The German coal myth

Now that I have established some basic facts about Europe’s energy transition (energiewende) in the past few posts, it is time to deal with some of the mythologies that have been widely propagated, including dramatic headlines in American and British press.

The myth can be paraphrased as: because Germany is moving off nuclear power, the nation is increasing its generation of coal, which will undermine and/or wipe out its progress in reducing carbon emissions.

The first part is highly overstated, the second demonstrably false. And it is greatly ironic when the second claim comes from Americans, given our nation’s utter lack of progress. More on that later.

The basis of this myth

First, like most good myths, this one contains a grain of truth. Germany did increase its consumption of both hard and brown coal 5.1% in 2012 over 2011 levels. This is still lower than any year 1990-2007, and roughly about 2008 levels.

This and the other statistics that I will reference about German electricity production are from the Working Group on Energy Balances, and specifically this document, courtesy of Karl-Freidrich Lenz.

It is also true that Germany reduced its nuclear output during 2012 to 99 TWh, an 8.3% fall from 2011, and a 30% decrease from 2010. This reduction is a long-hoped for goal and the inspiration for the nation’s energy transition. Germans don’t want nuclear reactors. They haven’t since the 1970’s and they really don’t want them after Fukushima.

Reduction in gas usage

However, this myth thrives on missing or under-stated details. Significantly, from 2011 to 2012, Germany reduced its electricity generation from natural gas 15%.

This is probably due to increased prices for imported natural gas in 2012. Germans and other Europeans could have extracted more from shale gas and other unconventional sources, but as it turns out they don’t want fracking in their small, densely populated continent.

Can you blame them?

So, yes, from 2011-2012, with 8.3% less electricity from nuclear power and 15% less electricity from natural gas, Germans generated 5.1% more electricity from coal.

Short-term or long-term trend?

Anglo-Saxon publications have been treating this small, one-year increase in coal use as if it were a long-term trend. While such sensationalism is good for boosting readership, we simply do not know what will happen in the future.

Germany plans to phase out its nuclear reactors by 2022, but what will that actually mean for any given year along the way? There are strong reasons to believe that the Germans will not use more coal, which have been explored in detail by the Sierra Club.

A central question is whether or not Germany will import more gas. Which will depend on future European gas import prices. And if any of us knew future European gas prices, we would be very, very rich.

German renewable energy grows, emissions decline

However, all of this misses the big picture. From 2011-2012 German electricity production from renewable energy sources increased 9.3% to 22% of total generation. 2012 renewable generation was also a 31% increase over 2010. German renewable energy generation has more than doubled since 2005, and has increased every year since 2003.

Germany is not moving to a source of electricity that has allegedly lower greenhouse gas emissions, as has the United States. Many of the sources of electricity that they are moving to (solar and wind) have _no_ emissions.

There are multiple sources of greenhouse gas emissions, including the transportation and heating sectors, so this is not entirely reflected in year-to-year GHG statistics. However, German emissions have fallen every year since 1990 with a few exceptions. During the period since 2005-2011 when electricity generation from renewables nearly doubled, German emissions fell 8.1%.

A longer view is critical here. Germany has reduced its emissions 27% since 1990 and surpassed its targets under the Kyoto protocol in 2009.

A lot of noise has been made about the United States’ progress on reducing emissions in the last few years. This begs perspective, as the United States has a lot of catching up to do. For the previous 17 or so years, while Germany and other nations were reducing their emissions, US emissions grew substantially. Even with a 6.7% reduction 2007-2010, 2010 greenhouse gas emissions levels are still 10.5% higher than 1990.

Let’s not forget that per-capita US GHG gas emissions are roughly double than German emissions to begin with, despite Germany being perhaps the world’s most industrialized  large nation.

Concerns from Americans about German emissions are the height of hypocrisy.

Conclusion: Energiewende

While the United States and Britain re-arrange the deck chairs on the Titanic by shifting from coal to gas, the Germans are doing exactly what they have said that they would do: transition off of nuclear power, and fossil fuels, and move to renewables. If there is a one-year exception to the downward trend in the use of coal or any other non-renewable energy source along the way, this is, as K.F. Lenz puts it, “statistical noise”.



  1. […] The German Energiewende is hardly reversing. Despite noise about Germany’s ill considered removal of nuclear plants the renewable growth and efficiency gains are still reducing GHG emissions.  […]

  2. […] in the U.S. if about three years later. New coal plants are no longer commencing construction and renewables are taking a larger and larger market share. Even in India, while the government remains fully committed to an unaffordably coal-heavy future, […]

  3. […] wrote about the German Coal Myth a year and a half ago in early 2013. At the time I said it may be a one-year phenomenon. I was wrong. It was a two-year […]

  4. […] does not understand the German experience with renewable energy when she slides half-way into the German Coal Myth (p. 97, 136-139), admitting that she is unsure if a two-year increase in Germany coal use was a […]

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