Last week, numerous media outlets reported that Germany will extend the lives of three of its nuclear power plants. The move to keep the reactors online, which was opposed by the country’s Green Party, showed that German politicians are recognizing the need to keep reliable generation plants online to assure the country has enough electricity this winter.
But another equally important announcement was also made last week that got far less media attention: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced that Germany was reopening five power plants that burn lignite, a low-rank coal. Germany’s return to lignite demonstrates, yet again, the Iron Law of Electricity, which says that people, businesses, and governments will do whatever they have to do to get the electricity they need.
Indeed, Germany’s move back to lignite is chock-full of contradictions, including one that belongs in the “you can’t make this up” column.
The Iron Law of Electricity is so powerful that the utility RWE is dismantling the Keyenberg wind project in the western part of the country to, wait for it… make more room for the expansion of the Garzweiler mine. Lignite from Garzweiler fuels the Neurath C power plant, which is one of the power plants being brought back online. A spokesperson for RWE told the Guardian newspaper that “We realize this comes across as paradoxical.”
Yes, there are paradoxes aplenty. Germany’s need to keep the lights on explains why the government is willing to ignore the fact that burning lignite to produce electricity emits more carbon dioxide than any other form of power generation.
Furthermore, burning lignite contradicts Germany’s climate goals. Under the country’s much-vaunted Energiewende (German for “energy turnaround”) Germany has pledged to slash its total greenhouse gas emissions by 95% by 2050. The cost of that pledge could total more than $500 billion by 2025 — and that figure only accounts for the investment needed to decarbonize the electricity sector. The result of all that spending is that residents of Germany are now paying some of the highest electricity prices in Europe.
Of course, Germany isn’t the only country that is proving the Iron Law of Electricity. Global coal demand has been soaring for months. European electric utilities are scrambling to buy as much coal as they can to replace Russian natural gas. The Newcastle benchmark price for thermal coal going into the Asian market has been at, or near, $400 per ton for several months in a row. That’s an eight-fold increase over the levels seen in early 2020. gas. And in July, the International Energy Agency said that global coal use will hit an all-time high this year.
In August, the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air and Global Energy Monitorreported that China is planning to build 43 new coal-fired power plants as well as 18 new blast furnaces. As reported by Time.com, the projects “were announced in the first half of this year despite the world’s largest polluter pledging to bring its emissions to a peak before 2030, and to make the country carbon neutral by 2060.”
The report also found that China began construction on 15 gigawatts of new coal-fired power capacity “started construction in the first half of the year and 24 gigawatts of new projects were announced or re-activated…The volume of new projects represents a return to pre-COVID levels after new projects surged in 2020 but still amounts to almost one coal plant unit per week.”
That last sentence is remarkable and bears repeating: this year, China has been starting construction on almost one new “coal plant unit per week.”
While announcing the reopening of the lignite plants, Scholz claimed that the move is “a time-limited but necessary emergency measure.” He added that Germany will “continue to stand firmly by our climate targets.”
Scholz also said, “The Russian aggression and its consequences mustn’t lead to a worldwide renaissance of coal…We will make clear offers so that developing and emerging countries also can embark resolutely on the path toward a climate-neutral energy sector.”
But right now, the idea of a “climate-neutral” energy sector in Germany and nearly every other country on the planet, is taking a distant back seat to the more immediate need to keep the lights on. I will end by repeating the same message I have been touting for more than a dozen years: If the countries of the world are serious about reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, the way forward is N2N: natural gas to nuclear. And if the goal is to decarbonize the electricity and industrial sectors and do so quickly, the goal must be to develop and deploy smaller, safer, cheaper nuclear reactors, and do so by the thousands.
Robert Bryce, Contributor