Renewables in Germany finally surpassed coal! Good news or bad news?

Over 2018 in Germany the electricity generation from renewable energy sources was slightly higher than the generation from coal and lignite. A great result for renewables in Germany, although the country still relies upon coal for electricity generation more than any other western European economy.

According to the Fraunhofer Institute renewables in Germany during 2018 generated more than 40.4% of the total national public net electricity, while lignite and coal 38%, nuclear 13.3% and natural gas 7.4%.

The good news…

… Are pretty evident: for the first time renewables beat coal in electricity generation in Germany. This was mainly due to the increase in solar (+7TWh on 2017) and wind (+7 TWh on 2017) generation, while biomass generation remained in line with 2017 and hydropower decreased of more than 3 TWh compared to the previous year.

With a hydro generation more in line with yearly historical average (the long 2018 summer was very dry basically all over Europe), renewables would have surpassed coal & lignite of more than 5 TWh.

Why is this good and important?

Because it shows that Germany is serious in pursuing its own climate targets, and that impressive changes can happen in few years.

And Germany is one of biggest and the most populous European countries, which is one of Paris Agreement party that has set itself the highest climate commitments and is pushing for aiming higher. This positive achievement contributes to the credibility of the EU while setting a good example.

The bad news

… could be a little less evident, but basically it consists in the other side of the coin.

In 2018 renewables in Germany generated almost 219 TWh, of which 157 TWh (72%) from solar and wind, which are highly intermittent and with relevant seasonal differences energy sources.

The non-renewable quota consisted mainly of nuclear (72 TWh), which is a baseload non-flexible generation technology, and coal & lignite (207 TWh), which usually are baseload generations with little flexibility. But electricity systems need flexibility, especially when there is a high, and increasing over time, share of intermittent sources in the mix.

In the German case, the only really flexible generation is represented by natural gas plants, which 2018 electricity output was only 40 TWh (7.4% of the total mix). Biomass is also a flexible generation, but being a renewable (and subsidised) source, its output per MW tends to be stable (and usually it has dispatching priority over fossil fuels).

Furthermore, the increasing share of renewables in Germany, and in particular distributed sources, calls for upgrading and modernising the grid, which is another aspect where Germany is lagging behind

Last but not least: in 2018 38% of electricity generated in Germany, a European country which in 2011 has set itself an ambitious energy transition path, came from the most CO2 intense fossil fuel.

Renewables & coal? Hopefully not for too long!

The renewables & coal pair in the German electricity mix is expected to be just a temporary phase of the “Energiewende”.

The next phase should definitely be coupling the growing share of renewables in Germany with an adequate coal phase-out plan, which should include carefully orchestrated interventions both on the grid and the generation sides of the national power system.

Global Energy Facts will keep its eyes wide open!


  1. Reply

    Paolo Frigerio

    January 8, 2019

    Good morning Giulia. Good analysis! And I also add that there should be another term in the equation. Business sustainability is important too. EU legislation should think to the sustainable costs for renewable energy. Probably this is the reason for the strange mix we have in Germany. And the solution couldn’t be a carbon tax that reduce competitivity of european energy intensive firms. And now the only real way to stabilize an intensive renewable-based grid, is gas or, in the long term, power storage (valuable only for short periods, in my opinion). Bye. Paolo

    • Reply

      Giulia Ardito

      January 14, 2019

      Dear Paolo Frigerio, thanks a lot for your comment. At European level we have probably been missing a comprehensive and climate and energy plan, which should involve in a coordinated way all the different sectors and aspects of the economy and society. In particular the lack of coordination between different polices and targets has been one of the main flaws of the 2020 European climate & energy package. With the 2030 framework and then the so called “winter package” there has been more focus on the governance aspects and in avoiding overlapping/conflicting policies, but there still is a long way ahead.
      A proper carbon tax would probably be the only instrument to take into account the negative externalities of carbon intensive fuels and processes. But of course it would need to be coupled with proper policies to support the transition, in order to face also the socio-economic issues related with the decarbonisation path. In this context we should remember that World Energy Council’s definition of energy sustainability is based on three core dimensions: energy security, energy equity, and environmental sustainability.
      What we see today in Germany has definitely something to do with the shortages of EU and national polices.
      In many economies gas should probably play a more central role that what it does today. And even if in Germany this is not yet totally clear and planned, and increased share of gas in the electricity mix seems to be the most probable option considering the coal and nuclear phase-out plans.
      Thanks again, constructive and interesting comments like your are always very welcome.
      We look forward to hearing from you again!
      Global Energy Facts team