity. That would have more to do with a soft winter than with the nuclear phase-out. If that is their argument, then it has no relationship with the use of lignite.

It also shows how arbitrary their comparison is. The myth stated that there would be greater use of lignite AND coal. Add the share of lignite to that of coal and we get 43.2%. So if we compare lignite (brown coal) plus coal (hard coal), then it dwarfs the share of renewables. So lignite is not second, but total coal still has the largest share by far.

There are however all kinds of comparisons that could be made. If we group all fossil fuels then we get 52.7% fossil fuels versus 26.2% renewables. If we group all conventional sources then we get 78.8% conventional compared to 26.2%. It is their cherry picking of lignite that supported the cheering. If we take any other viewpoints, then we get a different conclusion.

Also, when we look at the composition of those renewables, then something is standing out. It is obvious that they would classify wind and solar as renewables, but usually Greenpeace and other environmental organization are not very keen on biomass and hydro. In this case, they have no problem adding them to renewables share. Biomass and hydro are 43% of the “renewables”, meaning environmental organizations don’t like 85.2% of the sources, compared to 14.8% sources that they do like. 😉

So in the end, is more lignite and coal being used to accommodate for the nuclear phase-out? That might be true, but also maybe not. But the arguments they use will neither prove nor disprove this myth.


One thought on “Does the German nuclear phase-out leads to a greater use of coal and lignite?

  1. poitsplace

    Its so hard to know, isn’t it. Watching the greens trumpet the “successes”, you realize how much difference there can be in the interpretation of the information. Some greens for example, have said that wind/solar was “lowering costs”, because truly, when wind/solar produce it crashes the spot price. However as you’ve become keenly aware…the reality is more like…the attempt to force use of wind/solar have nearly doubled costs and that the supposed “lower prices” are a sign that wind/solar can’t even pay for themselves, much less lower prices.

    Even the ridiculous idea of separating coal into lignite and hard coal is just another way to twist the numbers to look like something they’re not. It’s all coal…lignite, hard coal. The share of coal is 43%. And hydro holds a quirky place…truly renewable but a mature (and reasonably reliable) technology that was harnessed long ago, simply not in the same class as wind/solar, which are the things we’re questioning. And their share is 14.8% Even biomass (which should not be encouraged) is a superior source since it can be burned on demand.

    Finally, one cannot overlook the fact that the attempt to include renewables (sorry…wind/solar) has driven prices much higher and must have some impact on demand. Instead of falling, it’s quite possible that electricity consumption would have increased over that time were it not for the ever-increasing prices…although once simply cannot make an assumption either way with all the uncertainty.

    Even with all of this there are other problems. You realize that for many aplications, energy is energy. The energy market is being squeezed by these…well they’re irrational zealots…at both ends. The environmentalist have vilified nuclear for half a century, instilling an irrational fear in a source that, by most measures is safer than the other sources. And in more recent years they’ve fought tirelessly to stop the revolution in fracking that would have significantly lowered european energy prices in recent years, increased energy independence of many nations, and quite frankly is the best suited fuel to run the sorts of high spin-up rate turbines you need to cover the wild output swings of wind/solar.

    As always we’re left with the sad, pathetic paradox of the greens. Embracing nuclear and fracking are the ONLY ways to provide rapid reductions in CO2 emissions without disruption to society or high costs. The fact that they oppose them more than coal creates a quirky situation in which they force emissions to remain higher through the use of coal. And because they place legal/political barriers in the path of new construction, they encourage older, less efficient coal plants to remain online and in the case of nuclear, more dangerous older plants remain in operation.

    As always…sorry to ramble. I spent a lot of time researching the quirky twists and turns of these very issues.


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