German electricity problems: why can’t they just conserve?

Ontario’s electricity is much cleaner than Germany’s. Here is a comparison of the carbon content per unit of electricity, from 2011:

It is important to note that Germany’s 2011 CIPK of roughly 540 grams is based on CO2 emissions of roughly 325 million tons from combustible fuel sources. These sources produced roughly 405.9 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity; the total generation in Germany in 2011 was 602 billion kWh. That is, combustible fuels in 2011 generated 67 percent, more than two-thirds, of German electricity.

This means Germany generated the other one-third, roughly 196 billion kWh, of its electricity from non-combustible fuel sources in 2011. What were those sources? Nuclear was the biggest, with 107 billion kWh, then wind/solar/tidal with 68 billion, and hydro with 17 billion. (This data is from the OECD’s Electricity Information 2013, page 470 of the PDF.)

It is even more important to note that Germany is phasing out nuclear power. So those 107 billion kWh the country generated in 2011 at nuclear plants will decline to nothing by 2020. What will replace that power? Even if, through a gargantuan effort and expense, Germany were to replace nuclear with more wind/solar/tidal, it would still be generating at least two-thirds of its electricity using combustible fuels. i.e., CO2 emitting fuels.

Of course that will not happen. Germany will not, in spite of all the talk, replace the 2011 nuclear output of 107 billion kWh with renewable output. Nuclear provides steady baseload power, something the renewable sources simply cannot do. No, those 107 billion kWh of zero-CO2 nuclear electricity will be replaced with fossil-fired output.

All of which is to say, Germany’s annual CIPK for electric power generation is likely to rise well above the 540 grams of 2011.

We often hear that we can reduce the carbon footprint of electric power generation by reducing our use of electricity. Switch to compact fluorescent lights, which use less power than incandescents, and don’t run electric heaters unless you really have to (as if people turn them on when they don’t have to).

Couldn’t Germany do that? Couldn’t it reduce its embarrassingly high 540-gram CIPK by just making less electricity?

No, it could not. There is a reason Germany generated 407 billion kWh, more than two thirds, of its power in 2011, using combustible fuels. That reason is, it needs electricity. Electricity, and the electric grid, are a techno-sociological phenomenon. They are the greatest social equalizing force in human history. Germany has a moral imperative to supply its citizens with electricity.

Besides, there was a time when Germany did get by with less power. In 1973, Germany generated only 375.9 billion kWh. Its CIPK in that year was 754.5 grams. That was before it had any nuclear plants.

Germany is not an example to follow. Ontario is. Our CIPK is one-fifth Germany’s; look again at the chart above. Our actual CO2 emissions in 2011, in absolute terms, were 17 million tons. As I mentioned last week, they are on track to be 13 million tons in 2013. Germany’s huge 325 million tons will increase this year.

Why is Ontario’s electricity so clean? Simply because we get so much of it from nuclear plants.

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9 years ago