In electric power generation in developed countries, when one form of steady, large-scale, reliable generation comes out of the system, another with the same attributes must go in to replace it. If the first form steadily puts, say, 1,000 megawatts into the grid, hour after hour, day after day, then the form that replaces it must do that too. Otherwise the flow of electric power is interrupted, and havoc—yes, havoc—ensues in the society and economy that are served by that grid. Modern societies depend utterly on electricity. I am in Ottawa, Ontario. It is -18 °C (255 Kelvin) outside. If Ottawa were to suddenly lose electricity, thousands of people would within short hours be facing mortal danger from exposure to cold.
Germany power generation, by type, in the first nine months of 2011, 2012, and 2013. Source: International Energy Agency, http://www.iea.org/statistics/relatedsurveys/monthlyelectricitysurvey/. Click on image to enlarge.
As you can see in the above chart, Germany’s use of combustible fuels to make electricity has risen in the first nine months of each of the past three years. And its use of nuclear generation has gone down. The chart does not show the causal link between these two phenomena, but everybody knows that Germany yanked nuclear reactors out of service when it heard that a March 2011 tsunami in Japan, nine thousand kilometers away, had caused a meltdown in that country. As a result, Germany, in the first nine months of this year, made over 288 billion kilowatt-hours—nearly 67 percent of its electricity—from combustible fuels.
Coal probably accounted for about 70 percent of those 288 billion kWh. (That has been coal’s proportional contribution to combustible fuel generation in Germany in each of 2010, 2011, and 2012, according to the OECD publication Electricity Information 2013, p. IV.323.) That works out to about 200 billion kilowatt-hours. If you assign a very conservative CIPK (CO2 intensity per kilowatt-hour) of 900 grams to coal-fired power generation, then those 200 billion kWh of coal-fired electricity came with a carbon cost of just over 179.5 million metric tons of CO2 in the first nine months of 2013.
Combustible fuel use went up in Germany as a result of the flight from nuclear. You can see that plainly in the chart above.
Germany plans to shut down all of its nuclear reactors by 2020. According to the International Energy Agency, which published the chart above, nuclear accounted for 66.7 billion kWh in the first nine months of 2013.
Replace 66.7 billion kWh with the cleanest combustible fuel, natural gas, and you will inflict 36.6 million metric tons of CO2 on the earth’s atmosphere.
So add at least 36.6 million tons of CO2 to Germany’s already swelling CO2 inventory from power generation.
And here is the kicker. Germany likely will not replace nuclear with gas-fired generation, even with gas’s slightly smaller carbon footprint. No, Germany will likely replace nuclear with good old coal. Why? Because coal is cheap in Europe, much cheaper than gas. The North American crash in gas prices has freed up North American coal for export. Guess who’s buying it.