The German Chain Smoker

In the course of the coalition negotiations, the German withdrawal from domestic lignite has become a topic again, but the formation of coalitions could fail (and have failed) precisely because of this issue.

And there is a conflict of Shakespearean proportions between desire and reality of the energy transition: The energy transition wunderkind smokes – and it’s the dirty stuff!

It’s an open secret that no one is producing and burning as much lignite as Germany. The Energy Survey 2016 of the BGR (PDF, p. 53) explains:

Germany, which only marginally reduced domestic production compared to the previous year (minus 0.06%), was the largest lignite producer with 17.6% (178 mt), followed by China (13.8%) and the Russian Federation (7.2%).

The reason for this is the still unbeatable low cost of brown coal electricity generation. With an average of 4.4 cents per kWh of electricity generation costs, lignite was the clear winner in terms of energy costs in 2014 (see Study on the convertibility of coal-fired power plants, Shell, p. 22).

By contrast, lignite-fired power plants have little of the much-praised system relevance, if any at all. The lignite-fired power plants represent 8.7% of the installed power generation in Germany, while Germany exports more than 10% of the electricity generated each year. At the same time, natural gas-fired power plants, which emit much less carbon dioxide and are flexible enough to respond to supply and demand, are mothballed.

If one looks at the concrete CO2 balance of the power plants, it quickly becomes clear in what greenhouse gas luxury Germany is indulging here.

Sources: The power plant list of the Federal Network Agency, as of 31.03.2017, as well as the data of the PRTR for the year 2015.

The historical data of the Federal Environment Agency (PDF) for the greenhouse gas emissions of Germany impressively show the importance of the brown coal exit. In 2015, Germany emitted around 792,798 thousand tons of CO2. The brown coal power plants listed above are responsible for 16.9% of Germany’s total CO2 emissions in 2015.

In other words, without the withdrawal from lignite, the German climate target for 2020 can not be maintained.

The withdrawal from lignite becomes all the more urgent, as the phase-out alone will not be enough to reach the 2020 climate target. A 40% reduction in CO2 emissions in 1990 means emissions of 631,362 thousand tonnes of CO2. In contrast, there are 792,798 thousand tons of CO2 in 2015. If one subtracts from this the CO2 emissions of the lignite-fired power plants, in purely arithmetical terms this leads to a reduction of the CO2-emissions by 37.4%.

The concrete and legally compliant design of the brown coal phase-out is challenging and, of course, the regions affected by the structural change must be given real alternatives and prospects for the future. This includes State aid designed to avoid economic hardship and attract new industries to the regions. In a report dated 05 July 2017, „Spiegel Online“ quotes a study according to which, since reunification, the number of jobs in the lignite economy has fallen „from more than 115,000 to just under 20,000“. So it’s not about initiating a structural change, but continuing to accompany the long-lasting structural change and making it successful.

Therefore, the coalition negotiations shouldn’t  deal with the „if“, but the „how“ of a brown coal exit.

It’s time for Germany to quit smoking.