Farewell to coal and nuclear: where does baseload come from?

Farewell to coal and nuclear: where does baseload come from? Coal fired plant, Mehrum, Germany (source: flickr/ x1klima, creative commons)
Alexander Richter 24 Jan 2022

Geothermal energy has an important role to play as baseload source of energy in the imminent phase out of nuclear and coal power in Germany, so an opinion article by our partner

In a recent article, Karin Jehle of TiefeGeotermie looks into where baseload electricity will come from in times of Germany’s phasing out of nuclear and coal power generation.

Six and a half gigawatts of electricity generation capacity will go off the grid in 2022. In the offer of sustainable energy technologies, geothermal energy must also play an important role in order to become less dependent on imported fossil energies. This issue of “Topic in Focus” of discusses which approaches can be necessary and helpful here.

The nuclear phase-out in Germany is set, even if some European neighbours are still getting drunk on their nuclear plans and want to declare nuclear plants as “sustainable investments”. The question of final storage is still unresolved, the risk of a devastating accident is too great and even in “normal operation” an increased number of cancer cases in the vicinity of nuclear power plants is documented. The true costs of nuclear power are ignored and passed on to the general public in the event of a serious accident, because nuclear energy is uninsurable. This discussion is over, finished, finito!

At the same time, Germany must now phase out coal, which is planned by 2038 but should be brought forward to 2030 at the latest if Germany wants to achieve its climate protection goals.

The last three German nuclear reactors will be taken off the grid by December 31, 2022 – Isar 2, Emsland and Neckarwestheim 2 with a total output of 4,300 megawatts (MW). At the same time, eleven coal-fired power plants will also cease operations – a further 2,130 MW that were awarded the contract for decommissioning in the third round of tenders to phase out coal. That’s good, as it saves the climate several tons of CO2 emissions. But where is the base load energy that these systems have provided so far supposed to come from?

Natural gas is not the solution

Relying on gas power plants now is the wrong strategy. Yes, they can be used flexibly and could potentially generate electricity when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. But a focus on gas means remaining dependent on gas imports. With its commitment to gas, Germany is gambling away its state sovereignty, as current political developments show.

Real independence in energy supply can only come from renewable energies. They are available decentrally and generate added value locally. Since regenerative energies hardly cause any fuel costs after the initial investment in the plant construction, they are a guarantee for stable energy prices.

One thing is clear: the expansion must be quick. In his opening report on climate protection, Germany’s Economics and Climate Minister Robert Habeck presented his plans. By 2030, 80 percent of electricity consumption should come from renewable energies. He estimates the need at 544 to 600 TW hours. This should then be ensured by 100 gigawatts of generation capacity from onshore wind power, 30 GW of offshore wind power and 200 GW of photovoltaics (opening balance sheet on climate protection, page 13).

And what about geothermal energy?

But if you compare the electricity demand with the wind and sun hours, there is a discrepancy: Wind and sun alone will not be enough – we need all renewable energies. Geothermal energy as a source of electricity has not yet appeared in Habeck’s calculations. It is the only regenerative technology that can provide base load electricity and heat at the same time. After all: In the chapter on heat planning (page 30 ff.), geothermal energy is now given a higher priority:

“Deep geothermal energy can deliver high temperatures all year round to supply buildings and can only be used in the first place through heating networks. The funding from the BEW is intended to make the technology, which involves high investment costs and risks, economical. For a climate-neutral heat supply by 2045, the existing potential for geothermal energy must be used much more. It is 10 TWh per year by 2030 and we want to use it as much as possible. This means a tenfold increase in the current heat feed-in from this source.”

But it is precisely in the combination of electricity and heat generation that the music plays in geothermal energy. The guaranteed income from the electricity tariff under the EEG secures the investments and makes geothermal power plants economical. At the same time, the heating networks can be set up. Another treat: converting excess heat into cold, thereby also relieving the climate and the electricity market.

Example Munich: geothermal energy as a natural part of the portfolio

On January 20, Habeck visited Bavaria’s Prime Minister Söder to present his plans for the energy transition and to put pressure on the expansion of wind power. With the 10-H rule of Söder’s predecessor Seehofer, the expansion of wind power has almost come to a complete standstill. There may be no residential buildings within a radius of ten times your own height around a wind turbine. This means that in a densely populated country no new locations can actually be approved.

But Bavaria scores with geothermal energy, as Söder said to the Minister of Economic Affairs, according to Merkur: You just have to respect the regional natural conditions. Water, sun, geothermal energy – in Bavaria, when it comes to climate-friendly energy production, “everywhere is at the forefront, just not with the wind” . The Süddeutsche Zeitung then quotes the prime minister in a more forgiving manner: “We are ready to talk about exceptions.” In principle, the 10-H rule could also be softened, for example in the state forest or in the case of repowering.

Actually, Söder should only have referred to the example of Munich: the local public utilities (SWM) announced in a press release earlier this week that they now generate 90 percent of their electricity consumption from their own regenerative systems. Within just twelve years, they managed to increase the share of green electricity in Munich from five percent to 90 percent.

SWM’s portfolio is diversified in terms of technologies and locations . In Munich and the region, a number of solar systems and hydroelectric power plants, two wind turbines, one biogas and biomass plant each and six geothermal plants generate electricity and heat. In addition, SWM also operates offshore and onshore wind farms throughout Europe, two large solar parks in Bavaria and Saxony and a parabolic trough power plant in Spain.

Also include unconventional approaches

It is important not to play off the various renewable energy sources against each other, but to cleverly combine their advantages. And in view of the urgency of a rapid energy transition, unconventional approaches such as EGS (Enhanced Geothermal Systems) should also be reconsidered.

By increasing the natural permeability of the rock at depth (enhance = increase), horizons can also be opened up that have insufficient or no natural waterways. In an artificially created crack system, the water pressed deep underground can be heated and thus used to generate electricity and heat.

There are a number of plants with this technology that have been running successfully for years, including Soultz-sous-Forets in Alsace . EGS systems have also been successfully built in Cornwall and Helsinki in recent years. The use of this technology or systems with closed circuits significantly expands the geothermal potential and offers the opportunity to make a significant contribution to the base load supply. This increases Germany’s energy sovereignty – without coal, nuclear and also without gas. Because fossil fuels have to be imported for the most part, so money flows to politically insecure producing countries.

Faster approval – higher funding

In order to expand the use of deep geothermal energy at the required pace, faster approval procedures are required, among other things. Above all, this requires an increase in staff in the approval authorities and a streamlining of the approval procedures.

Furthermore, the industry is still waiting for the federal funding for efficient heating networks (BEW) to come into force. This must be equipped with a significantly multiplied funding volume. This also includes risk hedging for geothermal projects, so that the inhibition threshold, especially for public utilities and municipalities as the most important drivers of the energy transition, is reduced.

A serious discussion about utilizing the EGS potential with several demonstration plants in Germany would also be important. All of these are important steps to give deep geothermal energy its due importance in the energy mix of the future. Because with electricity and heat, it supplies energy continuously and thus optimally complements wind and sun.

Source: Our German partner site