Coal continues to overshadow the Energiewende

New data released by the Fraunhofer Institute provides food for thought for both sides arguing about the success or failure of Germany’s Energiewende.

The Institute released the latest data on Germany’s electricity mix this month and it features 250 charts that illustrate every relevant yearly, monthly and daily statistic on the country’s energy production for 2014.

The bald facts are that while net installed solar and wind energy capacity has grown considerably in line with the country’s renewable energy ambitions, they still lag behind biomass, coal and nuclear power in monthly generation totals.
Fraunnhofer Institute
Brown and hard coal are still by far the most relied upon sources of power generation, although coal and nuclear baseload generation decreased in 2014 in order to accommodate more wind and solar on the grid.

Despite apparent coal dominance, the industry’s traditional profitability continues to be eroded with hard coal plants experiencing ‘radical variation in utilization rates’ according to greentech media, ‘contributing to the strong decline in revenue among power-plant operators.’

Optimists will look to statistics like that and the performance of renewables on individual days to present the green argument. On June 6th the country saw 212 gigawatt-hours of solar production — around 18 per cent of total generation that day, while on December 12, wind hit a new record of 562 gigawatt-hours — producing around one-third of total electricity that day.

However such achievements appear moot in the absence of a credible storage technology.

Despite the aggression of Germany’s policy it looks likely to be several decades with hard won-incremental improvements before renewables can gain parity. Right now, to paraphrase China’s Communist leader Zhou Enlai, when asked of the significance of the French Revolution, it’s too early to say if the German energy transition is a success.
Zhou Enlai, the Chinese Communist Party leader
Meanwhile a criticism often thrown at global policy makers regarding the coal sector is that it’s hypocritical to complain about subsidies to renewables when coal benefits as much on that front, and more.

However as pointed out in the International Monetary Fund (IMF) report “Energy Subsidy Reform: Lessons and Implications” released last year, coal represents just 1.25 per cent of fossil fuel subsidies globally.

The report found that coal took just $6bn in subsidies that year, compared to $112bn for gas and $212bn for oil.

The renewables lobby could contest that the $6bn might be better spent on developing the storage technology it sorely lacks right now to accelerate a successful move away from the fossil fuels, on which we continue to rely.

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