With the plan in motion to take all of Germany’s nuclear reactors offline, politicians and voters alike are concerned about what comes next – and who will end up paying for it.
This May, a 1,100 megawatt coal-fired power plant was commissioned in Germany. On Twitter, in the thread started by Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager who inspired the climate strike, many responded by connecting this decision to the German government’s decision to phase out nuclear power. This connection has become all too common since 2011, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel reiterated commitment to the phaseout, which was originally signed into law in 2002. The oft-repeated message is that the decision to shut down nuclear power resulted in Germany increasing its use of coal and thus increasing carbon emissions. This is misleading. Germany’s progress in bringing down emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) from its electricity sector by increasing uptake of renewable energy — while simultaneously lowering both coal and nuclear energy generation — has been quite remarkable and shows that a nuclear phaseout and climate mitigation are compatible.
The data underlying this assertion are out there for anyone who wants to look, for example with the International Energy Agency (IEA). The IEA’s analysis of global CO2 emissions in 2019 was forceful in its account of Germany’s evolution: The country, it said, “spearheaded the decline in emissions in the European Union … Its emissions fell by 8% to 620 Mt [megatons] of CO2, a level not seen since the 1950s, when the German economy was around 10 times smaller.”
The emission level of 620 megatons in 2019 is down from 940 megatons in 1990, 818 megatons in 2002 when the country legislated the nuclear phaseout, and 731 megatons in 2011. There was a slight increase, when it went up to 764 megatons in 2013, which was roughly the value in 2010, but then it declined again in 2014 to 723 megatons, below the 2011 value.
The brief uptick in emissions in 2013 was, of course, related to the use of coal in the electricity sector. Here, too, this metric has had its ups and downs, but it has been mostly down. Again, going back to 1990, Germany generated 322 terawatt hours of electricity from coal, which came down slightly to 307 TWh by 2002, and further down to 272 TWh in 2011. Between 2011 and 2013, electricity generation from coal went up by about 10%, to 299 TWh.
Since then coal-fired generation has been declining consistently, to 241 TWh in 2018. In 2019, there was, as the IEA records, “a drop in output of more than 25% year on year as electricity demand declined and generation from renewables, especially wind (+11%), increased. With a share of over 40%, renewables for the very first time generated more electricity in 2019 than Germany’s coal-fired power stations.”
The story of coal use is complicated by the fact that between 2011 and 2019, Germany brought online about 9.7 gigawatts of new coal-fired power plant capacity but about 3.8 GW were retired. A further 21 coal power stations that were planned ended up being canceled. The new plants are the precursors to Datteln 4. And like Datteln 4, whose foundation stone was laid in November 2007, these plants that came on line between 2011 and 2019 dated back to before the 2011 Fukushima accident.
During this period, nuclear power has declined significantly. That source accounted for 165 TWh or 31% of Germany’s electricity generation back in 2002, according to the Fraunhofer Institute, but only 76 TWh in 2018. In the first half of 2020, the share of nuclear power in overall electricity generation was down to 12%. As the phaseout goes to completion in 2022, it will come down to zero.
Behind the declines in nuclear power, coal power, and CO2 emissions is the tremendous growth in Germany’s wind, solar and biomass power capacity. That growth, in turn, can be traced to when the nuclear phaseout law came into effect. Data from the IEA show that between 2002 and 2018, the amount of electricity generated by wind, solar and biomass has grown by more than an order of magnitude, from 19 TWh to 203 TWh. During the decade before the phase-out law, the contribution of wind, solar power and biomass to Germany’s total electricity generation increased by only 2%.
The following decade (2001-11), that share increased by 14%, and from 2011-18, by a further 15%, according to the IEA. In 2019, renewables generated over 40% of Germany’s electricity. Wind power dominates, accounting for over half of this generation. Biomass and solar power have contributed roughly equal amounts of generation in the past few years.
The figure below graphs the changes in the amount of power generated by these sources of electricity between 1990 and 2019. It shows clearly that in the last few years, increases in renewable energy generation have more than compensated for decreases in electricity generated by coal and nuclear power.
Change in Main German Electricity Sources, 1990-2018
There is another important trend associated with this growth of renewable electricity generation: Since 2014, Germany’s exports of electricity have risen substantially. As one might expect from the dependence on weather of renewable sources of electricity, there is a strong seasonal dependence. Germany typically imports a little from other European countries during the summer, and exports during the rest of the year. By and large, the exports are worth more per unit (euros per megawatt hours) than the imports. Thus, Germany is not dumping cheap renewable electricity and buying expensive fossil or nuclear electricity.
Finally, how has Germany done by standards it set for itself? Since 2007, German government sources have mentioned a target of a 40% decline in its emissions in 2020 relative to the emissions in 1990. The large drop in 2019 has meant that Germany’s emissions are now almost 36% lower than 1990 levels. With the unanticipated decline due to Covid-19, Germany may end up reaching its original reduction target after all.
Just as with any policy measure and its implementation, Germany’s nuclear phaseout and Energiewende can be faulted for errors of commission or omission. But the data are unambiguous: Germany has reduced its emissions of CO2 and its use of coal substantially while phasing out the use of nuclear energy, which comes with its own set of hazards and environmental impacts. The bottom line: Phasing out nuclear power is quite compatible with mitigating climate change.
M.V. Ramana is the Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, and the author of The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India.
Solène Delumeau is an undergraduate research assistant and Environmental Sciences major at the University of British Columbia.