Environmental Costs of Electric Power Generation in Germany

By Paul Gipe

Oy Vey! It appears I’ve been following scientific estimates of the environmental costs from conventional electric power generation for at least 30 years. It’s probably been longer, but I found documentation that I’ve been writing about this controversial topic since at least 1988 when Olav Hohmeyer published his groundbreaking study on the topic for Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute.

Why the topic remains controversial after all these years shouldn’t be a surprise. The results then, as now, clearly show that the environmental costs from fossil-fired generation are of the same magnitude–if not greater–than the cost of the electricity itself. These are costs, mostly for air pollution, that are borne by the public and not the polluter. They are what economists call “external costs” because they’re not included in the price of electricity.

In a rational world, these costs would be explicitly accounted for and fossil fuels would no longer be used. We’d use renewables instead. And therein lies the problem. The incumbents–those mining, transporting, and burning fossil fuels–don’t want these costs included. So they either dismiss these calculations, or, worse, they simply ignore them because they control the levers of power.

Whether futile or not, I continue to write about the subject in the hope that someone, somewhere finds it useful. That’s how I stumbled down the rabbit hole again.

While skimming through an old issue of New Energy (3/2017) I came across an article on climate change and in it was a table on environmental costs from power generation in Germany. I simply wanted to post the table and move on. (As noted, this topic is as old as the hills.) Still, I felt some responsibility to point out what this data means for climate and renewable energy activists.

And it’s these latter-day activists who have forgotten why this data is significant. In their zeal to prove that renewables are worth developing, they continually overemphasize how cheap they’ve become. Everyday there’s some new post on FaceBook about how a bid for wind or solar is cheaper than the last one. It’s as though they’re apologetic that renewable energy costs anything at all. Why, it’s almost “too cheap to meter” you can sense they’re yearning to say.

No matter what the price, no matter how cheap renewables become, you still need policy to insure that incumbents don’t rig the market to favor fossil fuels and nuclear power. That’s as true today as it was three decades ago.

Fossil fuels are killers. We’ve known this for a long time. We should pay what it costs to switch to renewables and we shouldn’t be embarrassed to demand that. It’s the only right thing to do.

With that lengthy introduction, here’s what I found. I’ve converted the costs into current US and Canadian dollars for the benefit of us North Americans. Note that the air pollution costs from renewables are negligible as you would expect.

Environmental costs in the energy and transport sectors: Recommendations by the Federal Environment Agency, August 2013.