German Utilities Still in Love with Brown Coal

February 18, 2014

Trouble in paradise.  Comment thread starts in….3…2…1….

National Geographic:

The German village of Atterwasch is tiny, its single street lined with sturdy brick and stone houses. The village has a single church whose bells peal out at noon each day, a small volunteer fire department, and a cemetery with a special section devoted to German soldiers who died nearby in the closing months of World War II.

Atterwasch may soon be gone.

Vattenfall, a Swedish energy company, hopes to relocate the village and its residents in order to strip-mine the ground underneath for lignite, or “brown coal.”

“They would tear everything down, dig up the cemetery, blow up the church and cut down all the trees,” said Christian Huschga, a screenwriter and father of two who has lived in Atterwasch for more than 30 years.

Billions of tons of brown coal lie buried underneath the Lausitz region, a gently rolling landscape of pine forests, farm fields, and rural villages about 100 miles (161 kilometers) south of Berlin, in what was once East Germany. In the past century, the landscape has been scarred and pitted by strip mines hundreds of feet deep that sprawl over dozens of square miles.

In all, 136 villages in the Lausitz region have been destroyed to make way for massive strip mines since 1934. Most of the destruction took place after World War II, when the communist government depended on brown coal to power its cities and factories. Pollution from the mines and from primitive, dirty, coal-fired power plants was a major issue for the democracy activists whose efforts eventually helped topple the Berlin Wall. When Germany was reunified in 1989, many of the outdated plants were shut down, and locals thought the era of forced resettlement was over.

But brown coal is making an unexpected return. The development has environmentalists worried. Germany is often seen as a model, thanks to its strong push for renewable energy. Politicians here have committed to 80 percent renewable power by 2050, and strong public support and generous subsidies have seen solar and wind power grow dramatically in the past decade. Roughly a quarter of Germany’s electricity today comes from renewable sources; in the United States, just 12 percent does. (See related interactive map: “Four Ways to Look at Global Carbon Footprints.”)

With this commitment to the “Energiewende,” or energy revolution, it’s a mystery to many why villages like Atterwasch are still at risk. “The new mine is planned for 2030 to 2070—a time when coal power plants shouldn’t even exist anymore,” said Huschga. “It’s not right to take away people’s security and future for plans that shouldn’t be.” (See related story: “As U.S. Cleans Its Energy Mix, It Ships Coal Problems Abroad.”)

A Revolution in Trouble

Unfortunately for Atterwasch and similar towns, experts say Germany’s energy revolution is in danger—and more coal could indeed be on its way. In 2012, newly opened coal-fired power plants added 2,743 megawatts to the country’s grid. (See related quiz: “What You Don’t Know About Electricity.”) Germany is the world’s largest producer of brown coal, and 2013 was the biggest year for lignite-fired energy production in the country since 1990, with 162 billion kilowatt-hours produced, or about 26 percent of Germany’s total electricity.

The lignite boom is not limited to the former East Germany. In the Rhineland region in the west, the village of Immerath has recently been made into a ghost town to make way for expansion of German utility RWE’s lignite-mining operations. But in Lausitz, the big brown coal player is Vattenfall, whose name means “waterfall,” a utility wholly owned by the Swedish government that is Germany’s third-largest power producer. The nonprofit KlimaAllianz says that Vattenfall’s plans for strip-mining lignite in the Lausitz region could force relocation of 10,000 people in several towns. (See related, “Poland Hosts Climate Talks, While Boosting Coal Industry.”)

Some blame the return of coal on the imminent end of Germany’s nuclear power industry. In 2002, politicians decided to shut down Germany’s nuclear plants by 2022. Chancellor Angela Merkel backed away from the move when she was elected in 2005, citing climate change and economic concerns. But in 2011, in the wake of the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant, the German government reversed course and put the nuclear plants back on the chopping block. (See related, “One Year After Fukushima, Japan Faces Shortages of Energy, Trust.”)

That will leave a hole in the country’s energy supply that renewables can’t quickly fill, meaning fossil fuels will continue to be part of the German energy mix for a while longer. Since coal is the most greenhouse-gas-intensive fuel, coal’s comeback could set back Germany’s efforts to combat climate change.  (See related “Quiz: What You Don’t Know About Climate Change Science.”) Environmentalists are especially worried about the growing reliance on lignite, the lowest grade of coal with the highest carbon dioxide emissions per kilowatt-hour produced. Brown coal also is cheap coal, increasing its appeal at a time when high energy costs are roiling Germany.

Yet those in Atterwasch, and environmentalists elsewhere, blame not nuclear’s pending demise but brown coal’s political clout in the region and around Germany. Because of the way Europe’s energy market works, brown coal remains much cheaper here than natural gas, an alternative that produces lower carbon dioxide emissions. While nuclear energy indeed has declined in Germany 10 percent since 2011, natural gas power is down 23 percent. Coal power is up 9 percent, and electricity production overall is up 3 percent.

The plans to plow Atterwasch under, and relocate its 900 people, in fact, have been in the works since 2007, before Fukushima sealed the fate of Germany’s nuclear power industry. “The connection between the nuclear phase-out and the phase-out of coal is not there,” said Stefan Schurig, climate and energy department director at Hamburg’s World Future Council, a think tank devoted to sustainability issues. “The resistance of the coal industry is massive.”

More at the link.

19 Responses to “German Utilities Still in Love with Brown Coal”

  1. If the coal industry have their way, Germany will become one huge hole in the earth and the ground will end up in the atmosphere.

    • Indeed.  If you don’t believe that even the Greens have de-carbonization well behind other demands, look at the Energiewende’s priorities list yourself; you don’t get any unambiguous anti-GHG measures until point (D).

      All this, because people believe that tsunamis are a threat on the Danube and Rhine.  Un-freaking-real.

      • bws989 Says:

        The first point of the first section says: “Fighting climate change”. What else do you think it means but reduce GHG emissions?!

        You think the Germans turned off some of their old nukes because they fear tsunamis up the Rhine? Stick to poetry!

        Here’s the reality of Germany’s growing success: German electricity supply 2007 – 2013: coal down 11 TWh; gas down 12 TWh; nukes down 44 TWh; renewables up 59 TWh.

        • He’s just a troll. I just commented on another post about the same error. See what I mean? No shame. No mercy. No memory? I think not. He knows it. He spouts the same thing no matter how many times it’s debunked. Another clue- it’s all about conspiracy. And motive. And them. Whoever ” they ” are. But thanks for being the one to contradict him. I’m tired of doing it. Maybe I should ignore him. Everyone else is.

          • Just because I haven’t found the time to debunk your claim yet doesn’t mean you’re right.

          • Click on “Policies”, it has the list in the exact order I quoted it.  The objectives under “Why the Energiewende” do not align with the policies, which was my point.  YOU are the liar, Arcus.

          • bws989 Says:

            Common troll, shill, or just confused – we still need to debunk the lies and propaganda that wash around every climate / energy thread if we hope to end the toxic fossil-nuke cartel.

            But I have sympathy for your frustration at ‘people’ like this. Keep fighting the good fight!

        • Here’s the reality of Germany’s growing success: German electricity supply 2007 – 2013: coal down 11 TWh; gas down 12 TWh; nukes down 44 TWh; renewables up 59 TWh.

          That’s generation.  What about CO2 emissions?  A generator can sit on the grid, idling, producing no net power, and still burn a lot of fuel and emit a lot of CO2.  That is what any “fast-ramping” combustion-driven generator HAS to do when it’s used to offset other variable sources.  The return (in reduced carbon emissions) of each increment of variable renewables (more or less, anything but hydro or geothermal) declines fairly rapidly and has fallen by more than half by 40% penetration.

          Germany’s carbon emissions went up in 2012, despite the lower generation from fossil fuels.  Some of this is due to substitution of cheaper coal for expensive Russian gas, but the loss of nuclear generation is certainly a factor.  This leads to 2 questions, one factual, one policy:

          1.)  What would carbon emissions have been WITHOUT the slash to nuclear capacity?
          2.)  Which was the right thing to do for the environment:  cut nuclear first, or cut carbon first?

          (I’m getting very annoyed with the bug that’s crashed my tag manager, I know I bookmarked better references than the one I have here but I can’t find them by title alone.)

          • BeWillStill Says:

            > “Germany’s carbon emissions went up in 2012”

            Denier logic – look at short term fluctuations and ignore long term trend.

            Germany’s CO2 emissions are falling with each kW of renewable energy deployed.

        • stinkpot shoots mouth off first then checks references – but all his detractors lie. riiiigghht.

  2. dumboldguy Says:

    Canada has its tar sands, why not F*** up Germany with lignite? This is actually unbelievable—-at least the part of Canada they’re destroying is “way over in the corner” and not densely populated. This is like strip mining Manhattan. And Lignite is dirty stuff, too—-in all respects.

    The pro-lignite Germans in this video clip are the personification of the slowly boiling human frog. Robert Wilson at Carbon Counter said:

    “It is one of the finest achievements in public relations in history. Germany has managed to be praised by environmentalists more than any other developed nation and yet is building more coal plants than more or less any other developed country. If China is watching on they should take note. The easy way to receive the adulation of Western Greens is to put up a stack of solar panels, and to just keeping building coal plants as before. Just think of the headlines: “China gets 50% of its electricity from solar power.” The green adulation will be remarkable, yet the carbon emissions will keep soaring.

    (Add windmills to the deception—the Germans did)

  3. indy222 Says:

    This is OT, but definitely worth a Sinclair heads up – yesterday in PNAS is a paper by Eisenman et al. (Scripps) using satellite data to quantify the darkening of the Arctic due to ice melt – it’s worse than we thought. Here’s a non-technical article announcing it. Comment by Jason Box as well.

  4. German utilities are still (again!) in bed with German government. Vice-chancellor and “economy and energy” minister Sigmar Gabriel is still as clueless (or corrupted) as he was when James Hansen (plus Schellnhuber and Rahmstorf) visited the then environmental minister Gabriel in 2008.

    E.g. Vattenfall Mining is exempt from the “EEG Umlage”, i.e. the apportionment of renewable energy costs shared by ordinary consumers. This exemption was once meant for energy hungry business in international competition – which Vattenfall’s brown coal mining clearly shouldn’t be eligible to. The mining operations use as much electricity as the city of Cologne, and the EEG Umlage for 2013 would have been some 60 million €. (Source: Deutsche Umwelthilfe.) Not much, actually. But add to that the dysfunctional European CO2 prize, and suddenly a grotesque fuel like wet brown coal gets economic.

    • vierotchka Says:

      Your link doesn’t work. You ought perhaps go back to the article in question and use to shorten it considerably.

      • All time record length. My screen just disappeared. 🙂 just link to gap minder and give instructions on the settings. It’s embedding too much in the URL.

      • redskylite Says:

        Sorry for the excessive url guys – I’ve used tinyurl – so hopefully this will work, with the interesting tool, which was used on a Penn State learning course that I’m taking online.

        • Don’t be too hard on yourself.. The reply indentation still eludes me sometimes.. Denmark has been wind heaven for some time. I like them. I am rooting for Scotland, too, with similar aspirations. Denmark is sending excess wind to Scandinavia for storage. An ideal complement. Really, we need to forget about nations ,, states, provinces, borders. MISO links to Canada. eRCOT links to Mexico, for example. GW is a world problem, not a nation problem.

  5. petersjazz Says:

    Vattenfall is not only a swedish company, its own by the state. Vattenfall has spent a lot of money to get EU to decrease subsidies for renewable. And has spent some money lobbying for more nuclear in Sweden. I hope for a switch of parlament in the election this fall.

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