The Swiss Times - Swiss News in English

German coal phase-out barely achievable by 2030

The German government has an ambitious goal: according to the coalition agreement between the SPD, FDP and Greens, Germany should "ideally" phase out climate-damaging coal-fired power generation completely by 2030. However, doubts are growing that the "traffic light" coalition will achieve this.

According to the "traffic light" target, 80% of electricity in Germany is to come from renewable energies by 2030. Last year, wind power, photovoltaics, biomass and hydropower already accounted for 52% of electricity generation, up from just under 44% in 2022.

According to Federal Economics Minister Robert Habeck (Greens), the expansion of green electricity is right on schedule. "If we continue at this pace, we will have made it," said the minister at the end of February.

Electricity must also flow during "dark doldrums"

But having enough wind turbines and solar parks alone is not enough. Reserve capacity must be provided for the days when there is too little wind or the sun is not shining, the dreaded "dark doldrums".

Nuclear energy, which still covered almost a seventh of electricity demand at the beginning of the decade, is being phased out. The last three nuclear power plants were shut down in April 2023, completing the gradual nuclear phase-out that was agreed decades ago. An extension was not feasible with the Greens, who had once emerged from the West German anti-nuclear movement.

The decision that the nuclear phase-out in Germany would be followed by the coal phase-out had already been made under then Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) in 2020, albeit with a target date of 2038. The "traffic light" government under SPD leader Olaf Scholz, which has been in power since December 2021, wants to achieve this more quickly.

Last year, 17 percent of electricity still came from domestic lignite - which is mainly mined in North Rhine-Westphalia, Saxony and Brandenburg - and 8.6 percent from imported hard coal, and the trend is downwards.

Gas-fired power plants as an interim solution

Instead of nuclear power and coal, new gas-fired power plants are now to ensure that "dark doldrums" are bridged. This is the aim of the German government's recently presented power plant strategy.

Power plant capacities of 10 gigawatts are therefore to be put out to tender in the short term. These new gas-fired power plants should later also be able to use hydrogen if it is available in sufficient quantities.

However, building gas-fired power plants that only generate electricity during "dark doldrums" and stand idle the rest of the time does not pay off for the producers. This means that massive state subsidies are required for this project.

Under a so-called "capacity mechanism", operators are to be remunerated by the state - or the taxpayer - for ensuring that their power plants are always ready for use and can step in when needed. Hydrogen production is also to be subsidized by the state.

Suppliers urge us to hurry

German electricity producers have welcomed the key points of the power plant strategy in principle, but are urging haste. The tenders urgently need to be issued this year, they said.

"It's very tight. Six years is not a lot of time to build up this capacity," warned Michael Lewis, CEO of Uniper, Germany's largest gas trader, according to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. "Whether we can shut down all coal-fired power plants by 2030 depends on how quickly the process runs," he added.

The German opposition still sees more questions than answers when it comes to the power plant strategy. The financing of the new capacities remains unclear, criticized Andreas Jung, energy policy spokesman for the CDU/CSU parliamentary group in the Bundestag. "The traffic light system's stalling is jeopardizing climate targets, security of supply and Germany as a business location," said the Christian Democrat.

Goal still difficult to achieve

"Bringing forward the coal phase-out from 2038 to 2030, as the coalition agreement "ideally" aims to do, is hardly achievable with the framework data in the new agreement paper," the daily newspaper "Die Welt" found. The news magazine "Der Spiegel" pointed out that electricity demand in Germany will also increase considerably with the switch to electromobility.

The liberal-conservative magazine "Cicero" warned of the costs of the power plant project and future hydrogen production. "Enormous costs will be followed by even more gigantic avalanches of costs, and even then it is not yet clear where the German journey to a climate-neutral energy and climate wonderland will lead," the magazine wrote.


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