Germany and the Iron Rule of Power Generation: when nuclear goes down, carbon goes up

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.

Source: International Energy Agency, http://www.iea.org/statistics/relatedsurveys/monthlyelectricitysurvey/. Click on image to enlarge.

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.

7 comments for “Germany and the Iron Rule of Power Generation: when nuclear goes down, carbon goes up

  1. Bas
    December 18, 2013 at 7:47 am

    Steve,
    You talk about temporary fluctuations, due to wheather and their economy upswing.

    Renewable will replace all nuclear capacity that will be closed.
    So no substantial grow of CO2 at all (Germany already reached its 2020 Kyoto 20% CO2 reduction targets).
    And after 2022, when all nuclear is closed, the installation rate of renewable continues. Which implies fast further reduction of CO2.

    At the moment Germany installs ~6GW of solar+wind per year.
    That implies that even with a capacity factor of 20% the closure of the 9 remaining nuclear plants in the 9 years until 2023 will be fully replaced by renewable.
    Especially since the Germans plan to enhance the installation rate of wind+solar when the major grid adaptations are ready in 2016/18.

    Their scenario targets 35% renewable in 2020 (now 23%), all nuclear plants off in 2023, 50% renewable in 2030, 65% renewable in 2040, and 80% in 2050.

    These targets are recently enhanced after the elections brought an historic disastrous defeat for the only party (FDP, from 15.7% down to 4.8%. Never such defeat in its 60year existence) that wanted a slow down. So now it is 55-60% renewable in 2030, etc.
    As the consequences of this increase still have to be fully calculated (far more complicated than one would think) and the Energiewende scenario adapted, no accurate new targets yet.

    Note that the socialists (SPD), the new coalition partner of Merkel, promised even greater increases of renewable.

  2. December 18, 2013 at 4:02 pm

    Renewable will replace all nuclear capacity that will be closed.

    No they won’t.  Renewables cannot function without other generation, and the efficiency losses due to starts and inefficient operation reduce the net savings from “renewables” at a pace that escalates with their penetration.

    BTW, Steve:  Bas Gresnigt is a chronic pest who trolls Atomic Insights a lot.  He has no respect for truth or facts, and just tries to wear down the forum by re-posting lies no matter how many times he’s been debunked.  I recommend a ban.

    • Bas
      December 18, 2013 at 4:25 pm

      Engineer-Poet,
      A pity you think in that way about me.
      Regarding your accusation: “… lies no matter how many times he’s been debunked.”.

      Please can you indicate some to me including the argument that it indeed are lies?
      If, then I will excuse as I always try to write the truth according to my best knowledge.

      • December 21, 2013 at 3:38 pm

        What lies have you told?  Just every comment you’ve made at Atomic Insights based on the assumption that LNT is proven, not a flawed, overly-conservative MODEL known to predict incorrectly in regimes of great interest for public health.

  3. The Elephant in the Room
    December 19, 2013 at 11:10 am

    Re: Renewable will replace all nuclear capacity that will be closed.

    Over the last 20 years Germany has invested more than $260 billion dollars into wind and solar. In that time the amount of electricity generated from fossil fuels has gone up. They met their Kyoto targets largely because they replaced some of their old coal burning stations with natural gas burning stations. But it seems that they are building coal-fired stations again. It seems to me that if you spend $260 billion on wind and solar to replace fossil fuel fired electricity generation and the amount of that generation goes up, then the answer is not to build more wind and solar. It is worth pointing out that the credit they gain from burning natural gas may be misplaced. Unlike coal, which is really only an environmental hazard when you burn it, once natural gas is extracted from underground, it is an environmental hazard when you burn it and a worse hazard if you don’t, since it is a far worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. I don’t understand why natural gas, which is now increasingly supplied through fracking, is getting a free ride from environmentalists. Maybe that’s because wind and solar aren’t viable without it.

    • December 19, 2013 at 11:21 am

      Elephant, you say:

      Unlike coal, which is really only an environmental hazard when you burn it, once natural gas is extracted from underground, it is an environmental hazard when you burn it and a worse hazard if you don’t, since it is a far worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

      That is a truly excellent point. Gas extraction ensures, with 100 percent certainty, that that carbon will pass from the lithosphere to the troposphere, either as methane or carbon dioxide. And methane, as you point out, is a far more powerful GHG than CO2. Twenty-one times as powerful, in fact.

      And why do “environmentalists” support that? Yes, because it makes wind/solar viable on a grid. But mostly because it shoulders nuclear out.

    • December 19, 2013 at 11:44 am

      I would add that wind/solar non-viability without fossil backup is a corollary of the Iron Rule. Gas marketers know the Iron Rule, and, clever people that they are, they have gotten the entire “green” movement onside — in some cases (Sierra Club and OCAA) by paying them.

      Wind and solar are a Trojan Horse for the gas industry. Don’t smoke, use a lighter, or cause a spark near the Horse. It’s filled with gas.

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