The German Coal Conundrum: The status of coal power in Germany’s energy transition

Germany has drawn international attention for its energy policies in recent years. The term Energiewende – the country’s transition away from nuclear power to renewables with lower energy consumption – is now commonly used in English.

The focus, however, has recently shifted to the role of coal in Germany. Over the last two years, media both in Germany and abroad have spoken of a possible “glowing future” for coal power and a “coal comeback” in Germany (Schultz 2012, McCown 2013). From the decision to phase out nuclear power, observers conclude “that domestically produced lignite… is filling the gap” (Birnbaum 2013). Indeed, statements made by German politicians over the past decade also suggest that these coal plants were intentionally built to replace nuclear plants.

Here, we have the coal conundrum of the Energiewende: is Germany building new coal plants to replace nuclear despite the country’s green ambitions? This paper finds that the concern is based largely on a temporary uptick in coal power in 2012/13 (due to a cold winter and greater power exports) and on a round of new coal plants currently going online.

An in-depth look reveals that coal is not making a comeback in Germany. The current addition of new coal projects in Germany is a one-off phenomenon. Recent projects started in 2005-2007 as part of an overall trend in Europe caused by low carbon prices and upcoming stricter pollution standards for coal plants. New coal plants in Germany are unrelated to the nuclear phaseout of 2011 after the Fukushima accident.

Instead, renewables have more than offset the nuclear plants shut down. During the nuclear phaseout (until the end of 2022), this trend can be expected to continue, though the specific outcome depends on the actual growth of renewables and demand for power in Germany and neighboring countries.

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