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Robin Webster

01.05.2014 | 9:00am
EnergyHigh renewables ambition, but fossil fuels still dominate: UK and Germany electricity systems compared
ENERGY | May 1. 2014. 9:00
High renewables ambition, but fossil fuels still dominate: UK and Germany electricity systems compared

Germany generated twice as much wind power and fifteen times as much solar power as the UK last year, according to figures from a research institute.

In different ways, these two European countries are both seen as leaders in their commitment to tackling climate change. The UK’s ground-breaking Climate Change Act requires the country to reduce emissions by 80 per cent by the middle of the century, against their levels in 1990.

Germany’s Energiewende plan makes the same promise – and adds on a pledge to source half of the country’s power from renewable sources by 2050.

The plans will require significant changes to the UK and German power systems – changing them from relying on electricity generated from fossil fuels, to systems dominated by renewables. Although in both countries, support for renewable power is high, a combination of politics and cost means the changes are controversial. And in both Germany and the UK, government cuts could threaten ambitious plans to switch to a less polluting power system.

Comparing power systems

The UK has about 70 per cent of Germany’s land area, but generates only about half the electricity. In 2013, it produced 316 Terawatt (Twh) hours of electricity. Germany generated 596Twh – almost twice as much, according to figures from the Fraunhofer solar research institute.

The graph below shows how much power was generated from fossil fuels and major low-carbon power technologies in Germany in the first quarter of this year:

Screen Shot 2014-04-30 At 15.35.28 Source: Fraunhofer solar research institute, April 2014.  

The graph below shows how the UK’s power generation compared to Germany’s for the whole of last year:

Screen Shot 2014-04-30 At 12.33.00Sources: German data is taken from the Fraunhofer solar research institute. UK figures are taken from Department for Energy and Climate Change figures, released March 2014. The graph excludes biomass. 

Wind

Despite a significant recent expansion, the UK still only generates about half as much power from wind as Germany. But because Germany generates a lot more electricity than the UK overall, wind represents a similar proportion of the total – about eight or nine per cent.

Solar

There’s an enormous difference in the amount of power generated from solar panels in the two countries. Last year, Germany generated 29.7Twh of electricity from solar. The UK generated just two terawatt hours – about one fifteenth the German total.

Solar power production is growing in the UK. But it has boomed in Germany over the last few years, with the country setting generation records, as illustrated in the graph below:

Screen Shot 2014-04-30 At 16.26.14

Growth in installed solar capacity in Germany 2004 – 2012 (blue line). Source: Fraunhofer Institute, 2014

Nuclear

The German government’s decision to phase out nuclear generation by 2022 has also attracted attention. At the moment, however, it’s still producing more power from nuclear than the UK.

If Germany remains committed to doing without nukes, and the UK successfully embarks on a new nuclear expansion programme, that balance will be reversed.

Coal

There’s one other very noticeable difference. Germany generated a lot more power from coal than the UK last year – nearly twice as much.

The price of coal fell in Europe relative to gas last year, mainly as a result of cheap US exports. Germany also makes money from exporting coal – doubling its power exports from coal plants in the second quarter of 2012.

Last year, the amount of electricity Germany produces from its coal power stations increased by about three per cent:

Screen Shot 2014-04-30 At 12.27.01

Source: Fraunhofer solar research institute, January 2014. 

The German decision to wind down its nuclear power capacity has been criticised for encouraging more coal power generation. The graph above suggests the growth may be more strongly linked to the fall in gas generation, however. The amount of power Germany generated from gas fell by a fifth last year.

A change in 2014

Its worth pointing out that the trend in coal use may not continue in the longer term.

In the first quarter of this year, German coal production fell by a fifth relative to levels in 2013. Gas use also fell dramatically.

Renewables had a fairly remarkable quarter compared with 2013, as the chart here shows – (note that solar is artificially shrunk in the graph):

 Screen Shot 2014-04-30 At 16.10.40

Source: Fraunhofer solar research institute, April 2014. 

World Coal magazine suggests the change may be a combination of milder weather, and because “thermal power generation, especially from gas and hard coal, came under pressure from rising renewable power production.”

Over the mild winter there wasn’t as much demand for coal in neighbouring countries,  it suggests – while wind and solar capacity continued to rise.

Long-term plans

The changes in the German power system in the first quarter of 2014 illustrates the difficulties of drawing long-term conclusions about emissions trends from short-term changes to the market.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) expects renewable energy to be the main source of electricity generation in Germany by 2030, with wind providing around 30 per cent, solar around eight per cent and hydro about five per cent.

But in Germany as well as the UK, there are signs that political commitment to renewables expansion is wobbling. In the UK, the Conservative party has recently announced that it will put a cap on onshore wind expansion if it gets into power in 2015. Subsidies for solar power are also likely to be cut, according to media reports – suggesting that Conservatives are increasingly hostile to plans to expand renewables.

In Germany, the government’s putting in place a new renewables plan – possibly in response to concern about rising energy prices. The new rules mean from 2017 energy providers will no longer get guaranteed prices for their power, according to media reports. The effects are unclear, but could slow the growth of German green energy.

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