31. August 2022 By Jonas Schnorrenberg and Maximilian Hammes
Will the supply gap be bridged with coal-based energy – or will we go nuclear after all?
The gas crisis is still very much alive. In a previous blog post, we already summarised the reasons and consequences of the second stage of the ‘Emergency Plan for Gas’. Following the maintenance shutdown of the Nordstream 1 pipeline, Russia is curbing the amount of gas supplied to 20 per cent. In order to secure the gas supply and build reserves, the government plans to draw on alternative energy sources. The Minister of Economic Affairs Robert Habeck wants to compensate the undersupply with coal-fired power plants. The opposition, especially Jens Spahn (CDU), on the other hand, is calling for an extension of the use of nuclear power plants. Without a doubt, neither approach will help the climate or the environment. So the question remains: which solution is the lesser evil and which one is actually feasible?
Advantages and disadvantages of coal-fired power plants
In simple terms, coal-fired power plants generate electricity by burning coal. By burning coal, water is heated and converted into steam. This steam, in turn, drives a turbine that is coupled to a generator, and the generator produces the electricity delivered by the coal-fired power plant. One kilowatt hour (kWh) costs only six cents for lignite and eight cents for hard coal. These are the basic costs of production, so follow-up costs are not yet accounted for. Hard coal and lignite are available in Germany, so this would not make the country dependent on foreign suppliers as is the case with gas.
But unlike gas-fired power plants, coal-fired power plants cannot simply be ramped up and down to generate power in a flexible manner (and address peak loads). Furthermore, coal-fired power plants feature the highest CO2 emissions associated with energy generation of all power plant types, which amount to 798–1150 g of CO2 equivalents per kilowatt hour (kWh) of electricity. This puts the agreed targets for reducing CO2 emissions at risk. The coalition agreement between the SPD, the Green Party and the FDP states that the coal phase-out should ‘ideally’ be completed by 2030. The current shortage is not supposed to change this goal. In addition to CO2, other environmentally harmful substances such as sulphur oxide, nitrogen oxides and dust are released when burning coal. Furthermore, many people are strongly opposed to coal mining. This was manifested, for example, by the occupation of the Hambach Forest in 2016 when it was to be cleared for the expansion of open-cast lignite mining.
Advantages and disadvantages of nuclear power plants
In a nuclear power plant, electricity is generated by nuclear fission. The fission of uranium heats water and produces steam. The subsequent process is essentially the same as that of a coal-fired power plant. One kilowatt hour (kWh) costs 13 cents, which is seven or eight cents more than lignite or hard coal respectively, without taking into account the follow-up costs. In contrast to lignite and hard coal, there are no domestic commercial uranium mining areas in Germany, so the procurement of new fuel rods would once again result in a dependency on other countries. More to the point, 40 per cent of the uranium used in Europe comes from Russia and Kazakhstan.
One of the key advantages of nuclear power plants comes to the fore if you only look at CO2 equivalents. This is because, with emissions of only 12 g CO2 equivalent per kWh, nuclear power plants only generate a fraction of the CO2 emissions of coal-fired power plants, making them appear to be the ideal transitional solution for achieving the agreed CO2 emissions targets. However, nuclear power plants are designed to deliver electricity consistently day and night, which makes them even less flexible than coal-fired power plants. The dismantling of the remaining three nuclear power plants has already been decided and has been scheduled for 31 December 2022, which is why no new fuel rods were purchased. Because of this, the nuclear power plants still in operation would now have to reduce their output to use less of the remaining fuel rods so they could provide energy for a longer period. In this way, nuclear energy could be used for longer, but the total amount of electricity would remain the same. The three remaining nuclear power plants are among the safest in the world, yet they still require regular maintenance. All maintenance work was planned and scheduled well in advance over several months as a result of the mandatory nuclear phase-out. An extension of operation would make it necessary to perform costly unscheduled maintenance. Any special regulation in this context would be highly questionable since the liability of nuclear power plant operators will also expire on 1 January 2023.
The decision of the German government to phase out coal and nuclear energy side by side can be described as ‘less than favourable’, especially in light of recent geo-political developments.
Even in view of the findings of a survey conducted by ARD Deutschlandtrend, according to which more than 80 per cent of respondents are in favour of the short-term or even long-term use of nuclear energy, there are some parameters that make this measure very difficult under the given framework conditions. These include the (lack of) availability of raw materials, the unresolved matter of liability and costly maintenance.
Given all these factors, bridging the supply gap with nuclear energy is associated with high hurdles – both technical and regulatory ones. Consequently, coal energy is to be preferred for reasons of feasibility.
This crisis may also present an opportunity as calls are growing louder for the energy crisis to be seen as a strong incentive to investment more strongly in renewable energies instead of defaulting to fossil fuels. Efforts should focus on accelerating the expansion of wind and solar energy as well as on the promotion of storage technology.
You can find more exciting topics from the adesso world in our blog articles published so far.