Wind turbines next to a coal-fired plant near Grevenbroich, Germany.
Wind turbines next to a coal-fired power plant operated by RWE near Grevenbroich, Germany.

German coal power share claim is unreliable

Jacob Shteyman June 24, 2022

Brown coal makes up 72 per cent of Germany’s energy production.


False. The figure relates to the mix of a single energy provider in the country. Brown coal actually contributes around a fifth of Germany's energy production.

As Australians shudder under a surge in energy prices during the east coast’s coldest start to winter in decades, critics have seized on the issue to cast doubt on the merits of transitioning to renewable energy.

Stuart Bonds, a failed federal election candidate for the NSW coal-mining seat of Hunter has attempted to show that Germany, a country often seen as leading the way on renewable energy, is actually heavily reliant on coal.

However, this is not the case.

In a Facebook post on June 19, Bonds uses a screenshot of a graphic which appears to show that lignite, also known as brown coal, constitutes 72 per cent of Germany’s energy mix. His caption reads: “At 2am this morning (19 June) Germany was running on 72% brown coal and 15% nuclear.”

But the graph, originally sourced here, only shows the energy production mix of one company – RWE. This is evident in the graph’s title: “Current RWE Energy Mix.”

The graph also shows RWE’s total energy production at the time – 8899 Megawatts (MW). RWE is Germany’s largest electricity producer, however it still only generates a fraction of Germany’s total energy supply.

A spokeswoman for RWE confirmed to RMIT ABC Factcheck that the graph used in the Facebook post only shows energy produced by RWE and “says nothing about the energy mix of Germany as a country”.

According to this graph produced by the German energy market regulator Bundesnetzagentur, Germany’s total energy production at 2am on June 19 was 37,059 MW, of which brown coal contributed 28 per cent and renewables 48 per cent.

RWE’s German energy production mix is skewed towards fossil fuels relative to the market overall due to the company owning a large proportion of the country’s remaining coal power assets.

This disparity between RWE’s energy mix and the makeup of the entire energy market can be seen when comparing to other countries RWE operates in. Switching the location in the RWE graph to Sweden, for example, shows that RWE’s energy generation there is 100 per cent renewable.

Regardless, viewing energy production at a single point in time does not accurately reflect a country’s energy mix as this varies significantly depending on time of day, with renewables making up a much larger proportion of daytime production due to the addition of solar generation.

Average national production figures provide a much more accurate reflection of renewable versus conventional generation. For the entire day of June 19, renewables made up 59.67 per cent of total energy production, according to this graph.

In comparison, brown coal made up 21.49 per cent and nuclear 5.38 per cent.

Longer term data shows that renewable share has not dropped significantly in recent times. For the month of June, renewables contributed 51.3 per cent of energy production compared to conventional 43.4 per cent – of which 23.9 per cent came from brown coal – and nuclear 5.34 per cent.

Compare this to January, the last full month before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, when renewables provided 48.2 per cent and conventional 45.5 per cent – of which 19.4 per cent came from brown coal. Nuclear provided 6.4 per cent.

In June last year renewables made up 46.2 per cent and conventional 41 per cent – with 21.1 per cent from brown coal. Nuclear made up 12.8 per cent.

While overall coal (brown coal and hard coal) has grown as a proportion of non-renewable sources over the past year, it still makes up less than a third of total electricity production. Coal-fired power rose from 28.4 per cent in June 2021 to 31.9 per cent in June 2022 (at the time of writing), as the share of gas and nuclear generation has declined.

Germany has been criticised for becoming over-reliant on Russian gas as it seeks to phase out nuclear power. This has forced the pro-renewables nation to fire up coal power stations to make up for the shortfall in Russian supplies as a result of the war in Ukraine.

The Verdict

The claim that Germany relies on brown coal for 72 per cent of its energy production is false. The claim is based on a graph for a single energy company that has been taken out of context. Germany relies on renewables for about half of its energy production while brown coal contributes around a fifth.

False – The claim is inaccurate.

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