The Governor of New York State says Americans will be reading by candlelight unless nuclear is subsidized. The state’s Public Service Commission (NYPSC) implemented such subsidies at the beginning of August, claiming it “learned a lesson from Germany.” Craig Morris takes a look at the data.
On August 1, the NYPSC adopted a plan to pay roughly an extra $500,000 annually so that nuclear power continues to flow (PDF). The claim, as the New York Times explains, is that wind and solar are ruining wholesale prices for nuclear. A misunderstanding (several, actually) about Germany clearly inspired the policy. As the NYPSC puts it:
“New York can look to another leader in renewable power—Germany—for a lesson in the unintended consequences of losing zero-emissions attributes from all its nuclear plants. Germany’s abrupt closure of all (sic) its nuclear plants resulted in a large increase in the use of coal, causing total carbon emissions to rise despite an aggressive increase in solar generation.”
Germany still has eight reactors in operation with a total net capacity of 12.1 GW—New York only has 5.1 GW! Clearly, the commissioners did not even bother to look at the facts.
Let’s start with New York’s power supply.
If you are having trouble finding wind and solar, that’s because wind only made up 2.9% of power supply in 2014—and solar only 0.05%. (Note that New York gets seven times more electricity from wood (0.5%) than Germany.) Oil still made up around 10% until the shale gas boom. Mainly, nuclear and gas have grown in recent years. But clearly, New York is not really trying to go renewable, and wind and solar cannot materially impact nuclear on wholesale markets from such a low level.
In Germany, however, solar and wind are reducing the wholesale prices that baseload nuclear and coal sell at—because green power is growing fast. In 2002, the country adopted a plan to phase out nuclear by around 2022 (this is still the target). Most onlookers thought it would be impossible to ever offset nuclear power with renewables in such a short time. In fact, Germany hit that target last year—seven years early.
What about the charge of a “large increase” in coal? To account for Chancellor Merkel’s sudden phaseout in 2011, we could compare the figures from 2010 to 2015 (see chart below). We then see a rise of less than one percent in power from hard coal and around six percent for lignite. Judge for yourself whether this is a “large increase,” and keep in mind that power from both hard coal and lignite were down further in the first half of 2016 by 1.9 and 1.6 percent, respectively (PDF in German)—in a year when the German population grew by more than one percent because of refugees. Also keep in mind that net power exports (orange line), which reached a record high last year at nearly 10 percent of total power supply, increase demand for non-renewable electricity because renewable power has priority dispatch. To quote German utility umbrella group BDEW (not a pro-renewables organization), foreign demand for German power increases domestic generation from fossil fuels. Throw in the other fossil fuel, natural gas, and you have an overall decrease—so much that fossil fuel consumption in the power sector reached a 35-year low in 2014 (even with rising exports).
The NYPSC nonetheless says carbon emissions are rising in Germany; they are not (spreadsheet). CO2-equivalent emissions from energy were down two percent from 2010 to 2014. German emissions were 28 percent lower in 2014 than in 1990, only 10 percentage points of which resulted from Reunification (so 18 percentage points come from the Energiewende). By the way, during the same timeframe, US emissions were up.
So where do the claims of rising German carbon emissions come from? There were minor upticks in 2012 and 2013 (an argument that reminds me of the famous face-palm graphic for global warming). And though we don’t have the CO2 numbers yet, energy consumption rose overall in 2015 and the first half of 2016—due, as the official explanation reads, to colder weather, economic growth, and the sudden population growth from refugees. Essentially, the pro-nuclear camp mistakenly attributes a rise in emissions from oil and gas for heat supply to coal consumption in the power sector (which is flat to down).
In their attempt to promote nuclear, some New Yorkers thus overemphasize the role of coal in Germany and exaggerate the limits of wind and solar. For instance, the New York Times recently claimed that the German government “will pay billions to keep coal generators in reserve, to provide emergency power at times when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine.” In reality, these plants will have 11 days to ramp up. No weather forecast extends that long, and no power shortage announces itself that far in advance. Experts doubt this lignite reserve will be used at all. It is a political compromise: to meet the 2020 carbon targets, Berlin has paid coal firms to shut down old coal plants. The payoff for a shutdown is called a “reserve” to make it more palatable to the public.
“Unless we’re willing to go back to candles, which would be uncomfortable and inconvenient, we need energy generation,” New York’s Governer Cuomo said in explaining the nuclear bailout. In doing so, he unwittingly reiterated the long-disproven claim by German nuclear proponents that the lights would go out without nuclear. Like the rest of the US, New York State counts downtime (SAIDI) in hours (PDF), with New York coming in at around two hours of power outages annually—or just over 10 minutes a month. Germany had 12 minutes a year in 2014.
In short, Germany is paying coal to shut down, ramping up renewables far faster than nuclear shrinks, and enjoying unparalleled power reliability—while New York fails to move with solar and wind, pays nuclear to stay on, and has as much downtime a month as Germany has in a year.
Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of German Energy Transition. He directs Petite Planète and writes every workday for Renewables International. He is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende.