Feature Report: Germany and Energy

4 items of content in this feature report

Going in depth


Germany: Energy Balance

As well as being Europe’s most populous country with close to 83 million inhabitants, Germany is also the continent’s largest economy. Its strong industrial base was founded on coal and steelmaking in the 19thcentury, then expanded into multiple sectors that rely heavily on exports, including machine tools, automobiles and chemicals, making German companies constantly concerned about remaining competitive. For the last 20 years, the energy sector has been the focus of assertive public policy, referred to as the Energiewende.

French and German anti-nuclear activists take part in the commemoration of the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl and to protest against the nuclear powerplant of Fessenheim, France's oldest nuclear reactor, on the "Europe" bridge between Kehl, southwestern Ge
Driven by hostile public opinion, a number of protests have resulted in nuclear power being phased out of Germany's energy mix.

Germany has embarked on an ambitious energy transition grounded in renewables as it seeks to entirely abandon nuclear powerIn physics, power is the amount of energy supplied by a system per unit time. In simpler terms, power can be viewed as energy output... and reduce its still heavy dependence on coalCoal is ranked by its degree of transformation or maturity, increasing in carbon content from....

Strong Popular Opposition to Nuclear

The debate over nuclear power has greatly influenced Germany’s energy policy. Initially born out of fears of a military conflict during the cold war, the anti-nuclear movement gained momentum following nuclear power plant accidents at Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011. The decision to abandon nuclear power was initially made by a Social Democrat majority government in 2000 and confirmed, in principal, by subsequent Christian Democrat majority governments, although not without hesitation. At the end of 2010, Chancellor Angela Merkel even extended the lifespan of the oldest plants from eight to fourteen years. But three days after the Fukushima accident, she announced the immediate shutdown of seven plants and, on May 30, 2011, confirmed Germany’s definitive phase-out of nuclear power by 2022.

This decision, in addition to the actions on an international scale necessary to limit COemissions, led the German government to establish its energy transition policy, the Energiewende1, which translates literally into the “energy turn”. 

The Energiewende’s Goals

The Energiewende’s overall ambition is to transition to an energy system based on renewables in the second half of this century2. The coalition government formed in February 2018 between the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats even increased the target percentage of renewables in overall electricityForm of energy resulting from the movement of charged particles (electrons) through a conductor... consumption from 50% to 65% by 2030. But there is still a long way to go, with renewables representing only around 33% in 2017.

In terms of greenhouse gases, Germany intends to reduce emissions by 80% to 95% by 2050 compared with 1990 levels, with intermediate reduction targets of 40% by 2020 and 55% by 2030. These goals seem difficult to achieve as things stand, with 2020 levels falling short of the target by five to eight points according to projections by the Germany authorities (see Close-Up: “The Challenges Facing the Energiewende).

Germany has set itself the same goal as France of cutting 50% of final energy consumption by 2050 by implementing energy efficiencyIn economic terms, energy efficiency refers to the efforts made to reduce the energy consumption of a system... measures, especially in housing (see sidebar on the Energiewende’s goals). 

1/3: The portion of German electricity production from renewables in 2017.

Current Energy Mixes

Even though Germany has accelerated the development of renewable energies, the country’s overall energy mixThe range of energy sources of a region. remains more than 80% dominated by fossil fuels(see graphic 1). The highly industrialized economy and number of large-engine vehicles on the road mean that final primary energyAll energy sources that have not undergone any conversion process and remain in their natural state.. consumption in 2017 was largely from fossil fuels, which totaled more than 80%, with 34.6% from oil, 23.7% from natural gas and 22.2% from coal. 

Final Primary Energy Consumption 2017

Graphic 1: Final Primary Energy Concumption 2017 - source AG Energiebilanzen


With regard to electricity generation (see graphic 2), coal, including ligniteRock whose properties are somewhere between peat and coal. It has a carbon content of about 70 to 75%... (brown coal), remained the major source by far in 2017, accounting for 37%, but this percentage has dropped since 2014. The share of renewables is on the rise, amounting to 33.1% in 2017, with sharp growth in wind power. Although on its way out, nuclear still accounted for 11.6% of electricity production, versus nearly 30% in 2000. Natural gas was at 13.1%.

Gross Electricity Generation by Source 2017

Graphic 2: Gross Electricity Generation by Source 2017 - source AG Energiebilanzen


Access to coal is easy due to its great abundance in Germany and low price on the international market (the country imports close to a third of its coal needs, including lignite). However, this resource poses challenges in terms not only of CO2emissions but also of air pollution and general environmental risk. Lignite in particular is poor quality coal extracted from open-pit mines that require vast surface areas. 

Meanwhile, oil and natural gas use, which increased slightly between 2016 and 2017, impacts Germany’s energy independenceThe ability of a country or region to meet all its energy needs without having to import primary or final energy. . Forty percent of the natural gas consumed in Germany in 2017 was imported from Russia, in a particularly difficult geopolitical context4.

Coal still dominated German power production in 2017, with a 37% contribution, although its use has been on the decline since 2014.

The Rise of Renewables

Wind accounts for the majority of renewable energyEnergy sources that are naturally replenished so quickly that they can be considered inexhaustible on a human time scale... in Germany, generating 16.1% of gross electricity production, ahead of biomassIn the energy sector, biomass is defined as all organic matter of plant or animal origin... at 7% and solar photovoltaic (PV) at 6.1% (see graphic 3). These figures are significantly higher than those in France’s power generation mix, where wind and solar PV together account for only 5% and biomass makes a marginal contribution. 

Breakdown of Renewable Energies in Gross Electricity Production

Graphic 3 : Breakdown of Renewable Energies in Gross Electricity Generation 2017 - source AG Energiebilanzen


Solar PV experienced extremely rapid growth between 2010 and 2015 but then stagnated with the reduction of government subsidies. Although the public authorities had great hopes of establishing a solar panelA collection of photovoltaic cells connected by wires and covered by glass or a plastic film that protects the cells in bad weather... industry, competition with manufacturers in Asia, China in particular, put German manufacturers out of business; however, a sizable industry of equipment manufacturers supplying solar panel production plants in Asia persists. The drop in the global price of solar panels was not sufficient to make up for the reduced subsidy5.

Wind power did not face this problem. It developed steadily and the sector now employs close to 100,000 people in turbine manufacturing and management, largely in the northern Bundesländeron the Baltic Sea. OnshoreRefers to land-based oil exploration and production operations, as in "onshore seismic data acquisition" or "onshore drilling". wind turbines have a capacity of close to 50 gigawatts, versus 12 gigawatts in France. OffshoreRefers to sea-based oil exploration and production operations, as in "offshore license" or "offshore drilling". capacity is 4.1 gigawatts and growing rapidly, since wind farms of this type can be equipped with more powerful turbines and winds are more reliable at sea. 

The use of biomass to produce energy is traditionally well established in Germany, both in the domestic sphere and the industrial sector. Burning wood and plant waste and producing biogasA product of the methanation (anaerobic digestion) of organic waste... from household waste and sludge left over from wastewater treatment together account for 80% of heatIn the field of statistical thermodynamics today, heat refers to the transfer of the thermal agitation of the particles making up matter... and cold production and 7% of electricity production in combined cycle power plants. Hydropower is limited by the small number of suitable sites.

The Energiewende’s Goals

The German government has set goals for 2020, 2023 and 20507.

They include:

  • At least 18% of final primary energy consumption from renewable sources by 2020 across all sectors, including transportation. The figure stood at 13.5% in 2014. Objective for 2050: 60%.
  • At least 35% of electricity consumption from renewable sources by 2020. The goal has almost been reached, pushing Germany’s new “grand coalition” to increase its 2030 objective from 50% to 65%. Objective for 2050: at least 80%.
  • A 40% reduction in greenhouse gas (ghg) Gas with physical properties that cause the Earth's atmosphere to warm up. There are a number of naturally occurring greenhouse gases... emissions by 2020 from 1990 levels. Emissions were down 27% in 2014. Objective for 2050: 80% to 90%.
  • A 20% reduction in primary energy consumption by 2020 from 2008 levels due to greater energy efficiency. Consumption was down 8.7% in 2014. Objective for 2050: 50 %.




(1) See the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy website.

(2) German Ministry of Energy

(3) AG Energiebilanzen, 2017 data

(4) The average percentage of Russian gas consumed in the European Union continues to rise, reaching 35% in 2017, despite the E.U.’s stated ambition to reduce this dependence. France’s use of Russian natural gas has also increased but remained lower than the European average, at 14% in 2017.

(5) Franco-German Office for Energy Transition (OFATE) (in French only)

(6) The Federal Republic of Germany is made up of 16 federal states called Bundesländer. Each Landhas its own constitution, elected parliament and government.

(7) See the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy