By phasing out coal, we can drastically reduce CO2 emissions
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2019-05-08 press release 177 0

Does the coal phase-out endanger Germany’s energy supply?

VDE is committed to protecting the climate. That is why it welcomes the gradual reduction and termination of coal-fired power generation by the end of 2038, as outlined in the final report of the Commission for Growth, Structural Change and Employment for Germany (Coal Commission). "If the heating and transport sectors also part-take, the climate targets that Germany agreed to could actually be reached," says the convinced Prof. Dr.-Ing. Bernd Engel, head of the Institute for High Voltage Technology and Electrical Energy Systems - elenia at the Technical University of Braunschweig and member of the board of the “Energietechnische Gesellschaft” im VDE (VDE|ETG).

Leave coal behind! But is it that simple?

The energy experts at VDE also asked themselves this question and analyzed the Coal Commission’s final report in more detail.

The phase-out plan

The Coal Commission's exit plan [1] stipulates that the installed capacity of coal-fired power plants in the electricity market will be gradually reduced to around 15 GW of lignite and around 15 GW of hard coal by 2022. By 2030, a maximum of nine gigawatts powered by lignite and eight gigawatts generated through hard coal will still be connected to the grid. To compare: In 2017, the installed net nominal output of coal-fired power plants in Germany totaled around 45 gigawatts [2].

The phase-out plan also stipulates that a decision will be made in 2032 as to whether Germany will be phasing out coal as early as 2035 in view of climate change and security of supply.

As far as the energy sector is concerned, draft legislation on the phase-out of hard coal and lignite should be drafted by the fall of this year. During a visit to the Economics Committee on 13 March 2019, Andreas Feicht, State Secretary for Energy in the Federal Ministry of Economics, said that it was still unclear whether the two issues would flow into one law [3].

Risk analysis necessary

Apparently, the VDE energy experts believe that the power supply in Germany is not initially at risk, since the calculations already included the phase-out figures, e.g. in the scenarios for the grid development plan 2019-2030 [4] (see graph 1). "The C2030 scenario is almost exactly in line with the coal commission's figures," says Prof. Dr.-Ing. Christian Rehtanz, head of the Institute for Energy Systems, Energy Efficiency and Energy Economics at the TU Dortmund and Chairman of the VDE|ETG Executive Board. Rehtanz does, however, raise some concern: "This scenario is very ambitious with regard to the development of renewable energies (RE). In addition, it requires a massive expansion of the grid. If the grid and renewables expansion were delayed at the same time, the coal phase-out would mean that we would have to import more electricity," Rehtanz continues. Things would become quite challenging between 2030 and 2038: During this period, the remaining 17 GW of output generated by coal-fired power plants will be shut down.

European plans do not yet take German coal phase-out into account

Whether imported electricity will be available precisely when needed, on time and in sufficient quantity, is currently up unclear. In their scenarios for the 10-Year Network Development Plan (TYNDP) for the European interconnected grid, the transmission grid operators in Europe have not yet taken into account the proposed coal phase-out in Germany [5]. And Federal Economics Minister Peter Altmaier also knows that based on the recommendations of the Coal Commission, two thirds of European coal-fired power generators will be exiting the market. The first related talks with the so-called electricity neighbors took place on April 8th, 2019 [6].

If there is a “dark lull” in the winter of 2021, supplies could run short

In their newest report on the current account 2017-2021 [7], the German transmission grid operators warn that a "dark lull" in the winter of 2021 could lead to a supply gap or a needed import of approx. 5.5 GW in the German power system. This is mainly due to the expiry of the Reserve Power Plant Ordinance that was considered in the calculations. A coal phase-out by 2021 would, as this is not considered in the calculations, further aggravate the situation - the report of the transmission system operators was published 5 days prior to the final report of the Coal Commission.

VDE experts demand a strategy for a power mixture that is future-proof

What we now need for our energy mix is

  • an even more determined expansion of renewable energy sources, especially photovoltaics and wind power. These include removing the 52 GW cap for PV facilities in the Renewable Energy Law (EEG) and a strategy on how to deal with EEG installations that drop out of the funding in the near future,
  • more decentralized prosumer facilities with sector coupling and
  • a national hedging of the "dark lull" by means of a flexible, secured output that is low in CO 2 consisting of gas and block heat power plants, for example.

Further urgently required measures include

  • the strengthening of the transmission grid as well as
  • the accelerated digitized expansion of distribution grids for renewable electricity to also be used in the  heat and transport sector,
  • more sector coupling via Power-to-X systems for heat applications, "renewable gas" and the  use of green hydrogen in transport, 
  • technology-neutral flexibility markets for producers, flexible loads and storage of all kinds, 
  • reformed, unified and simplified allocations, taxes and levies, as well as a 
  • CO2 pricing that is internationally standardized and applies to all sectors.

If our energy mix - including energy storage - and the grid structures are not adapted to the challenges of the future soon, the usual security of supply and reliability of our energy system could suffer significantly in the near future.