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In Germany, sun, wind, water and biomass have so far produced more electricity in 2019 than coal and nuclear power combined. But it's a snapshot of a special market situation and might not be a long-term trend.
In Lippendorf, Saxony, the energy supplier EnBW is temporarily taking part of a coal-fired power plant offline. Not because someone ordered it — it simply wasn't paying off. Gas prices are low, CO2 prices are high, and with many hours of sunshine and wind, renewable methods are producing a great deal of electricity. And in the first half of the year there was plenty of sun and wind.
The result was a six-month period in which renewable energy sources produced more electricity than coal and nuclear power plants together. For the first time 47.3% of the electricity consumers used came from renewable sources, while 43.4% came from coal-fired and nuclear power plants.
In addition to solar and wind power, renewable sources also include hydropower and biomass. Gas supplied 9.3% while the remaining 0.4% came from other sources, such as oil, according to figures published by the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems in July.
A vision of the future
Fabian Hein from the think tank Agora Energiewende stresses that the situation is only a snapshot in time. For example, the first half of 2019 was particularly windy and wind power production rose by around 20% compared to the first half of 2018.
Electricity production from solar panels rose by 6%, natural gas by 10%, while the share of nuclear power in German electricity consumption has remained virtually unchanged.
Coal, on the other hand, declined. Black coal energy production fell by 30% compared to the first half of 2018, lignite fell by 20%. Some coal-fired power plants were even taken off the grid. It is difficult to say whether this was an effect of the current market situation or whether this is simply part of long-term planning, says Hein.
It is clear, however, that an increased CO2 price has made the ongoing generation of electricity from coal more expensive. Gas-fired power plants also emit CO2, but less than coal-fired power plants. They are also more efficient and that's why gas-fired power plants are not so strongly affected by the CO2 price.
The price is determined at a European level and covers power plants and energy intensive industries in Europe. Other areas, such as heating or transport are not covered by the CO2 price scheme. Since a reform of CO2 emissions trading in 2017, the price has risen sharply. Whereas in September 2016 it was just over €5 ($5.6), by the end of June 2019 it had climbed to over €26.
Ups and downs
Gas as a raw material is generally more expensive than coal. But coal-fired power plants are more expensive to build. This is why operators want to run them continuously. In times of high demand, and therefore high prices, gas-fired power plants are generally started up, since it is worth it at these times.
Gas-fired power plants can be flexibly ramped up and down. Coal-fired power plants take 11 hours or longer to get going. That's why they can't be switched on quickly for short periods when prices are high, like gas-fired power plants. In the first half of the year, however, coal-fired power plants were also ramped up and down more often because it was not always worthwhile to let the power plant run around the clock.
Read more: Norway backs away from fossil fuels
Because gas prices were particularly low in the first half of 2019, some gas-fired power plants were more profitable than coal-fired plants. On June 29, 2019, the gas price at the Dutch trading point TTF was around €10 per megawatt hour. A year earlier, it had been almost €20. This is partly due to the relatively mild winter, as there is still a lot of gas in reserve, confirmed a spokesman for the Federal Association of the Energy and Water Industries (BDEW). There are also several new export terminals for liquefied natural gas. Additionally, weaker growth and trade wars are slowing demand for gas. A lot of gas comes to Europe, where prices are still comparatively high, reported the Handelsblatt newspaper.
The increase in wind and solar power and the decline in nuclear power have also reduced CO2 emissions. In the first half of 2019, electricity generation emitted around 15% less CO2 than in the same period last year, reported BDEW. However, the association demands that the further expansion of renewable energies should not be hampered. The target of 65% renewable energy can only be achieved if the further expansion of renewable energy sources is accelerated.