No renewables aren't responsible for rising German coal generation, quite the opposite actually.

The BBC's Science and Environment correspondent Matt McGrath has today written an article making the rather odd claim that renewables are to blame for a rise in German coal consumption for power generation.

Leeds Solar would like to offer 5 key points as a rebuttal to this claim


Quoted from the original article


For the big utility companies, this is a nightmare scenario. Their business model means they recoup their investments in large gas- and coal-fired power stations by a steady demand for their electricity over a long period of time.

But because the feed-in tariff gives small renewable producers priority access to the grid, the big boys can only make money when the Sun doesn't show and the wind doesn't blow.

On days like 16 June, expensive gas-fired power plants stood idly by while the solar cells sizzled.

Back to coal

To curb their costs, these corporations have turned to the cheapest possible electricity sources - including brown coal or lignite, which is one of the most carbon-intensive fuels.

Because of this, Germany's CO2 emissions went up in 2012, despite renewables never having a larger share of the market. The fossil-fuel energy producers are demanding change.


How do these claims stack up?

The claim is essentially based on the fallacy of correlation equalling causation, but unfortunately misses at least the following 5 points that really give the lie to this proposition.


5 key points the article missed out:-


1. German nuclear generation fell by almost 30% between 2010-12, with 8 nuclear reactors being shut down by the German government in early 2011 in response to the Fukishima accident.



2. Global coal prices fell by 30% between 2011 and 2013

coal price graph 2013


3. While European natural gas prices rose by 50% between 2010 and 2013

european gas prices


4. Despite this 30% reduction in nuclear generation, and a 20% reduction in generation from natural gas between 2010-12, German power production from coal is actually still 25TWh below it's pre recession peak.


german coal generation

5. The UK also experienced a dramatic rise in coal consumption for power generation between 2010-12 with coal in 2012 generating more than at any time since 1996, with Gas generation plummeting at the same time.

The UK only had around 10-11% renewables generation in 2012 vs ~23% in Germany, so there obviously must be other factors causing this same swing towards coal production in both countries.

UK rise in coal generation 2012


The impact of the Large Combustion Plant Directive, and Carbon Tax in the UK

In the UK, on top of the price changes to favour coal generation over gas generation, there is also the impact of the Large Combustion Plant Directive, which resulted in around have of UK coal generating capacity being limited to 20,000 operating hours until they close in 2016.

This combined with a George Osbourne inspired additional carbon tax on energy generation starting from April 2013 resulted in a mad rush for coal plant operators to use up as many of their remaining hours as possible in 2012-13 prior to closing in April 2013 as they were no longer viable once the tax kicked in.

5 coal plants closed in the UK between March -April 2013 as a direct result of this carbon tax, 3 years before their operating hours were due to run out.

I'm not an expert on German energy policy, but I'd hazard a guess that there are similar effects taking place from the combination of the low coal price and limited operating hours from the LCPD, meaning that the generators are trying to squeeze as much operating profit as they can from the plants by using their hours up while the coal prices are low.


The real impact of the astounding German renewables growth

In this same period from 2010-2012, Germany's annual renewable generation grew by some 35TWh, meaning that in effect, the growth in renewables inside 3 years directly replaced the vast majority of the generation lost by closing 8 nuclear plants at once.

German rising renewable energy graph


The increase in coal fired generation can be seen as a temporary responseto fill the gap, as well as to rising gas prices and falling coal prices resulting in coal taking some generation away from gas, and the LCPD.

Without this astounding growth in renewables generation though, it's clear that coal generation figures would have risen by a further 35TWh as coal would have been the natural replacement for the nuclear generation capacity that was being closed.

So no Mr McGrath, you absolutely can't pin the increase in German coal generation on rising renewable generation figures, at least not if you're writing an impartial article rather than a big energy puff piece.

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