Attention environmentalists: Ontario, not Germany, is a clean energy leader
In 2011, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced a radical plan to close all the country’s 17 nuclear plants by 2022. At the same time, the country plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2020 and up to 95 percent in 2050, compared to 1990 levels. Many environmentalists and anti-nuclear types viewed this Energiewende (“energy transition”) as good news.
But Germany’s green Energiewende is producing one big not-so-green result. The regressive impact of Germany’s decision to abandon nuclear power has done little to phase out coal-fired electricity.
Despite its ambitious plans, Germany remains the coal capital of Europe.
The German broadcaster Deutsche Welle recently reported the mining company RWE is planning the expansion of some of Europe’s biggest coal mines – Garzweiler and Hambach.
Yet these developments have not stopped advocates enthusiastic about wind and solar at energy conferences in Canada from using Germany as an example of a clean energy leader. This adulation is particularly puzzling, when these people just need to look in their own backyard to find a better example of a low-carbon leader.
In 2016, Ontario’s electricity generation was 90 per cent carbon free, with nuclear accounting for 61 per cent of power generation and coal zero. In contrast, 2016 estimates for Germany show their grid was 42 per cent carbon free (a mix of 13 per cent nuclear and 29 per cent from renewables), and coal still making up 40 per cent of electricity generation.
Unlike Ontario, which used a combination of nuclear, gas and renewables to phase out coal, Germany has increased renewables, cut nuclear with very little impact on coal.
Not only do these numbers raise doubts about Germany being able to keep its emission reductions commitments, they come at a cost.
An analysis of 257 of 280 coal-fired power plants in the EU found that their 2013 emissions caused over 22,900 deaths. In Germany, 3,630 people died from coal-related illnesses in 2013, the report by the Health and Environment Alliance, Climate Action Network Europe, WWF European Policy Office and Sandbag reported.
Germany’s electricity mix is still comprised of 23 per cent lignite coal, which is often referred to as “brown” coal, which causes the highest CO2 emissions per ton when burned.
Meanwhile in Ontario, nuclear energy played an important role in Ontario’s phase-out of coal in 2014 and ending smog days across the province.
Between 2000 and 2013, nuclear-powered electrical generation rose 20 percent in Ontario, coinciding with a 27 percent drop in coal-fired electricity. During the same period, non-hydro renewables increased to 3.4 percent from one percent. Bruce Power doubled its fleet of operating reactors from four to eight, becoming the world’s largest nuclear generating station.
While more renewable energy did come on line, Bruce Power estimates they provided 70% of the carbon free energy needed to replace the power from the shutdown of coal plants.
All in all, this major transition to a cleaner Ontario could not have happened without nuclear.
The long-term results of Germany’s Energiewende experiment are not known. Based on current data it should stand as a cautionary tale for governments thinking about replacing low-carbon nuclear energy with carbon-creating fossil fuels. It should stand as an example of a global clean energy leader.