COP24 and litmus test on Germany


In December 2018, the Climate Change meeting (COP24) was held at Katowice, in a coal-rich mining area in Poland. The follow up from this meeting as well as carrying out a litmus test on Nuclear Power verses other sources of energy forms the main focus on this episode.

Under the litmus test on Nuclear Power (NP) versus (WP + SP), we shall compare the capabilities of these energy sources with reference to Germany’s Energiewende or Energy Transition. We shall also learn how to calculate capacity factor (CF), a very important parameter, which defines capabilities of energy sources used to produce electricity. CF is usually high for conventional power sources, but low especially for wind power (WP) and solar power (SP). Furthermore, the CFs for WP and SP are site specific, and they are negatively affected by several conditions including trees in the area.

Synopsis of COP24 meeting  

The COP24 meeting actually ended a day later than expected, when the teeming delegates adopted the Rule Book on the guidelines for the implementation of the Paris Agreement. Perennial issues of how to realize from 2020 the climate finance of US$100 billion per year from the rich to the poorer nations took a step backwards with the US pulling out of the Paris Agreement. The US, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Kuwait, energy rich countries were accused of playing for time to use fossil fuels. The President of Poland, the host country asked for continuous use of coal, whilst the Polish Trade Union made it clear that they did not support the elimination of coal from the global energy portfolio.

Despite very remarkable growth of WP and SP, it was reported at the COP24 that in 2018, and for second year running, green house gas (GHG) emissions in the energy sector would rise 2.7%, a record high. Many small-island nations were genuinely concerned about the imminent extinction of their homes, while others fear that several species face existential risks. Another interesting issue was the Special Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on “Global Warming of 1.5 degrees” commissioned by governments of the 195 nations at COP21 in Paris in December, 2015. The report, actually the summary for policymakers, shows that other low-carbon technologies like bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (CCS), NP, and fossil fuels with CCS are urgently needed in the fight against global warming. But several eminent scientists have vehemently criticized in the media the IPCC’s flagrant deception about NP, a major low-carbon technology, which can produce safe, clean, dispatch-able and affordable electricity more abundantly than any other option.

The latest IPCC’s report also prompted some leading scientists to write an open letter to all the G20 Heads of State. The letter was captured in the media as “Top Climate Scientists Warn Governments of Blatant Anti-Nuclear Bias in Latest IPCC Climate Report”. For instance, a climate scientist at the MIT, Kerry Emanuel said: “The anti-nuclear bias of this latest IPCC release is rather blatant, and reflects the ideology of the environmental movement. History may record that this was more of an impediment to de-carbonization than climate denial”. Another one, Gerry Thomas, a Professor of Molecular Pathology at Imperial College London and co-founder of the Chernobyl Tissue Bank, underscores that “There is higher radiation exposure from coal plants and the manufacturing of solar panels than from nuclear”.

Installed Capacity, Generated Electricity and Capacity Factor

Before delving into the litmus test of NP versus SP and WP, it is important to understand some core terms. The most appropriate way to compare the performance or capabilities is through their capacity factors (CFs).

From the onset, let’s clarify the Standard International Prefixes used to describe the units of installed capacity and generated electric energy or electricity. The prefixes, given with their relevant symbols are: (1) Tera: T, trillion, (2) Giga: G, billion, (3) Mega: M, million, and (4) kilo: k, thousand.

In addition, note that nuclear radiation doses is measured in diminishing magnitudes: (1) thousandth: m, 0.0001, (2) millionth: u (Greek letter mu), 0.0000001. For instance, the annual average dose of ionizing radiation received by people in the UK is 2.7milli-Sievert (or 2.7mSv).

Where the installed capacity is GW, the corresponding generated electricity will be in TWh.  Note that G and T show the magnitude, while W and Wh are units for power and energy respectively. In some publications the unit for power is given as We. The installed capacity for individual commercial power plants may range from 50-500kW for SP and WP plants. For NP that goes up to 1500MW per plant.

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In Ghana, the installed capacity for thermal plants range from about 100-500MW, while that for Akosombo is 1021MW. In such cases, their corresponding annually generated electricity will be in GWh. Let’s note that in some cases installed or designed capacity for wind turbines and solar panels are often given as Wp where ‘p’ indicates that the rated power can be achieved during the peak or the most optimal conditions.

To explain a capacity factor (CF) of a power plant with installed capacity of 1000MW, let’s take a hypothetical power plant that operates non-stop at full power every day of the year. Calculating the number of hours in a day (24) and the numbers of days (365) would give you 8760 hours in a year. The power plant would therefore produce 1000MW x 8760hours = 8760GWh of electricity, which can be taken as the plant’s theoretical maximum output for the plant. Since in real life a power plant has to undergo maintenance, refueling, or stopped for other reasons, the actually produced electricity in a year will be less than theoretical maximum. The capacity factor of a power plant is the ratio between the actual produced electricity in a year and its theoretical maximum. Simply put, CF equals the actual electricity produced in a year / (installed capacity x 8760 hours).

Let’s calculate for example, the CF for the Akosombo Dam with installed capacity of 1020MW for the years 2005 and 2012, during which the plant produced 3104 and 6509GWh respectively:

  1. CF for 2005: 3104GWh/ (1020MW x 8760h) =3104/(1020 x 8,760) =0.3474 or 34.7%
  2. CF for 2012: 6509GWh/ (1020MW x 8760h) = 6509/(1020 x 8,760) = 0.7285 or 72.9%.

HP has a fairly high CF, but it fluctuates according to the pattern of rainfall. Geothermal and biomass usually have higher CFs than that of HP.

A Litmus Test on NP Versus WP and SP

It may be recalled that Germany’s shift from NP started from 1998 by Schroder’s coalition government made up of Socialist and Green parties. Let’s take note that the epic COP6 meeting, meant to finalize the Kyoto Protocol in the year 2000 in The Hague collapsed because the EU, led by Germany, vehemently opposed the proposals tabled by a group of non-EU advanced countries, led by the USA. The main contentious issue was the proposal to use nuclear power as a CDM project in the Kyoto Protocol. (CDM, the Clean Development Mechanism, and Kyoto Protocol will be explained later). When COP6 was reconvened as COP6b in Bonn in July 2001, and at the subsequent COP7 at Marrakech in Morocco in November 2001, the advanced countries were asked to refrain from using NP as CDM project for mission credits. Since then, NP is hardly mentioned during COP meetings.

A report of the ten-year study of eternal costs for energy sources used for electricity generation, prepared under the auspices of the EU-15, was released in Brussels in July 2015. That report showed that NP had the least external cost, meaning that, even in temperate regions NP was or is more environmental friendly than HP. Another study done around that period showed that in EU countries and Japan, not endowed with energy resources such as Canada, Russia and the USA, NP was the leading option for electricity production, accounting for 32 and 30% in the EU and Japan respectively. Studies by the Paul Scherer Institute in Switzerland also show that the EU has a flawless record in their NP operation.

Germany’s shift from NP was ramped up a notch higher, and was published in September 2010 as Energiewende (Energy-Transition program), literally a portfolio of renewable-energies, dominated by WP and SP. After the Fukushima nuclear accident in March 2011, the program was highlighted, and two months later the installed capacity of NP in Germany was decreased from about 20 to 12GWe, while installations for WP and SP boomed.

Big industries are exempt from green energy levies just to ensure their competitiveness in the world market. That explains why in the EU, domestic tariff for electricity is very high in Germany, exceeded only by that of Denmark with perhaps the largest installed capacity of WP per capita in the world. Another German newspaper, Der Zeit, posted on its website on 04-09-2014 that: “Carbon dioxide levels in Germany have been increasing in the last three years despite the government spending nearly $140 billion (100 billion Euros) on the green energy since 2005.”

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In Germany, renewable energies have priority access to the grid, and that makes it very challenging to maintain the grid. Still many publications hold the view that Germany can rely on mainly WP and SP, which require massive amounts of steel and concrete as well as colossal swath of land, which should be treeless, and that will (1) compete with land for agriculture and (2) be detrimental to the measures to keep our forests, the sinks for CO2.

The fact that NP can’t be easily replaced by WP and SP with special attention to Germany’s Energiewende is found in several publications from reputable institutions. For instance, Richard Martin of MIT, in the preamble to his article Germany Runs Up Against the Limits of Renewables, stated that: “Even as Germany adds lots of wind and solar power to the electric grid, the country’s carbon emissions are rising. Will the rest of the world learn from its lesson?”

In another article, from a London based institution,  it is evident, among other things, that the capacity factor (CF) for NP is 90%, whereas the average CF for WP and SP in the EU ranges from 13.3% in Germany to 25.6% in Denmark. In any energy-mix, NP has the highest CF, whilst SP has the lowest CF. So CF for SP in will be less than 13.3% while that for WP will be higher than that.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel provided a key note speech during the COP23 in Bonn, Germany in 2017. The COP23 was originally scheduled for the Republic of Fiji, a Small Island State in the Pacific Ocean, but due to the anticipated number of about 25000 of delegates, NGOs and reporters, the meeting was held in Bonn at the facilities of the United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that organizes the COPs. Many experts, reporters, NGOs and others at the COP23 were very eager to hear from Angela Merkel as to why Germany, the undisputed cheer-leader for climate change, could not meet its emission targets despite its massive installed capacity of WP and SP. When she at last came to deliver her speech, she said among other things that: “Germany could not stop using coal due to social issues”, which were explained in her speech to be jobs and affordability of energy. This is sufficient and necessary proof that NP cannot be replaced easily by WP and SP.

At the same meeting Chancellor Merkel stated “Allow me to say that renewable energies already provide the greatest share of Germany’s energy supply”. This aroused my attention and so I sought for clarifications, and found them in the factsheet for Germany’s energy consumption and power mix in Clean Energy Wire publications online. In 2017, the total installed generating capacity in Germany was 203Gigawatt or 203GW. In that year, renewables (RES) accounted for 112GW, which was higher than 91GW for the conventional energy sources. Clearly, Angela Merkel was referring to the fact that the total installed capacity of RES had surpassed that for the conventional sources in Germany. Yet, RES generated only about 33.2% of their electricity in 2017.

Let’s look at this trend from updated factsheets with 2018 data made available in January 2019. Out of the total installed capacity of 206GW from all sources in Germany, conventional and RES sources accounted for 89 and 117GW respectively. But RES with 57% of the total installed capacity produced only 35.2% of the total of 644TWh of the generated electricity out of 117GW for RES, WP and SP alone accounted for 104GW or 89%, with a mere 13GW or 11% for HP and biomass. Therefore nearly 90% of the RES-produced electricity was not dispatch-able, requiring back-ups, which are mainly polluting black and blown coal.

In conclusion, it was found from the above mentioned updated factsheet that installed capacity of NP in 2018 in Germany was 9.5GW, and it generated 74.1TWh of electricity, while WP and SP with installed capacity of 58.6 and 45.3GW, respectively generated 110.8 and 46.3TWh of electricity. When their CFs are calculated as above, the values for NP, WP and SP in Germany in 2018 were 89.0, 21.6 and 11.7% respectively. When these three options have the same wattage, NP will produce electricity more abundantly: over 4 times more than WP, and over 7 times more than SP.


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