Renewables overtake coal as Germany’s most important power source

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Renewables become Germany’s single largest electricity source ahead of coal. But experts warn the milestone must be taken with a pinch of salt.

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Clean Energy Wire

Onshore wind power is Germany’s biggest renewable energy source. Photo: Pixabay

Wind and solar power, together with other renewable sources, have overtaken coal as Germany’s most important power source, figures released by the industry group BDEW show. But this milestone in the history of the country’s energy transition must be taken with a pinch of salt, experts warn.

The goal to further boost the share of renewables during the next decade is threatened by lagging grid expansion, political indecision, and fears over wavering supply security. All these make it difficult for renewable power companies to plan their next steps in the Energiewende process.

Renewable energy generation in Germany passed an important milestone in the first half of 2018, becoming the single largest power source ahead of coal in the country’s gross power production mix.

Figures released by the German Association of Energy and Water Industries (BDEW), the energy industry’s biggest lobby group, show that wind, solar, and other renewable energy sources together generated 118 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity between January and the end of June, compared to 114 kilowatt hours generated from lignite and hard coal over the same period.

“Renewables are on the march,” BDEW head Stefan Kapferer said, adding that the figures demonstrate that a market-driven coal exit in Germany “is already fully on its way.” Kapferer said the growing share of renewables makes an accelerated power grid expansion in Germany more necessary than ever before.

The aim here is to integrate more intermittent renewable power sources into the energy system, he explained. The lobby group leader warned that Germany still lacks a reliable backup system for periods of low renewable energy output, and added that this problem is set to intensify as more coal plants are shut down. In addition, the country’s last nuclear power plant is scheduled for decommissioning in 2022.

The BDEW estimates that renewable energy sources increased their output by ten percent between the first half of 2017 and the same period one year later, raising their share in the power mix from 32.5 percent to 36.3 percent in 2018. Onshore wind power saw the biggest increase of all renewable sources, bringing its share in output up from 12.5 to 14.7 percent in one year.

Power generation from hard coal dropped significantly from 15.6 percent to 12.6 percent, and that from lignite decreased slightly, from 22.9 to 22.5 percent. The use of gasdropped by more than one percentage point to 12.3 percent of the gross power production mix, while that of nuclear energy grew by one percentage point to 11.3 percent, the BDEW said.

The new figures on the changes in Germany’s power mix in the framework of its Energiewende – the dual shift from fossil and nuclear energy sources to renewables – come at a time when the political debate on phasing out coal is already in full swing.

The government launched a highly anticipated coal exit commission in June. It is tasked with managing the definite phase-out of Germany’s historically most important power source without causing major economic disruptions in the affected regions.

“Others are much more advanced”

Environmental groups and opposition parties argue for a rapid shutdown of many coal plants and an end to coal mining to bring Germany back on track towards meeting its 2020 and 2030 climate goals [see the CLEW factsheet on Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions and climate targets for background], but coal proponents say that the coal mines are legally entitled to remain operational well into the 2040s, and that a rapid coal exit would threaten economic stability in the regions and could lead to diminished supply security and rising power prices in the entire country.

In a bid to bridge the emissions gap by 2030, the government coalition of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative CDU/CSU alliance and the Social Democrats (SPD) has promised to increase the share of renewables in power consumption to 65 percent by the end of the next decade.

While the BDEW’s figures on gross power production, as well as the figures contained in the research institute Fraunhofer ISE’s Energy Charts on net output, indicate that the share of renewables is growing steadily, and an analysis conducted by the think tank Agora Energiewende* has recently confirmed that reaching 65 percent is technically feasible, the country’s renewable energy lobby groups warn that the goal is at risk for several reasons. [See the CLEW factsheet Germany’s energy consumption and power mix in charts for more information]

Germany’s government has come under fire lately from environmental groups and industry representatives alike, as an internal quarrel within the conservative CDU/CSU camp over immigration has been seen as paralysing other areas, such as energy and climate policy. The government’s energy policy advisor group has also found that the Energiewende does not enjoy the political priority it deserves.

The Green Party’s energy politician Julia Verlinden said in a press statement that while the figures gave reason to cheer, they should not disguise the fact that other countries have a much greater share of renewables. “Others are much more advanced here – renewables expansion is not happening quick enough,” she said.

Verlinden added that the share of renewables in heating and transport has remained stagnant on a low level for ten ears and that Germany is set to miss its 2018 goal of 18 percent renewables in total energy consumption.

The German Renewable Energy Federation (BEE) says that the government’s most important task would be to come up with clear guidelines for additional renewables auctions to enable the country to reach its 2030 renewables target, especially since the approaching end of their 20-year guaranteed support scheme means that a lot of renewable power capacity could go off the grid in the next few years.

*Like the Clean Energy Wire, Agora Energiewende is funded by Stiftung Mercator and the European Climate Foundation.

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14 Comments
  1. MaxG 1 year ago

    Well, the chart shows a roughly 10% increase in each, RE and nuclear, and conversely a reduction of 10% in each, black coal and gas.
    Despite Germany’s leadership in RE, it faces the same issues with democratising the grid as we will face in Australia; and for any conversion to EVs, the energy has to come from somewhere, with RE no growing fast enough to support it all.

  2. Shilo 1 year ago

    It seems simply amazing after all the effort and money that has gone into German RE, that they are struggling now. The cost of RE energy has come down so much, they are so advanced and have so much expertise in running RE.
    I cannot fathom that they do not already have in place 100% RE within 10 years.

    • Tom 1 year ago

      They’ve the wind resource of Victoria, the solar resource of Tasmania, and 5x demand of Australia. Amazing effort so far!

    • MacNordic 1 year ago

      Quite a few reasons for that – as desirable as it would be:

      – they started out early and copped most of the high cost of the start-up of the industries, financed via the EEG over 20 years, payable by the consumer.
      Peak payment will be reached around 2021, IIRC.
      At the moment, the cost (-share) of the EEG is 6,79ct€ per kWh
      Political pressure to shrink that is building. Network cost of 7.27ct€ have to be added on top. (Should be lowered via a carbon tax, really)

      – geographical constraints: Germany is acutally quite small – not too much unused space to put windmills and PV groundmounts left without impacting current land use. Best wind sites are already taken (mostly in the windy north), leading to the need for transmission lines to the population and industrial centres in the south and west. Transmission line: NIMBY- call to battle. 10-15 years lead time, now expected for 2025 (operational).
      Unfavourable geography for pumped hydro (or self- imposed constraints via nature protection laws, national parks, protected landscapes, areas of outstanding natural beauty, historical significance or plain planning law nightmares…)
      Quite high up north, giving short winter days and poor insolation. Think 500km south of South East Cape, Tasmania for the southern tip of Germany as per distance from the equator.

      Insolation 950-1050kWh/m²/a (Australia: 1700kWh/m²/a+ for the mainland)

      – Large population and large load: 82GW of peak load for 82 million people, mainly due to industry; 548TWh in 2017

      – historic mainstay of well above 60% coal. Old ways die hard (same as in Australia). Replacing 40+GW of (coal) generation assets is also not done overnight. Also not in 10 years, unfortunately. (You would need around 120GW+ of PV and onshore wind for that. Plus storage)

      – climate constraints: no wind- no sun spells for 2 weeks + occur regularly.

      Problem of covering these, as they are affecting large parts of (northern) Europe. Transmission lines from the Med are simply not viable for that kind of load (yet).

      Funfact: total energy consumption of about 1600- 2000TWh in a fully electrified scenario for 2050. Only 1200- 1500TWh can be produced nationally, according to a recent study, highlighting the constraints on land.

      Hope this gives some idea of the scope and the reasons/ “reasons 😉

    • heinbloed 1 year ago

      Re.: ” It seems simply amazing after all the effort and money that has gone into German RE, that they are struggling now.”

      The progress is steady:

      https://www.energy-charts.de/ren_share.htm?source=ren-share&period=annual&year=all

      But it could be faster!

  3. Cris Baker 1 year ago

    How much of their power generation comes from WOOD pellets? I’ve read that, remarkably, Germany has managed to redefine wood as a renewable resource because trees eventually regrow when cut down.

    But with this sort of rationalization, then coal is also renewable because it’s trees – just aged trees – which, many thousands of years later, will also regrow.

    • heinbloed 1 year ago

      Re.

      ” How much of their power generation comes from WOOD pellets?”

      Practically none.

      There is some wood pellet usage in CHP plants to provide extra-efficient heating/thermal energy. But to little to count seperatly in the statistics(< 1%).

      Germany (and most other European countries as well!) is a net wood pellet exporter, it's forests are growing by the square kilometers as well as by the cubic meters of timber.

      Germany (and Austria etc.) has the oldest forrest protection laws in the world, it is banned since some hundred years to take more than there is growing.
      And so are it's people educated at school.

      See page 8 in the 2016 report(page 10 in the pdf):

      https://www.bmwi.de/Redaktion/DE/Publikationen/Energie/erneuerbare-energien-in-zahlen-2016.pdf?__blob=publicationFile&v=8

      German emigrants bought for cheap the land in the USA which was cleared from it's native population by the Brits (genozide) and it's forests destroyed and turned it into fertile farm land.
      The soil was ruined by slashing/burning and cattle/sheep grazing.

      The German emigrants re-vitalised/re-planted it.

      A question of education it seems.Contact your history teacher or your visit your local library, there is plenty to be learned.

    • Nick Kemp 1 year ago

      “many thousands of years later”

      And there is the problem – Burning coal and oil is releasing carbon that has been locked up for millennia. There are good arguments that even burning trees is too long a carbon cycle in our current climate state so digging up ancient carbon and releasing it is absolute insanity

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