Germany’s energy consumption in 2017

Based on preliminary figures for 2017, electricity from renewables grew by a record amount. Coal power production also fell noticeably even as nuclear power fell – despite record exports. But one big news item may have been overlooked amidst all the new records. Craig Morris takes a look.

Wind turbines seen from the German highway in fields of yellow flowers

Germany passes its 2020 target for renewable energy three years early (Photo by Usein, edited, CC BY-SA 1.0)


Since the first nuclear reactor was shut down in 2003 as a part of Germany’s nuclear phaseout, electricity from renewables has increased almost twice as much as nuclear power has shrunk. Coal power – both from lignite and hard coal – has also dropped. The lights have stayed on.

Power exports also set a record for the fifth year in a row, reaching 53 TWh. Net power exports provide space for dispatchable conventional power generators (coal, gas, and nuclear). Renewable electricity has priority dispatch on the German grid, meaning that clean power is consumed before conventional power. Wind and solar in particular react to the weather, not to demand, so foreign demand cannot increase these sources.

Photo via CleanEnergyWire

Gas was once again slightly up in 2017 but has grown by more than a quarter since 2013. Hard coal has fallen by just over a quarter during the same time frame. The decrease in lignite is only 8% because renewables are not yet forcing those plants to ramp much.

Nuclear fell by nearly 11% in 2017. One reactor was shut down at the end of December, but that decrease was only slight. A bigger factor was the extended downtime at Brokdorf, a reactor that made history last year by being the first nuclear plant to shut down specifically because of damage caused by ramping. Other reactors, such as France’s Civaux, have also experienced difficulties possibly related to load-following, but ramping was never clearly reported as the cause for any other reactor.

Power production at all of Germany’s eight remaining reactors in 2017. The disappearance of Brokdorf from early February to late July reduced the fleet’s contribution considerably. (via Fraunhofer ISE)

The 29 TWh increase from renewables in 2017 sets an annual record. That growth is equivalent to around 5% of German power demand. If Germany were to continue to expand renewables at that rate, it would theoretically be 100% renewable in 20 years starting from zero.

But of course, Germany did not start 2017 at zero, but from around 30% renewables in 2016 as a share of generation (including exports). That number increased to 33% last year. More significantly, the target for 2020 is 35% renewables as a share of demand (excluding exports). Last year, Germany reached 36.5% renewables as a share of domestic demand. The country has thus surpassed its 2020 target three years early.

If Germany were to continue to add 5% renewables annually, it would reach 100% in only 13 years – by 2030. But this growth will stagnate over the next few years. The government recently adopted auctions to keep further growth in check; the volume tendered is limited, and time frames are generous. This year might not be so bad, but the wind sector is expected to dry up in 2019 and 2020 because so many recently awarded projects have until 2021 and 2022 to be completed. The share of renewables in 2020 may not look so different from 2017.

One main reason for this slowdown is technical constraints: going 100% renewable (or even 50%) is not trivial. Baseload plants will have to disappear completely even as sufficient dispatchable capacity remains available. Utility umbrella group BDEW is thus calling for more new gas turbines to be constructed (in German), and companies like Uniper (formerly Eon) is currently investigating its options (in German). So are municipal utilities, such as the one in Cottbus that recently announced plans to switch from locally produced lignite to natural gas (in German). Amidst all of the reports about records with renewables and power exports, this little news item deserves more attention: a municipal utility in one of Germany’s three largest lignite mining areas (Lausitz) is switching to gas.

Perhaps the flashiest news item came just after the turn of the year, when the new German power markets platform (SMARD) showed that renewables briefly made up roughly 100% of demand.

In the chart below from that website, the red line (demand) scrapes across the top of the blue area representing wind power, with other renewable energy sources below it. From around 4 AM to 6 AM on January 1, demand was low and wind power strong. However, the other two main power sector visualizations – the Agorameter and Energy-Charts.de – show the share of renewables closer to 90%. The differences come about because of guesstimates. Previous reports of 100% renewables turned out to be overstated (also read this), but perhaps the new platform is more reliable and Germany truly had 100% renewable power for two hours.

In any case, 2017 was a good year for renewables in Germany, and 2018 has gotten off to a good start!

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of Global Energy Transition. He is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende, and is currently Senior Fellow at the IASS.

by

Craig Morris

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

34 Comments

  1. Graeme says

    Craig,
    Interesting article but quite mischievist and misleading. Early in November 2017 ‘your German renewables’ generated at 4% capacity. The only way power was provided was by other surrounding countries and overloading every other energy source. My information is that by 2020 Germany will have spent 1Tr euros on this crazy system and still be producing as much CO2 as 2005. Then there will be more electricity needed as the world goes electrical cars. Blindness to the clean power of Nuclear is destroying our societies.

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  3. heinbloed says

    An interesting new feature on Fraunhofer ISE: ” Percentage of full load”

    https://www.energy-charts.de/percent_full_load.htm?source=coal&year=2018

    Hard coal power plants are as efficient as off-shore wind power parks (it looks even a bit better for the off-shore I think)

    https://www.energy-charts.de/percent_full_load.htm?source=wind-offshore&year=2018

    Esp. Moorburg 1 and Moorburg 2 look very lousy, but they won’t be sold, for sure, which idiot …. 😉

    https://www.finanztrends.info/news/vattenfall-chef-fordert-geregelten-kohleausstieg-in-deutschland/

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  8. heinbloed says

    Discrepancy in gas usage reports

    Whilst Fraunhofer ISE reports for 2017 46TWh gas power for the public grid plus 20-25 TWh for industry

    https://www.ise.fraunhofer.de/content/dam/ise/de/documents/publications/studies/daten-zu-erneuerbaren-energien/Stromerzeugung_2017.pdf

    (in German on page 6/25)

    AGEB reports a total (gross) gas power production of 86 TWh for 2017

    https://www.ag-energiebilanzen.de/

    (see pdf “Strommix”)

    Now:

    AGEB claims that the total gas usage (not only power generation but the gross consumption) increased due to cold weather, heating with gas is popular in Germany.

    Fraunhofer doesn’t see that and Verivox just published the opposite: gas demand for heating consumption dropped because of the mild weather in 2017:

    https://www.verivox.de/presse/heizkosten-gasrechnung-so-guenstig-wie-seit-10-jahren-nicht-mehr-119182/

    (in German)

    So even if a very bad gas heating efficiency is taken for granted (80%) and a 3.4% of gas power efficiency loss (according to https://energy-charts.de/explanation.htm) there is a big gap of around 20-30% in gross gas usage between Ageb and Fraunhofer (limited to power production).

    Could it be that AGEB’s report 5/2017 ( https://www.ag-energiebilanzen.de/) is far-off, that Germany reduced the gross energy-consumption in 2017 esp. the CO2 emissions?

    The difference could be roughly 20-40% of the gross gas TWh claimed by AGEB in their annual report for 2017.
    Making the year 2017 – if Fraunhofer and Verivox are correct – a year with reduced gross energy consumption and reduced CO2 output provided the other energy sources are covered correctly.

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  10. Hi! I am pleased to read that Germany’s renewable power has doubled the rate which its coal power is being phased out. I hope to see more constructive developments in regards to the future of Energiewende and its policies in the future. The key is getting more EU countries to follow the German and Scandinavian model. I discuss more on Energiewende on my blog. Feel free to check out http://jakeroseliuseuropeanunion.weebly.com for more info!

  11. RatusNatus says

    Coal being phased out? from 40% to 37% and now…
    “The share of renewables in 2020 may not look so different from 2017.”
    that is over, how will they phase out coal?
    Yes, now is time for the fairy tale part of the Energiewende to take place… innovation, lol.

    Good luck without nuclear and its zero emission…

    • Vivi says

      As this article clearly mentioned, several power suppliers would like to replace old coal power plants with new gas power plants – which is the same reason coal use has gone down in the US these last few years, except that in the US, the switch is done mainly for economic reasons. (Fracking gas being cheaper than coal there, whereas it’s the most expensive way to produce electricity in Germany aside from the very rarely used oil / diesel generators, and locally mined lignite is unfortunately the cheapest option.) Others, like my town’s municipally owned electricity provider, simply shut down the local coal power plant and make a bulk purchasing contract with some Scandinavian hydro power company instead, while investing in the build-up of local renewables (solar roofs on schools and other publically owned buildings; maybe a few wind turbines when the zoning laws / forestry ministry finally agrees to let them be built and the financing has been sorted out…)

      Besides, as also stated in this article, Germany exports a huge amount of electricity at the moment, due to massive overproduction and very low (sometimes negative) wholesale electricity prices for the purpose of power trading (not the famously high end customer prices, which are kept high by lots of taxes and surcharges, to discourage wasteful electricity use and encourage the buying of efficient appliances). The prices are so low because lignite as a fuel source is way too cheap (a carbon tax would help here; or much higher emission trading prices – but those are set by the EU, not the German government alone), but if surrounding countries (especially France, whose inflexible nuclear plant fleet produces too much electricity for summer demand, but too little for winter demand, because a lot of people there heat with electricity) would stop buying it, at least half a dozen German coal power plants would shut down right away, because they’re just not needed anymore to supply Germany’s electrictiy demand. (Renewable electricity has grid access priority by law here, so it gets used by local demand first. The exported electricity is what’s “left over” after national demand has been met, so all exported electricity is from fossil fuel / nuclear plants as long as Germany doesn’t routinely produce more than 100% renewable electricity – which is still a long way off.)
      When the nuclear plants have been closed by 2022, that will mean a lot less “must run” capacity on the grid (You can’t just shut down a nuclear power plant for a few hours or days when there’s low demand, or ramp it down to run at half output or less, like you can with a gas power plant – but that’s exactly the kind of flexibility you need to accommody a high percentage of renewable power on the grid.), which in turn will put an end to the very low wholesale electricity prices, thus lowering the attractiveness of German electricity for power suppliers in other European countries to a more normal level. This should drive at least a few coal power plants into bancruptcy. Probably more the ones fueled by imported hard coal (hard coal mining has been in a downward spiral for decades and is due to end in Germany this year, as the subsidies have stopped), though, not the ones burning cheap lignite. Also, there are issues of local grid stability to consider – last time I looked, there were some 40 or so power plants (mostly coal, but some gas too since gas is so expensive) on the list of power plants the owners would like to shut down or mothball because they don’t make (enough of) a profit anymore, but the final decision whether they can be shut down or are still needed to physically stabilize the local grid frequency and such lies with the government.

      Even if uranium wasn’t 100% imported, a limited resource, and hardly a “zero emission” fuel (mining, shipping, huge amounts of concrete and steel needed to build the nuclear plants…), building a new nuclear plant takes many years and there haven’t been any new fission power plants built or planned in Germany since before Chernobyl exploded. (There is one experimental fusion reactor being built, but that’s still just for research.) This branch of the power industry has been a “dead man walking” in this country for a very long time, and the nuclear plants that are due to shut down in the next few years are nearing the end of their designed running time anyway. (The plants that were suddenly “ordered” to be shut down in 2011 had technical problems the repair of which would have been so costly as to make them unprofitable for the rest of their running time. Fukushima just made the government pay attention to a report of the technical issues that had been assembled months earlier, instead of keeping it swept under the rug as usual.)

      So even if there was some magical way to get rid of the waste (the German nuclear plants have just been stockpiling the waste on site for the last 10 years…) and to be absolutely sure there won’t be any more accidents of a magnitude that makes large areas uninhabitable (or terror attacks that would turn the plant into a “sitting A-bomb”, e.g. by crashing an airplane into the reactor building or spent fuel cooling pool), and even if there wasn’t widespread resistance in the population as old as the industry itself (i.e., since the 1960s/70s), the only way Germany could continue using significant amounts of nuclear power in its electricity mix would be to dangerously increase the existing plants’ running time beyond what they were designed for (which is what the US is currently doing), while building many new nuclear plants – which would take at least a decade and be extremely expensive, as the ridiculously costly power price guaranty needed for the planned new nuclear plant in the UK shows. Which, by the way, is the reason even France plans to reduce the size of their nuclear power plant fleet by a third – they just can’t afford to build enough new plants to replace the old ones. Renewable power plants, even with battery storage (which doesn’t have to be expensive, short-lived lithium batteries – flow batteries with large electrolyte tanks, or low-maintenance physical power storage like frictionless flywheels, pumped hydro or molten salt make much more sense for non-mobile applications like grid stabilization, peak shaving, or storing power just a few hours to shift it from the noon solar peak to evening demand), is considerably cheaper already than building new nuclear plants, and will be much cheaper by the time the nuclear plants would be finished and go online.

      • Mattias says

        “or terror attacks that would turn the plant into a “sitting A-bomb”, e.g. by crashing an airplane into the reactor building or spent fuel cooling pool”
        Clearly you don’t care for facts. Even laymen know that nuclear reactors don’t turn into atom bombs. The sophistication of such a terrorist attack (your airplane doesn’t work) would be fitting of a heist movie and it’d be far easier for this terrorist group to simply make their own bomb than trying to build one on the spot after infiltrating a plant. I sincerely hope I this was a joke I didn’t get and not intentional deception.
        “[Uranium is] hardly a “zero emission” fuel”
        The relevant harmful aspects of uranium mining is accidentally disturbing ground water or danger to miners (plenty of bad stuff there). The shipping and containment of unspent fuel is not an aspect to consider particularly relevant on the emissions front. If we’re to look to current technology and practice solar is not friendly in the materials aspect. Their operational emissions are zero but the manufacture and disposal practice isn’t particularly strong. They do need replacing, it’s worth remembering. I don’t find either to be a particularly big problem though as it’s solvable and the overall benefit in replacing any of the fossil sources is huge.

        On the whole I’m happy to see Germany moving to more renewable energy sources but the recent (2010+) imports are concerning. The drop in fossil fuel sourced energy has been very steady since options were a realistic thing. But now with the nuclear dropping out you’ve moved to fossil fuel imports which is trivial to see in the % of energy that’s provided fossil fuel. At least you didn’t grow that much on that front. It’s something this article doesn’t feature aside from the mention of the difficulties with 100% renewable. Personally I find most articles focus too much on renewable instead of carbon-free.

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  24. Nah, $580 billion is too much to have paid for such a tiny fraction of the German grid. At say $5 billion per GW for overnight nuclear assembly line built in a big government push, Germany could instead have 115 GW of nuclear power putting out 1016 TWh per year. Germany could be off all coal, gas, and even oil at that price! But what have they got instead? Wind and solar toys that rely on neighbouring countries to ‘firm’ them when they’ve gone on strike! Forbes is breaking this story.
    https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelshellenberger/2018/09/11/had-they-bet-on-nuclear-not-renewables-germany-california-would-already-have-100-clean-power/#3e01a1cce0d4

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