Expanding the Legacy

Germany Prefers Coal over Nuclear

Coal: Ja Bitte


At about the same time Germany shuttered its last three nuclear power plants, five lignite-burning ones were recommissioned. In another disconcerting sign of times past, earlier this year in North-Rhine Westphalia, energy producer RWE Power began dismantling a wind farm to make way for the expansion of an open-pit lignite mine. The company wants to excavate an additional twenty millions tonnes of brown coal at its Garzweiler II mine.

In the Rhenish mining area, comprising three lignite-rich seams west of Cologne, six villages are slated for demolition to mine the low-grade coal underneath. The razing of Lützerath, a bucolic village which in its 900-year-long history never boasted more than 105 inhabitants, was the scene of pitched battles between climate protesters and riot police after the bulldozers started advancing last January. Even Greta Thunberg showed up to be heroically arrested.

However, the other five villages awaiting a similar fate received a last-minute reprieve under a tentative plan to limit the expansion of Garzweiler II. Morschenich is one of the spared villages and now houses refugees from Ukraine and Syria. The original inhabitants had already been resettled and revived Morschenich remains without shops though the bus service was reestablished and utilities reconnected.

Dirtiest Coal

Lignite is the most polluting form of coal. It is crumbly and has a high moisture content resulting in inefficient combustion and carbon emissions of up to 1,250 grammes per generated kilowatt-hour.

Germany still uses lignite for power generation because the fuel is cheap and mined in close proximity to large power plants. Though the ruling coalition of social-democrats, greens, and liberals solemnly promised to phase out lignite by 2030, that goal was reluctantly sacrificed to the need to energise the economy.

However, Germany’s second-largest electricity producer Leag offered some good news and wants to morph its vast landholdings in Lower Lusatia, Brandenburg, into Europe’s biggest wind and solar farm, in the process becoming a renewable energy powerhouse. The company currently operates four open-pit lignite mines that feed its four power plants.

For now, Leag’s ambitious plan generates mostly scepticism. The company is owned by Czech business tycoon Daniel Křetínský who made his fortuning by betting billions on the hunch that Europe’s stated targets for the fossil fuel phaseout were overly ambitious, snapping up cheap coal assets in Slovakia, Italy, and elsewhere.

Mr Křetínský’s contrarian streak – he delights in running in the opposite direction of market sentiment – may again be at play. The Czech entrepreneur has already begun construction of a combined wind and solar park covering 11,500 hectares that is slated to output 7GW of clean energy, and double that amount by 2040.

Still, Germany’s much-touted Energiewende is in trouble. Passed into law in 2010, the brave attempt to build the world’s first major renewable energy economy has struggled to find feasible alternatives to coal (dirty) and natural gas (unsavoury).

The German public, nominally climate conscious, seems at a loss as well. Germans are long on perceived problems – nuclear, hard coal, lignite, diesel, natural gas, etc – but short on realistic solutions. Even wind power suffers from significant NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) opposition.

At the time, the Energiewende was expected to slash carbon emissions from power generation by as much as ninety percent and up the share of renewables in the country’s energy mix to sixty percent.

And then, one year later, Fukushima happened. This prompted chancellor Angela Merkel to lose her cool. In a moment of panic disguised as decisiveness, she ordered the shutdown of the country’s seventeen nuclear power plants. Eight reactors were taken offline immediately with the remainder ordered shut by 2022. The last facility was pulled off line in March 2023.

In fairness, chancellor Merkel only rekindled a policy initiative first framed by her predecessor Gerhard Schröder whose social democrat-green coalition had already in 2009 decided to wean Germany off nuclear.

Without emission-free nuclear power, the country turned to lignite and (hard) coal which, together, now generate 31 percent of the country’s total power output, up from 23.4 percent in 2020. Whilst renewables from wind to solar to geothermal and biomass represent an impressive 44 percent of the 571 billion kWh produced in 2022, the share of clean energy has remained fairly constant over the last five years.

Nuclear Phobia

The Germans’ phobia of anything and everything nuclear is an expensive affliction. Households face the second-highest energy prices in Europe (after Ireland). At almost 56 eurocents per kWh, residential consumers in Germany pay twice the EU average. Industrial user pay considerably more.

Meanwhile, in next-door France, a kilowatt-hour including taxes averages about 20 eurocents for both residential and industrial users. France is peppered with nuclear power plants, 56 at last count although a number are offline due to maintenance issues. Still, the country derives seventy percent of its electricity from nuclear. President Emmanuel Macron recently announced plans for six new high-power reactors with an option for eight more.

France embraced nuclear power wholeheartedly in the 1970s after its dependency on fossil fuels became prohibitively expensive as OPEC quadrupled the price of oil. In 1974, French prime minister Pierre Messmer appeared on national television to unveil his “all nuclear, all electric” plan. Over the following fifteen years, no fewer than 48 nuclear reactors were built at 12 plants.

The Messmer Plan worked too well. It had called for the construction of 170 reactors, but by 1990, with only 50 reactors in operation, nuclear already provided three-quarters of the country’s electricity needs. In other words: France had too much power, forcing its plants to operate at just 61 percent of capacity.

Though not originally intended, carbon emissions from power generation have dropped by two-thirds since 1974. For all its dedication to climate neutrality, Germany generates only 44 percent of its electricity using clean sources, against 93 percent for France.

Whilst Germany has earmarked close to €550 billion (£478 billion) for the Energiewende up to 2026, France in January retook its top position as the European Union’s largest electricity exporter, temporarily occupied by Sweden as older French reactors suffered outages owing to delayed maintenance.

Swedish Pivot

Sweden was amongst the first countries trying to eliminate nuclear power altogether. Already in the 1980s, it planned to phase out nuclear (by 2010). The government resolutely banned nuclear research, outlawed the recommissioning of closed reactors, and slapped a SEK 3.30/kWh (£0.24/€0.28) tax on nuclear energy, doubled in 2006. The punitive tax forced the closure of two of the four Ringhals reactors in 2020. The surcharge was largely scrapped in 2017.

In 2021, state-owned energy company Vattenfall showed that abolishing the remaining nuclear tax would deflate its generating cost to just SEK 221/MWh (£16.40/€18.8), or about two-thirds of the current wholesale price.

From taxing nuclear power into a coma, the Swedish government reversed course to grant the industry SEK 443 billion (£33 billion/€38 billion) in loan guarantees for the development and construction of new reactors. It has also proposed to restart the mothballed Ringhals reactors and shortened the permit process for new nuclear power plants.

Growth Market

France is determined to cash in on the renewed interest in nuclear power with its European Pressurised Reactor (EPR), a third generation pressurised water reactor which is currently being thoroughly redesigned for improved performance, lower construction cost, and increased safety.

Outside China, which built the first EPR (Taishan I), the design has suffered from cost overruns and commissioning delays. Initially estimated to cost €3.7 billion (£3.2 billion), the French-designed Olkiluoto 3 reactor in Finland came in at three times over budget (€11 billion / £9.6 billion) and fourteen years late.

With the EPR2 and its smaller EPR1200 cousin, both currently under development, France expects to retake the lead in reactor design and claim its share of the estimated 300 or so new nuclear power plants being planned globally.

Infuriating King Coal

US Climate Envoy Blows a Fuse

US Climate Envoy John Kerry

“People continue to plan and build and burn unmitigated, unabated fossil fuel.” US climate envoy and former secretary of state John Kerry is undiplomatically upset over the scale of coal power expansion in Asia.

Together, China and India burn 70 percent of the world’s coal according to data from the International Energy Agency (IEA). In 2020, president Xi Jinping of China promised that his country’s carbon emissions would peak in 2030 before reaching net zero three decades later. Prime minister Narendra Modi of India pledged net zero by 2070 without going into specifics.

Trying, so far in vain, to hammer out preliminary agreements for the upcoming COP28 climate summit in Dubai, Mr Kerry vented his frustration that notwithstanding all good intentions, global energy-related CO2 emissions grew by 0.9 percent last year to set a new record at 36.8 Gt. In a post-pandemic rebound, emissions ballooned by six percent in 2021. The silver lining noted by the IEA is that the pace of the emissions growth was lower than expected.

Mr Kerry said that the commissioning of new coal-fired plants in Asia “wipes out” the carbon reductions achieved in Europe and North America. Globally, more than 200 coal burning power plants are under construction, with another 350 in the pre-construction and planning stages.

“Despite all the consequences, we are not yet doing what we said we would do,” fumed Mr Kerry who ascribed the mismatch to “fundamental, basic greed.”

© 2024 CFI Press. All rights reserved.