ENVIRONMENT: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Germany's coal-fired energy revolution
, August 31, 2013
The Australian Greens’ climate change and energy policy demands: “No new coal-fired power stations or coal mines, and no expansions to any existing power stations or mines, plus the development of programs to assist coal-dependent communities to make the transition to other more sustainable sources of economic prosperity.”
Their policy also opposes the refurbishment of existing coal-fired power stations and reliance on fossil fuels, such as natural gas and coal for export or electricity generation.
While state and federal Labor governments have gone down the road of mandating renewable energy “targets”, which in turn have pushed up energy prices, it is instructive to look at what is happening in other countries.
Germany is the economic powerhouse of the European Union. Since the reunification of Germany in the early 1990s, Germany has become one of the leading countries in Europe, as well as globally, in terms of its renewable energy and climate-change policies.
Speaking last June at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, President Barack Obama applauded Germany and Europe for being global leaders in the effort to combat climate change.
“The effort to slow climate change requires bold action, and on this Germany and Europe have led,” he said.
In light of this, it is noteworthy that the two new electricity generators that Germany has opened in the last two years are both coal-powered.
Six more coal-powered stations are due to open this year, with a combined capacity of 5.8GW, enough to provide 7 per cent of Germany’s electricity needs. By 2020, an additional six new coal-fired stations are due to open. Along with the two opened last year in Neurath and Boxberg, they will be capable of supplying 19 per cent of the country’s power.
A further 27 gas-fired stations are due on-line, which should contribute a further 17 per cent of Germany’s total electricity generation.
Coal is the cornerstone of the expansion of energy generation in Germany.
Coal-fired power plants contributed 52 per cent of Germany’s electricity demand in the first half of 2013, as output from natural gas-fired power plants and wind turbines fell, research organisation the Fraunhofer Institute (ISE) said recently.
Coal plants increased production by about 5 per cent in the first six months of 2013 as output from gas-fired power plants fell 17 per cent in the same period.
Overall, the share of coal-fired power in the first half rose 3 per cent to 52 per cent.
Germany’s nine nuclear power plants contributed 18 per cent to total demand, gas contributed 12 per cent, while combined wind, solar and hydro output added a further 18 per cent.
Despite massive investment in recent years, wind energy generates about 8 per cent of Germany’s electricity and solar just 5 per cent. Biofuels produce around a third of Germany’s renewable electrical energy.
One fact which President Obama did not mention in his endorsement of alternative energy is that the United States is one of the largest exporters of coal to Germany.
However, Germany has deposits of both black and brown coal, which it is also developing. Brown coal is particularly suited to power generation as it can be used for little else.
Brown coal-fired power stations, such as those that Australia’s Greens want to shut down in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley, generated the equivalent of more than a quarter of Germany’s electricity in 2012, industry sources said.
Brown coal capacity is 20 GW with at least 3 GW of more efficient plants added since 2011, running, like nuclear, as base-load plants around the clock.
Older coal-fired power plants are not being closed, but are the price-setting “marginal” plants generating power to meet peak period demand.
Germany is adding more efficient coal-fired power plants in 2013 as a number of new plants come on-line. Overall, power generators plan to add 5.3 GW of new coal-fired power plant capacity this year, data from the federal grid agency showed.
One of the reasons for the popularity of coal is price. With the collapse of the European emissions trading scheme (ETS), coal prices are at historical lows, and there is no incentive to switch to gas or renewables which are far more expensive.
An additional factor is that the new coal-fired power stations use new technologies, such as the one at Niederaussem, a small town near Cologne in western Germany.
Conventional power plants grind coal into dust, which is then blown into a boiler. But in Niederaussem, the pulverised coal is first stored in a silo, making it possible to control much more closely the amount that is later fed into the flame.
The power station can be powered down to just 10 per cent of maximum output, compared to a minimum 35 per cent for older coal-fired stations. This flexibility means that coal is now able to compete with gas-fired power stations, which are considerably more expensive to run.
Germany, one of the first countries to embrace alternative energy, is showing that the future of electricity production is … coal.