Germany’s coal revival could threaten its climate goals

The Bexbach power plant in Germany is supplying its coal depot in preparation for the return to full-time energy production.  (Daniel Etter for the Washington Post)
The Bexbach power plant in Germany is supplying its coal depot in preparation for the return to full-time energy production. (Daniel Etter for the Washington Post)


BEXBACH, Germany – The last coal pits around Bexbach closed a decade ago, leaving the power station billowing with plumes of pollutants like a relic of a dying regional industry.

But now the plant’s equipment is being repaired, contractors are coming out of retirement, and manager Michael Lux is faced with a new prospect: increasing the workforce.

“It’s a good feeling to hire,” he said, as he sat down to discuss transition plans for Bexbach, in the southwestern German state of Saarland, the “reserve” status to its full capacity. By winter, Lux expects to burn a minimum of 100,000 metric tons of coal per month, in what some in the industry have dubbed a “springtime” for coal-fired power plants in Germany.

It’s part of a pan-European race to ditch Russian natural gas and escape President Vladimir Putin’s energy stranglehold. While the war in Ukraine has simultaneously accelerated the European Union’s race for renewable energy, fossil fuels still offer the fastest solution.

Amid summer heatwave, Germany worries about having enough gas for winter

France, Italy, Austria and the Netherlands have all announced their intention to reactivate old coal-fired power stations. But nowhere are the plans more extensive than in Germany, which allows 21 coal-fired power stations to restart or operate beyond scheduled shutdown dates for the next two winters.

This means a scramble for an industry that is in its death throes in Germany. The country will have to import more coal from producers such as Australia and South Africa, even as those countries come under pressure to reduce coal burning at home. And some experts warn that the coal stimulus could make it harder for Germany to meet its climate targets.

Horst Haefner pointed to the heaps of coal in the Bexbach storage yard: “Everyone wants to get rid of it, but they can’t do without it.”

Haefner, 70, has agreed to come out of retirement to work in Bexbach, checking out machinery at the factory he last inspected in 2004. It’s better than tinkering in the garden, he said. he said, as other workers took a break in the shade.

With temperatures reaching 91 degrees Fahrenheit, the day was so unusually hot for the area that the local beer garden closed early for a “heat day”. It was a reminder of why countries have pledged to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels such as coal – and what’s at stake if they don’t.

More coal, more emissions

As Putin pressures natural gas flows to Europe – in what EU officials claim is retaliation for their support for Ukraine – Germany is trying to conserve energy. It is also urgently looking for alternative energy sources. And he has few options.

Russia’s Gazprom to cut gas to Germany as Putin stokes uncertainty in Europe

The rise of renewable energy takes time. The new liquefied natural gas terminals are not yet complete. The government plans to keep the last three nuclear plants online beyond their planned year-end shutdown date, but these account for a relatively small share of the county’s power generation.

The German government, which includes the Greens in its coalition, has described the coal revival as a painful but necessary decision – and assures that it will be temporary.

Germany has simultaneously pledged to reach a new target of 80% of electricity coming from renewable sources by 2030, double the current contribution. He has started to ease the permitting process for wind turbines and boost the deployment of renewable energy which many analysts say has stalled under former Chancellor Angela Merkel.

This push, the government says, will help the country meet its climate targets and end the use of coal by 2030.

“If it happened in a vacuum and we didn’t have all this other legislation paired with it, then I would be concerned,” said Ysanne Choksey, policy adviser for the fossil fuel transition at E3G, a climate think tank. .

But some experts worry about the near-term increase in emissions for Germany – and wonder if it will be harder for the country to meet that 2030 target: to cut emissions by at least 65% per compared to 1990 levels.

To achieve this, emissions from the electricity sector must be reduced “substantially and as soon as possible”, said Simon Müller, German director of Agora Energiewende, a climate-focused nonprofit.

Yet Agora estimates that fossil-fuel power plants that have been restarted or allowed to remain open will add between 20 and 30 million tonnes of greenhouse gases per year, equivalent to around 4% of Germany’s total emissions. .

Whether Germany will exceed its budget of 257 million tonnes of carbon emissions for the electricity sector this year remains uncertain, Müller said.

“What is certain”, he said, “is that only a massive deployment of renewable energies and the expansion of the network can break our dependence on imported fossil energy and put us on the right path. to achieve Germany’s climate target for 2030”.

Is nuclear energy green? France and Germany are on opposite sides.

In Germany last year, partly due to weak winds and the already rising price of natural gas, hard coal and lignite accounted for 28% of electricity production, contributing to a 4.5% increase in global emissions compared to the previous year.

Of course, it’s not just Germany that is on the wrong track. Despite global commitments to reduce emissions, last year was a banner year for coal globally. As the world emerged from the pandemic and demand for electricity increased, more coal was burned for power generation than at any other time in history. This year is about to break records again.

Claudia Kemfert, head of the energy and environment department at the German Institute for Economic Research, said that even with a government that has brought climate policy to the fore, bureaucracy that has held back the fuel industry the country’s renewable energy has not been sufficiently phased out.

“We won’t meet short-term climate goals,” Kemfert said.

Relying more on coal is now a “necessary step”, she said. “We are paying the price for 10 years of failed energy policy.”

What it takes to revive a coal plant

It remains unclear how many of the coal plants that are now cleared to fully start will choose to do so this winter. Energy companies will weigh the cost of the necessary investments against the potential benefits. On Monday, the Mehrum plant in Lower Saxony was the first to come out of reserve status, according to the Federal Network Agency.

Bexbach officials say their 40-year-old plant aims to resume full-time service, along with its sister unit, Weiher, about 14 miles to the west.

“Responsibility is fully understood,” Lux said.

Just five years ago, the electricity company Steag tried to close these plants, deeming them unprofitable because cheap gas was arriving from Russia. The German government has asked that they be placed in a ‘grid reserve’ – so that they can be called upon when needed to fill imbalances in the energy grid, with running costs paid by the government.

Bexbach only burned 319 hours last year.

Rising to power brings challenges. In addition to getting factories back to full working order, managers need to find qualified staff and stock up.

Bexbach was built to burn local coal, but the region’s last hard coal mine closed in 2012. Before the war in Ukraine, Russia provided much of the imported coal used in German factories. Yet with the entry into force in August of an EU embargo on Russian coal, energy companies had to look elsewhere: in South Africa, Australia and Colombia’s Cerrejón mine, also known as the name of “the monster” and known for its poor environmental and safety record.

To get to an inland plant like Bexbach, this coal must be transported hundreds of kilometers overland or by train from the ports of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Antwerp. And shrinking industry has led to bottlenecks, with coal stocks at European ports hitting their highest level in three years.

“The whole market expected the decline in coal consumption: ports, rail operators, barge operators,” said Stephan Riezler, head of trading at Steag.

For the other power stations which receive coal by barge, there is an additional problem of the low water level of the Rhine, the logistical artery of German industry, with boats unable to fully load.

The government has now prioritized coal shipments on its railway lines, in a bid to speed up deliveries – which a transport alliance says could have a knock-on effect on public transport.

As it ramps up, the industry is pushing for longer-term guarantees, which the country’s Green Economy Ministry is unlikely to offer.

Alex Bethe, president of the German Coal Importers Association, said a “signal” from the government was needed that “we have a five-year perspective in order to justify the hiring of staff, investments and improvements “.

Under the new coal law, plants like Bexbach that plan to return to the market have been asked to fill their stockpiles to 180,000 tonnes of coal, which energy companies see as a financial risk.

“So we say to the government: this is a wonderful idea, we want to save the country in winter, but what we need is a line of credit,” Riezler said, as he sat down with plant managers to discuss what was needed. to re-enter the market.

Still, even with rising coal prices, there is money to be made, and managers say it’s just a matter of ironing out the details.

“We will do everything in our power to get all those millions of tons to the power plants,” Bethe said.

Florian Neuhof in Berlin contributed to this report.

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