Is gas power about to supersede coal in Germany?

Germany has long been lauded for its Energiewende policy, but its achievement in facilitating renewables has been somewhat tainted by a continuing reliance on coal-fired power. With the German General Election coming up on the 24th September, there are some soundings that the relationship with coal is about to change, but not everyone is convinced.

Last week, Deputy Economy Minister Rainer Baake said the country would have to shut 25 GW of coal-fired power capacity, equivalent to about half its total, by 2030 to meet carbon reduction targets agreed under the Paris Climate Agreement.

Baake told an energy conference in Munich that the measures would have to be worked out by the incoming government after the election.

“This can be done in line with the law and without compensation; this we know from getting out of nuclear energy,” said Baake, who helped to drive the phasing out of nuclear energy that Germany began in 2001.

While positive publicity associated with the energy transition abounds, the government is understandably less vocal about its coal power dependency. Poland normally gets the bad press for its inability to diversify away from coal when, in fact, it is the neighbours to the west that, arguably, have the poorer record.

Even Poland has acknowledged more of a clearer withdrawal to a cleaner energy system. This week, energy Minister Krzysztof Tchorzewski told reporters that three new coal-fired power plants are being built, but the government would then finish building coal plants altogether.


The German media are sceptical about the prospects for change. Speaking to Power Engineering International, Jan Schmidbauer, Business Editor at the Suddeutsche Zeitung in Munich said renewables have benefited from decades of subsidies in reaching their present healthy status.

But a sweeping reaction to the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan by Angela Merkel’s government means the system hasn’t got as clean as it might. To compound this, the logical successor to coal, as a baseload staple, gas, hasn’t materialised.

“So we have lots of renewables but still rely on coal because we shut down the nuclear power plants.”

“Renewables are unreliable and we don’t have enough storage. Coal plants are priced around EUR30 per megawatt hour while gas, at EUR60 per megawatt hour, is cleaner but very expensive.”

“E.ON is an example of one company who built a lot of gas-fired power plants but unprofitability means they want to shut them down. The government needs them for reserve due to renewable intermittency.”

So why not design the market to favour a less polluting, yet equally reliable fuel?

Scmidbauer said they tried, but not hard enough. “Certificates for carbon emissions were introduced but it failed because the certs weren’t expensive enough ” the coal plants even with certs were still not as expensive as gas plants.”

He is equally downbeat about the prospects for storage but acknowledges the Green Party doesn’t share his negativity. They are the only party to consistently call for the elimination of coal.

“They’re getting 6-7 per cent in the polls so might be a prospect for coalition with the CDU (Christian Democratic Union). Merkel did say in an interview last month they would get rid of coal energy but she didn’t say in which year. The Social Democracy Party (SPD) will be keen to retain the power plants and keep jobs.”
German coal problem graphic from recent Smart Energy Transition Forum
At the moment a CDU-SDP ‘Grand Coalition’ is the expected outcome.


Meanwhile the head of the main German energy and water lobby, BDEW, himself of a gas-fired background, is unhesitant in his backing of gas as the preferred solution.

Stefan Kapferer said gas should be used as a back-up for renewable energies and power-to-gas technology, using surplus wind energy. He told Euractiv he wants “a clear commitment to gas” from the country’s lawmakers in order to meet the 2050 climate protection plan.

Dr. Benno Hain, Head of Unit at “Energy Strategies and Scenarios” for the German Federal Environment Agency told PEi that there is plenty of evidence to show that Germany will reach an almost complete fulfilment of its climate targets by 2020, but coal’s continued eminence may not be immediately challenged.

“To replace coal by gas power plants is easy to suggest but hard to realize in the short term,” Hain says. “Because of our merit order based electricity market, the production costs for electricity set the benchmark for feed in priority.”

“On the other side, we are convinced that phasing out of coal power production by at least 50 per cent until 2030 is necessary to reach the sectoral energy target of our climate action plan 2050 and an overall mitigation target of -55 per cent until 2030. We suggested to follow a complete greenhouse gas neutrality concept by 2050.”

Germany has so far achieved a 27.6 per cent reduction in carbon emissions from 1990 levels but needs to hit 40 per cent by 2020. It is aiming for 50 per cent by 2030, with a gradual increase to 80-95 percent by 2050. Encouragingly renewables now account for 35 per cent of its power generation mix.


But for some, these results aren’t enough and coal’s persistence as the number one power generation sector in Germany unacceptable.

Sam Bright of environmental lawyers, Client Earth, believes Germany’s leadership of the green movement should be put under scrutiny, given its ongoing coal power commitment.

“Germany talks a good game on renewables ” but in reality, it has over 30à‚ per cent of Europe’s coal power capacity. That’s even more than Poland, typically held up as the dirty man of Europe. Much of Germany’s coal fleet is powered by lignite, the most polluting form of coal, including six of Europe’s 10 dirtiest power plants.”

“For Germany’s actions to match its fine rhetoric, it must announce a managed phase-out of its coal fleet. Other EU countries have already announced plans to phase-out coal ” the UK by 2025, and France by 2022. Germany is seen as Europe’s leading economy, it is only right that this powerhouse should be powered by cleaner fuels than coal.”

Irene Beringer, press spokesperson with the German Renewable Energy Federation agrees that the make-up of the new government will tell more about the possibility of a coal phase-out. Her organisation believes there is sufficient alternative resource currently available to dispense with coal altogether.

“There is enough flexibility and back-up systems in the market for the time being. Technology development by short-term-storage is very fast. There is enough gas available for long-term-storage. Moreover, there is fast technology development in producing green gases.”

Attempting to get more clarity on government intentions, and some response to the BDEW’s advocacy for gas, Power Engineering International contacted the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy.

Their response tallies with the 40 per cent ” 35 per cent coal to renewables ratio in the country’s power mix.

“The energy transition is not focused on a specific energy source or a single system solution. Rather, we are doing technology-neutral research, and we provide funding for a broad range of options as long as this makes sense in ecological and economic terms. We are already active in all the fields mentioned by BDEW.”

So by and large coal and renewables are on an equal footing, with gas a distance third, when put through the German policy-making matrix. Whether this remains the case post-election will depend on negotiations between the CDU and SPD.

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