Increase of lignite and coal due to nuclear phase-out: myth or fact?

Together with the target path of the German emission reduction towards 2020, I also found a break down of the emission estimate for 2015 in the FÖS analysis:

Table 1: estimate of GHG emissions in Germany 2015 Source:

Table 1: estimate of GHG emissions in Germany 2015

The difference of 2015 compared to 2014 seems to be:

  • Oil (+3 Mton CO2-eq)
  • natural gas (+7 Mton CO2-eq)
  • coal (-1 Mton CO2)
  • lignite (+2 Mton CO2-eq)

Lignite? Plus 2 Mton?

That remembers me of the second myth from the Greenpeace brochure:

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

They debunked this myth by the claim that more electricity was produced by renewables than by nuclear power plants since 2003. Suggesting that there is no gap to fill by coal and lignite, because renewables did already that over the period 2003-2014.

My first reaction was that they are trying to debunk a myth that doesn’t even exist. Those making the claim that the nuclear phase-out leads to a greater use of coal and lignite will not exactly think of production of electricity by renewables since 2003 compared to lignite and coal. They probably would think about lignite and coal taking over at the time nuclear plants were closed and more specifically in 2011.

That is exactly what happened. After the closure of nuclear plants in 2011, use of coal and lignite increased in 2012 and 2013. It was considered a one-off occurrence back then, certainly when in 2014 it looked like the use of lignite decreased. But now we see that there was again an increase in use of lignite in 2015 compared to 2014. So my question would be why the use of lignite decreased in 2014?

Was it because of the production by renewables? Probably not, the share of renewables increased in 2015 and because they get priority, more would be produced. So my guess would be that is was because of the warmer winter and a subsequent decreased use of electricity.

In the four years since the Energiewende and the closure of nuclear plants, there were three years in which lignite and coal use increased and only one in which it decreased (but probably nothing to do with the share of renewables). So if one understands the statement that the “nuclear phase-out leads to a greater use of coal and lignite” as “when nuclear plants close, the use of coal and lignite increases” (which is closer to reality than “renewables produced more electricity than coal and lignite since 2003”), this myth seems to be less of a myth and more like a fact.


8 thoughts on “Increase of lignite and coal due to nuclear phase-out: myth or fact?

  1. Kevin Marshall

    To close off the argument, instead of emissions figures would it not be better to use electricity production by type for the last few years?
    If Greenpeace are correct then as output from nuclear plants reduced the output from renewables would increase. If you are correct – as I am sure that you are – the electricity production would have increased.
    From a previous post you have this link.
    In 2010 nuclear provided 133 TwH >25% of total.
    In 2014 nuclear provided 97 TwH =16% of 615 total.
    That means the share went down >9%. But the total electricity produced went up by more than 16%.

    1. trustyetverify Post author

      As far as I know the estimate for 2015 was based on energy production. So if emissions from lignite went from 173 to 175 Mton, then I can assume that energy production from lignite went up also. How much compared to 2012 and 2013 is not really clear since I don’t have those numbers yet. I only know that installed capacity of coal and lignite went steadily up since 2011.

      I found the numbers on the Fraunhofor site and the production of electricity by Lignite and coal indeed went up:

      Year Production (TWh) Difference (TWh)
      2011 230.56 +0.42
      2012 247.70 +17.14
      2013 255.84 +8.14
      2014 235.58 -20.26
      2015 245.56 +9.98
  2. Kevin Marshall

    The picture for electricity production is quite complicated. This 2012 document from the IEA. 883 pages and 7.2MB
    On page 463 of 883 (page ref IV.323) is the electricity production figures. in TwH. From 2000 to 2011e, total production increased 576.5 to 614.5 or 38
    The changes are

    Nuclear -62
    Coal -26

    Wind 37
    Solar 19

    Natural Gas 31
    Biofuels & waste 34

    Other 5

    Renewables (including biofuels) can account for the reduction in nuclear and coal, with all the total increase being from other sources. But this is a slight of hand. In terms of emissions there might be an increase (assuming no efficiency changes). -26 of coal is replaced with +31 of gas and +34 of biofuels and waste.

    1. trustyetverify Post author

      Indeed, it is a complicated picture. The data of this report is until 2011 and indeed, coal (as well as lignite) went down quite sharply in 2011. The interesting period for this post was after 2011 (when some nuclear plants were closed). Until now there is not much to compare with. The only thing I know at this point is that use of coal and lignite went up in 2012 and 2013 (as also admitted in the brochure), went down in 2014 (soft winter) and the estimate showed it went back up in 2015.


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