The German Coal Myth revisited (2014)

I was greatly disappointed today to see Pricewaterhouse Cooper’s study, Two degrees of separation: ambition and reality: low-carbon-economy-index-2014, reprinted in an unquestioned form in multiple publications including Vox and Grist.

I have a lot of respect for PWC’s work and have covered their reports in the past. This one is highly flawed, and there are a number of problems. First, I think that emphasizing the change in carbon emissions in one year is highly problematic, and that a more long-term approach is needed to understand if and how individual nations are decarbonizing.

A more significant problem is that the report does not appear to include emissions of methane (CH4), which is at least 34x as potent a greenhouse gas as CO2 over a 100-year timeframe. There is no mention of methane in the report at all. This is a major oversight as much of the life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas production and burning come from methane, particularly methane leaked during the extraction and transport processes.

But the report is simply wrong on Germany. Here I will reprint PWC’s incorrect analysis verbatim:

Germany has, since 2011, been reducing its reliance on nuclear, but at the cost of rising fossil fuel use, causing carbon intensity to rise in the last two years. The country has continued to invest in renewable energy though, with the aim of plugging the gap left by nuclear and achieving 80% of electricity from renewables by 2050. In the short term, however, carbon emissions in Germany show little sign of falling. – p.6

If Germany was reducing its reliance on nuclear, you would expect this to be reflected in generation statistics. However, there are only modest declines in German nuclear output in 2012 and 2013, around 8 Terawatt-hours (TWh) in 2012 and another 1.9 TWh in 2013. For all of these numbers I will use the analysis of the German electricity system by Prof. Bruno Burger of Fraunhofer ISE, which is a handy graphical breakdown of data from Germany’s Federal Network Agency and the European Energy Exchange (EEX).

This is simply not enough to account for the increase in coal use. Hard and brown coal output together increased around 20 TWh in 2012, and another 7.7 TWh in 2013. Meanwhile, gas use fell by at least 8 TWh in 2012, and 10.5 TWh in 2013.

I’m afraid PWC is perpetuating what I call the German Coal Myth.

The myth goes like this: because Germany is using less power from nukes, it must burn more coal, thus wiping out any gains it made through its shift to renewables and exacerbating the climate crisis. And like any good myth it contains grains of truth. Germany is phasing out its nukes. And it (temporarily) has been burning more coal.

Just how temporary this was is shown by data from the first seven months of 2014, when coal use fell again dramatically, and since gas use is also down this means fewer emissions from the electricity sector. Also, the decrease in nuclear output over these two years shows little statistical relationship to the increase in coal. Yes, Germany is shutting off its nuke plants. But it is doing so very slowly.

However, gas use has been falling dramatically, and there is a much stronger correlation between falling gas use and rising coal use. But as we know, correlation is not causation, and I will get to causation in a moment.

The second part of the German coal myth, that rising coal use has wiped out climate progress from renewables, is utterly and demonstrably false. German emissions have been falling for over two decades, and during most of this time U.S. emissions were rising.



So what is happening in the German electricity system that (temporarily) caused more coal to be burned during 2012 and 2013? Here I will have to give you two different explanations.

The first explanation is from my friend Craig Morris of Renewables International and German Energy Transition. He explains that Germany burned more coal to meet the demand for cheap power from its neighboring nations, including France. As Germany has very low wholesale electricity prices and exports a lot of power, this makes sense and I believe it was a factor (though not the only one).

However, it does not account for the changes within the German electricity system, including the fall in gas use. My explanation is that Germany burned more coal, particularly hard coal, to meet intermittent demand, and less gas, because gas had gotten more expensive.

Frankly, this does not cause me to lose a lot of sleep, because we need to phase out both coal and gas to get to a climate where our children can survive, and I live in a nation where our government is systematically under-counting the climate impacts of leaked methane from gas production and transportation, which may make fracked gas no better than coal for the climate.

So while Germany has exported more power (and more of this from coal) I additionally attribute the rise in coal use in part to replacing gas generation, because of both the higher degree of statistical correlation between the two and the use of hard coal as an flexible generation source, which is clearly shown in the hourly Fraunhofer ISE analysis (page 44). Also, nations across Europe have used more coal and less gas during this period, as noted by the U.S. DOE’s Energy Information Administration.

Of course, the more important part of what is happening in Germany is the continued rise of renewable energy. In 2013, solar, wind, biomass and hydro met over 25% of the nation’s electricity needs. In the first half of 2014, renewables met 31% of electric demand.

Unfortunately I do not expect these dramatic increases to continue. We now have a champion of the coal industry (Sigmar Gabriel of the SPD) in charge of Germany’s super-ministry of Energy and Economic Affairs, and he has already done major damage to Germany’s renewable energy policies.


The myth lives on

I 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 phenomenon, and European data from the first seven months of 2014 shows that German electricity generation from all forms of coal is down 12 TWh.

I have yet to see any acknowledgement from the multiple publications that perpetuated this myth regarding the failure of their earlier analysis, which treated the rise in coal as a permanent trend and attributed it to Germany’s nuclear shutdown. Sadly, there is little accountability in today’s media. However, this may have been a self-fulfilling prophecy, as now we have people running the German government who appear determined to bring coal back.

This has not yet happened. And as the PWC piece shows, the myth persists.



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  4. […] and journalist Christian Roseland has drawn from Fraunhofer Institute data to assert that the numbers simply don’t add up to […]

  5. […] Klein’s researchers looked at primary data instead of distorted media accounts and understood what is going on in Germany, they would realize that 1. there is little statistical correlation between a temporary […]

  6. […] 2011, and has plans to shut down the remaining 9 between 2015 and 2022. (In recent years, Germany has been ramping up renewable energy and burning more coal — though coal use dropped dramatically in […]

  7. […] mainstream American media, whose coverage of renewable energy can be summed up as a collection of uncritically repeated mythologies, fossil fuel and nuclear industry propaganda, and outdated assumptions. But regardless of the […]

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