Germany first industrialized country to phase out power from nuclear and coal

Germany is a highly industrialized and export-oriented nation that relies on affordable energy.
Nuclear power still had a share of 29.5% of the power generation mix by 2000, in 2016 the share was down to 13%, and by 2022 all nuclear plants are supposed to be offline.
Brown coal (lignite) and hard coal are the country’s most important fossil power sources, providing a relatively large share in the countries power generation. Germany plans to have shut down all of its coal power stations by 2038 at the latest.

Ending both coal-fired and nuclear power will definitely be a big challenge!

What made Germany take this path, how does it look like and can this really work?

A great source of answers and information on the German energy transition – Energiewende – is The Clean Energy Wire, were most of the information and figures for this article come from.

The Clean Energy Wire CLEW is an independent non-profit, non-partisan service for journalists and the interested public. We are committed to providing and supporting quality journalism about the energy transition in Germany.

Current Situation in Germany

Currently nuclear and fossil power sources still provide a large share in Germany’s power generation.
In the face of global warming, which is largely caused by humans, the decarbonization of the energy industry and thereby the phase-out of fossil fuels such as oil, coal and natural gas, is of great importance. Besides, the finite nature of fossil fuels and the dangers of nuclear energy are important reasons for the energy transition.
The cradle of the energy transition in Germany is the environmental and anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s. Scientists showed that growth and prosperity without nuclear energy and fossil fuels will be possible until 2050. Today around a third of the electricity in Germany comes from renewable energies its share has been growing from about 4% in 1990 to more than 35% up to now. Renewable energy in Germany is mainly based on wind, solar and biomass.
The Energiewende – the energy transition to a low-carbon, nuclear-free economy – in Germany is pushed ahead by the government and supported as well as financed by the society.

The Energiewende – a full-scale transformation of society and economy – arose out of enduring grassroots movements, an evidence-based discourse, concern about climate change, and key technological advances, as well as hands-on experience garnered along the way in Germany and elsewhere. 

Paul Hockenos Energiewende – the first four decades The history of the Energiewende

Nuclear Power Phase-Out

After the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Green Party won the elections in 1998, the government reached consensus with the big utilities to limit the lifespan of nuclear power stations to 32 years. Each nuclear plant was allowed to produce a certain amount of energy before its’ shut down. It was estimated that the last power plants would reach their limits by 2022. The construction of new nuclear power plants was banned. The agreement became law in 2002.
At this time the opposition Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its chairwomen, Angela Merkel, already disagreed and proclaimed that the agreements would be revoked if the party became into power.
In 2009 a coalition of CDU/CSU and the Free Democrats (FDP) became into power and extended the operating times of the nuclear power plants. Seven nuclear power plants were allowed to run for eight more years and the remaining ten nuclear plants should run 14 years longer. A “phase-out of the (nuclear) phase-out” (Ausstieg aus dem Ausstieg).
However, after the nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima, Japan, the Merkel government decided in June 2011 to shut down eight nuclear plants and limit the operation of the remaining nine to 2022.
A vast majority of parliamentarians voted for the bill in the Bundestag (federal parliament) and the exit from nuclear power was backed by a vast majority of the German population, which were still in favor for the decision to exit nuclear power.

Read more on the history behind Germany’s nuclear phase-out by the Clean Energy Wire CLEW.

Coal Power Phase-Out

In 2018 the German government set up a coal exit commission KWSB (Kommission „Wachstum, Strukturwandel und Beschäftigung“) with actors from politics, industry,  business, environmental NGOs, trade unions, civil society, policymakers and members from the affected countries and regions. Their goal was to establish a broad social consensus on the design of the coal phase-out based on energy and climate policy and the associated structural change in Germany.
After more than half a year of discussions the commission recommended the end of coal power generation in Germany by 2038 at the latest and at the same time revealed how the economic structural change in the affected regions can succeed.
The energy produced by German coal-fired power plants was still 42.5 gigawatts (GW) in 2017. The KWSB advises that coal power plant energy production should be reduced to zero by 2038, while intermediate steps include a reduction to 30 GW by 2022 and to 17 GW by 2030. In 2032, it will then be possible to check whether coal-fired power production in Germany can be phased out by 2035 already.
For lignite-fired power plants that have already been built but are not yet in operation, the commission recommends a negotiated solution to prevent them from being put into operation.
In order to support the regions concerned with structural change, the report provides for funds of around 40 billion euros over the next 20 years. The coal phase-out is also intended to neither burden electricity customers nor deprive energy companies of their competitiveness.
Furthermore, the KWSB suggests that renewable energies as well as transmission and distribution networks be expanded to 65 percent of electricity consumption by 2030 – without burdening companies and citizens with increases in electricity prices.
In a first step, Germany should switch off 12.5 gigawatts of capacity by 2022.

Read more on Germany’s coal exit – phase-out plan and the history behind it by the Clean Energy Wire CLEW.

Germany’s Green Energy Agenda

Targets of German Energiewende (BMWI: Die Energie der Zukunft Sechster Monitoring-Bericht zur Energiewende)

The targets of the German Energiewende are to reduce greenhouse gas emissions gradually by up to 95% (compared to 1990 levels) by 2050, increase the share of renewable energy in the gross final energy consumption gradually by at least 60% (compared to 2008 levels) by 2050, switch off the last remaining nuclear power plants by 2022 and shut down the last remaining coal power plants by 2038.

Several questions and problems remain open at this point and are currently under discussion in Germany:

  • Are the targets too ambitious or maybe not ambitious enough?
  • Wouldn’t it have been smarter to first exit coal and then nuclear power, as nuclear power is at least „climate friendly“ and might be useful for the transition from fossil to renewable energies?
  • Will Germany be able to follow up with the network expansion and the development of energy storage technologies?
  • How to guarantee network stability?
  • Will the country really be able to cover its full power supply by renewable energies?

Global energy demand is expected to grow in the coming decades. The question is how to produce the energy the world will need while also protecting the ecosystem and curbing global warming.
One thing is certain, we need a fundamental transformation of our energy systems and the courage to make daring decisions, better today than tomorrow!

By Stefan Simon for COLLECTIVE GREEN