Although Germany is popularly viewed as an international leader in the clean energy field, its 2013 performance in producing electricity tells a different story. Electricity output from brown coal plants rose .8% in 2013, to 162 billion kilowatt hours, according to the German Institute for Economic Research. This was the highest level since reunification, when Germany produced almost 171 billion kilowatt hours of power from coal, many in old eastern German plants. Consequently, Germany’s CO2 emissions will have risen in 2013, even though electricity from renewables is now 25% of the energy portfolio. (In 2014 alone, surcharges on electricity bills will generate €23.5 billion worth of subsidies for wind and solar power projects.)
This paradox is explained by two main reasons. First, the low price of CO2 emissions permits in the EU trading scheme has not produced sufficient incentives to switch sources. Second (and related to the first), new brown coal plants came on line in 2012 with a generating capacity more than twice that of the plants being shut down that year. Build it and they will use. In addition, electricity production from gas-fired plants fell by almost 15% (due in part to them being more expensive to run), resulting in coal plants mostly replacing the capacity lost when Germany shut down eight nuclear plants in 2011.
This increase in coal-generated power, and the larger context of higher priced gas-generated power, has led to Germany exporting more electricity than it imports. The Berlin-based think tank Agora Energiewende observed that German coal-fired plants “are crowding out gas plants not just in Germany but also abroad — especially in the Netherlands.”
Gerald Neubauer of Greenpeace declared that “the coal boom now endangers Germany’s credibility on climate protection and the energy revolution,” and requires the Social Democrats to adopt a more critical stance. This internal political debate will likely be felt in the upcoming EU elections as well. And in the EU’s position at future UNFCCC negotiations when offering nationally determined commitments.