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The energiewende contradiction

To the chagrin of many in Germany, Merkel’s administration seems to be embracing the contradiction of an energiewende based on coal.

Gas-fired power, while much cleaner, is also far too expensive and with household energy bills stretched about as far as the government is going to get away with, there seems to have been little choice but to go with coal.

Conventional coal-fired power plants are now being fitted out to meet a new reality that they are to operate as an efficient, reliable back-up when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun fails to shine.
A government insider told Power Engineering International last month that talk of a coal renaissance in Germany were inaccurate as the plants had been planned to come online anyway, but there is concern at the lack of CCS or clean coal technology in accompaniment.

Spiegel reports that plants like Niederaussem use pulverized coal which is stored in a silo, making it possible to control much more closely the amount that is later fed to the flame.

New boiler technology as well as silos for storing coal dust represent just one of several new methods that are helping coal-fired power plants adapt for the transition to renewable energy.

The key word is flexibility and how quickly a plant is equipped to cater for renewable power fluctuations leading it to be called into action.

In the dog eat dog scenario that has emerged, gas looks doomed and the mothballing of plants around the continent tell the story. Paradoxically, Germany‘s CO2 levels are spiralling, with a French minister recently labelling Germany “the worst polluters in Europe.

What Arnaud Montebourg was getting at of course was that the Germans acted in haste in pressing delete on its nuclear power capability, something the French won’t countenance.

Whether German policymakers took into account the negative scenario for gas, when introducing the energiewende concept, is a moot point, at least for now, unless the carbon market is re-structured at a later date to boost the cleaner power source.

Instead the country is locked in a Machiavellian embrace with coal, threatening to undermine Germany’s climate protection goals that include a 40 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

The ends may well justify the means but in the short term it doesn’t look like that.

The share of German electricity generated from brown coal rose 6.5 per cent year-on-year in 2013, the highest level since 1990, while the use of hard coal – compared with 2012 – also increased, rising by 8 billion to 124 billion kilowatt hours. As a result the two energy sources accounted for 45.5 per cent of Germany’s gross energy output, up from 44 per cent the previous year.

According to the industry data, heavily subsidized renewable sources such as wind, solar, biomass and hydropower were also able to raise their contribution to the German energy mix, but only by less than 1 per cent in 2013, rising to 23.4 per cent, or 147 billion kilowatt hours, overall.

If the German system is going to get worse before it gets better, in environmental terms, investment in clean coal technology and carbon capture and storage will have to get more of a priority.

As pointed out by a leading UK-based academic in November last, Poland is getting a lot of heat about its commitment to coal power, while its more influential neighbour is relatively unscathed by comparison.

“It is somewhat unfair to only focus on Poland,” Dr David Reiner told PEi, “when both Germany and the Netherlands, which would claim to have far greater concern for climate change, are going ahead with several new unabated coal-fired plants.”

When Germany embarked on its monumental project, post Fukushima, policymakers probably didn’t bargain for how much the country would come to rely on coal for its energy security.

To put in context Germany’s problem, no less an authority than NASA’s chief scientist said this week that, “Suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India, or the world as a whole is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy.”