Germany builds minus six coal plants after nuclear phaseout

In a recent paper about Germany’s energy transition, Craig Morris found one particular claim that he wanted to investigate: have the Germans built any coal plants to make up for lost nuclear power since 2011?

Coal Power Plant Mannheim

Unit 9 of the coal power station in Mannheim was the last German coal power generation unit to receive a building permission in 2009 – two years before the nuclear phase-out was put into place. No new projects have been allowed since and six have been cancelled. (Photo by Engelberger, CC BY-SA 3.0)

In my previous blog post, I mentioned several things that distracted me in the article, but the sentence that really struck me was this one:

“Germany has at least ten new coal-fired power plants under construction, many of which were commissioned after the turn from nuclear to compensate for energy lost from reactors.”

It is surprising to see how widespread the notion is that a coal plant could be built in a couple of years. I took a look at some statistics for the US and found that this new coal plant, which went online in 2012, received its first permit in 2007. Five years is probably a good average in democracies worldwide. (I also discovered that the Department of Energy discontinued its public database of new coal plants in 2007, so Americans have to collect the data themselves – but we’ll save that issue for a later post…)

Take a look at this chart (PDF in German) published by German environmental NGO Deutsche Umwelthilfe in November. It shows that two new coal plants recently went into operation, with eight others currently under construction – so the figure of 10 new coal plants is correct. But even if you don’t speak German, you can see under the “Status” column when these plants began. For instance, Datteln starts in 01/2007 (January 2007) and the latest date for the beginning of a plant’s status is 07/2009 for Neckerau Block 9.

The two plants that went online last fall received permits way back in 2005 (Grevenbroich) and 2006 (Boxberg). The eight others soon to be completed were all underway by 2009 at the latest. Go down further into the list of “abandoned” projects (the green area), and you’ll see that six of those 20 projects have been abandoned since the nuclear phaseout. The only positive changes for coal since March 2011 concern two plants currently “planned” (orange area), and here nothing is currently being built.

As a reaction to the nuclear phaseout, Germany has thus started building zero coal plants but stepped away from six. At current power prices, all conventional projects are on hold, and coal power may soon be unprofitable in Germany.

Coal plants take around five years to build, so don’t expect any new ones as a reaction to an event in March 2011 until 2016. And if the German government ever sees fit to support ambitious carbon trading, which it only recently rejected, we might get a switch from nuclear and coal to natural gas and renewables by 2016 instead – the intended outcome.

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of German Energy Transition. He directs Petite Planète and writes every workday for Renewables International.


Craig Morris (@PPchef) is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende.


  1. František Marčík says

    Well, first of all thanks for the interesting and insightful info. Apprecieted. My only doubt is, we have always been told that Energiewende has been very well planned, prepared and step by step implemented within the last 20 years, the question is than: when the permissions for new coal power plants were given in 2005, 2007 and so, were they given under the perspective of forthcoming Energiewende policy, or not?

  2. Miquel says

    German nuclear phase-out was not a reaction to Fukushima accident, it was planned years before that. The accident only sealed those plans. Hence the number of power plants already being commissioned.
    The situation in germany is quite simple. Since the renewables do not have stable energy production, there is a strong need for backup sources. Since nuclear is out of fashion, the only source available are the coal & gas power plants. The more renewables is Germany going to build, the larger backup it is going to need.

  3. Alan Drake (AlanfromBigEasy) says

    None-the-less, Germany continues to burn more coal in existing plants to replace shut down nuclear plants.

    Preliminary data shows that German carbon emissions rose in 2012 vs. 2011.

  4. Tobi Kellner says

    There’s a useful analysis by consultancy Poyry for the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) which essentially confirms these findings, have a look at
    The Pyory report goes into one interesting technical detail: There had been a specific piece of legislation that caused excitement about building new coal power stations because they thought they would get a 14 year free allowance period for EU ETS payments if they get the power stations built before the end of 2012. But in 2006 the EU clarified that this would not be the case, and a lot of the projects were quietly shelved (see section 2.4 in the Poyry report).

  5. pramod deshpande says

    due to chernobyl and fukushima crisis,the germany decision to nuclear phaseout is
    challenging decision no doubt and even if coal power plants runs the accidents as compared to nuclear powerplant will be less dangerous also the coal will be used
    as in germany coal proximity is there,so ten coal power plants will be useful to german growth and fututer economy after 2020
    also wind power germany is expert too. also IAEA inspection for water at fukushima in 15 km sphere is going so radiatioins effected food water is serious for nuc powerplant accidents is my expert opnion.
    pramod deshpande
    senior scientific officer
    atomic energy dept india
    08 nov 2013

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  7. Val Martin says

    I sent this letter to the paper to try to explain the concept of a minus coal powered power station.
    In the midst of the renewable energy debate, I wonder if I could stay from being too serious and see can I make readers laugh (at least to themselves). When it comes to green energy, commentators use very flowery language to gloss up their new wonderful “renewable energy”. The latest concept to arrive from Germany is the “minus new coal fired power station.” As Germany shut down some of its nuclear generating stations in the wake of Fukishima catastrophe, they told us they were moving to a low carbon economy using wind energy to replace them. Using just rough rounded off figures, I now try to explain the concept of a “ minus coal fired power station.” Roll back to before Fukashima, the country had 1000 nuclear and 2000 coal total 3,000. After the disaster they installed 1000 of wind farms and shut down 400 nuclear leaving a capacity of 600 nuclear, 1000 wind and still 2000 coal, total 3,600. It was found to great surprise that the wind only blew 25% of the time giving an actual capacity of 250 and even then no coal plant could be shut down, so they opened another 750 coal to replace the 750 that wind failed to deliver. That leaves total installed capacity at 3,600 + 750 = 4,350 up from the original 3.000, with consequence increases in prices which is no laugh I admit. There appears to be an increase in the burning of coal which is inconceivable to green advocates. However, because they have 1000 of wind which is clean, free and cheap and wonderfully green and new coal plant is only 750 and considered an undesirable result of turning to a low carbon economy, the overall situation is “minus 250 of coal.” Confused, the secret is not to look at the total figures or to try to apply common sense to it. If you do that you will end up shouting the “Emperor has no clothes” . It’s not politically correct to say wind does not work because it hits the profits of operators and embarrasses our wonderful government. Keep it to yourself or you could end up like me, a social outcast denier. Next try to draw a picture of a “minus coal fired power station”.

  8. Ronald Housewright says

    I think it is very stupid for Germany to phase out nuclear power plants and go to the most polluting power plants using coal. Especially when more people have been killed in coal powered than nuclear power plants.

    It would think that geothermal power, which is much more stable than wind power should be used. With these systems steam comes directly out of ground, no need to have to produce power to make steam. Besides this source of energy is free of most pollution and is freely given to us to use by nature. By the way the heat of the earth is created by nuclear energy by radioactive elements decomposing.

  9. Shaun says

    I like the point in the essay, it’s very persuasive and enough to break the myth about the amount of coal plants. Several essays have checked about carbon emissions in renewables international, and the EU report 《Trends in Global CO2 Emission 2013 Report》 also shows Germany actually has done a good job to reduce carbon emissions in 20 years. I wonder why people love to blame Germany for the reduction, which is much better than U.S., in the energy transformation, if they really care about the fact.

  10. R.Hammerton says

    According to my research, the German Govt decided to start phasing out nuclear generators in 2000 with the obvious need therefore to decide on how to fill the void. At that time the only real solution was to go to coal. Large projects take a long time to plan and cost out frequently done ahead of the actual planning application. Miquel is absolutely correct. If you look at the actual production figures for solar, averageing 15% and wind 25% (a little high but allows for newer tech turbines) and days/nights of NO production which have to be covered by other generators kept running constantly (otherwise you get blackouts) . The theoretical maximum efficiency is 85% and 54 % respectively. No one in the world of science or the odd honest salesman believe this will ever be achieved. Perhaps 40% and 35%. but not in the near future. Coal gives 70+ %, Nuclear based on current output measurements 90+%. So it seems we are doing away with the most efficient producer giving the least carbon emissions for less efficient ones creating carbon. Health you will all cry. If you really research death rates, fossil fuels are killing thousands of people a year, multiple times that of nuclear history. What has happened to Kyoto? It did not say “go green” it said reduce Carbon emissions.

    • Craig Morris says

      R., your research is inaccurate. The nuclear phaseout was in 2002, not 2000. Your figures on capacity factors for wind and solar also do not apply to Germany, where solar is at around 10 percent and wind at around 17-20 percent (depends on the weather), considerably below your numbers.

      You also conflates “efficiency” with capacity factors (also called “load factors” for conventional plants). In reality, if a coal plant, for instance, has an efficiency of 33 percent, two thirds of the energy in the coal is lost. With solar and wind, however, you lose the energy if you don’t use it, so your 15 and 25 percent is always a gain.

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