Germany’s Coal Boom Highlights Nation’s Big Energy Dilemma

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Germany plans to bring a slew of new dirty coal plants online by 2012 and even later, Reuters reports. That fact highlights both the extent of its coal addiction and the growing energy and climate dilemma facing the nation as it prepares for a nuclear phase-out.

Specifically, 14 coal plants, totaling 14,000 MW of capacity will open by 2012. At least 9,000 more megawatts worth could be built after 2013.

The news comes at a time of mounting global policy backlash against coal. The UK and Canada are moving to impose moratoriums on new coal plants that don’t capture and sequester climate-warming CO2. Germany is moving in the opposite direction.

The German government passed draft laws that would ensure new power plants are "carbon capture ready" in the event that the technology is ever possible. Don’t be fooled: That policy provides no commitment to cut CO2. Said NASA climate scientist James Hansen in his famously blunt op-ed, Sword of Damocles:

"The dirtiest trick that governments play on their citizens is the pretense that they are working on ‘clean coal.’"

For Germany in particular, this dirty coal boom is a puzzling move. The government has approved some of the world’s toughest emissons-reduction targets and is heavily subsidizing a renewable energy economy. Take a look:

  • The nation’s Renewable Energy Sources Act targets 30 percent renewables by 2020. 
  • Germany is the top solar photovoltaics (PV) installer and the second largest user of wind power in the world, thanks to its generous feed-in tariff.
  • The federal government has agreed to cut emissions by 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2020. (The broader EU target is a 20 percent reduction; President Obama is pushing a return to 1990 levels by 2020.) 


Why kill deliberate climate progress with new coal construction? The most commonly heard assertion is that new coal is needed to fill the electricity gap from the looming nuclear power ban.

In 2000, the government of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder passed the phase-out law, which stipulates the total end of nuclear around 2024. Nuclear power plants handle nearly a third of the nation’s electricity production. (Coal generates around 50 percent.) Since Germany is leery about being more energy dependent on Russian gas,

"The planners are finding coal the more attractive option as opposed to gas, price-wise and in terms of availability," said Manuel Frondel of the German RWE research institute.

Germany’s Greens and others want to end coal use in favor of 100 percent reliance on natural gas and renewable energy. Not a short-term fix. The former is increasingly unpopular due to energy dependence implications. And the latter is being held up by the high kilowatt costs of PV technology and an antiquated national power grid that lacks enough capacity to carry wind power produced in rural areas to urban centers, among other factors.

Simply put, Germany is caught on the horns of a nasty dilemma — between boosting dirty coal, cutting carbon, ending nuclear forever and being energy secure.

The country can’t have it all. And with new coal in the mix, Germany certainly can’t have a climate-friendly energy supply, a policy staple of the German government.

What will become of this conundrum?

For one, Chancellor Merkel is showing signs of backpedaling on the nuclear phase-out, and her Christian bloc has come out in favor of it. Here’s what she said in a speech to her party in June:

"It’s wrong to shut down nuclear plants that are among the safest in the world. Whenever it’s possible, and I’m still hoping that some may realize this, this policy must be corrected."

There’s recent precedent for nuclear flip-flopping. In February, Sweden ended its ban, as did Italy last summer. Germany goes to the polls this September, with Merkel favored to win re-election. That could be the beginning of a "phase-out of the phase-out." Bets are it happens.

If so, what of coal? The construction boom has been set in motion. Will it — or even can it — go bust, even partially? And what about renewables under this scenario? If nuclear goes, will some of the clean energy momentum go with it? 

Der Spiegel, in an article published last year, laid out an interesting idea by The Karlsruhe Institute of Technology that would help to ensure that doesn’t happen — to sell extended operating periods for German nuclear power plants at auction and invest the proceeds in clean energy research. 

It’s a provocative idea: Use yesterday’s dirty technology to make a clean future possible? Nuclear money for the great efficiency revolution?

Perhaps too provocative. The paper says the idea is being "completely ignored in Berlin’s gridlocked energy policy." 

James Hansen has accused the German government of pretending to be green. Too harsh? Time will tell. But not if coal remains king.