Germany is Having Problems Leaving Coal Behind

The Future Is Looking Bright for U.S. LNG
November 26, 2018
Eisenhower’s Nuclear Legacy Holds Steady At Vogtle
December 2, 2018

PACE has written in the past about Germany’s Energiewende program which aims to cut carbon emissions 40 percent by 2020 and 95 percent by 2050 by replacing coal fired power with renewable energy. The program has faced many problems, however, as the country is finding it hard to quit coal entirely.

Germany officially began its Energiewende program 8 years ago. While the country has made a massive investment in renewable energy since then (renewables now account for 36% of Germany’s energy mix), those investments have not translated to lower greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, emissions haven’t dropped at all in nearly a decade. To add insult to injury, the failing program has come at a high cost for consumers. German power customers now pay some of the most expensive electricity prices in the world. 

Part of the problem lies with Germany’s distaste for nuclear power, which is the only known source of emission free baseload energy. Currently the plan is to shut down all of Germany’s nuclear reactors by 2022. As nuclear plants shut down and renewables remain intermittent and weather-dependent, the country has been forced to rely on coal fired power plants to ensure electricity reliability. Embarrassingly, German officials admitted earlier this year that the country would fall well short of its 2020 goals.

Coal is Germany’s only truly domestic energy source and it currently provides around 40% of the country’s electricity. That’s highly problematic as the country looks to phase out coal, cut out nuclear power by 2022, and reduce emissions at the same time. The German cabinet has appointed a 24-person group, the “coal commission”, to find a compromise. This group was expected to present a plan to quit coal by the end of the year, but, perhaps not surprisingly, the commission has not been able to find a solution and has postponed its decision until February of next year. 

Thousands of German jobs are expected to be lost in the transition, especially in the heavy coal-mining states Brandenburg and Saxony. The two regions are industrially weak and won’t absorb such a loss easily, even if the loss is spread out over years. To make things worse, German officials are skeptical of taking measures to help companies cope with the coal exit, such as lowering energy taxes. 

It remains to be seen whether Germany can ever phase out coal completely or what the cost will be if it ever does. We can only hope that leaders here in the U.S. take a long, hard look at how things are working out for Germany before considering similar moves here.