German energy companies have already lost their fight to keep nuclear power. Now RWE and Vattenfall face a new power struggle, this time over brown coal. Environmentalists have accepted that this is the best option to bridge the energy gap while renewable sources are built up, but power companies are making the same mistake as before in the nuclear debate. They are fighting to use the controversial energy source for as long as possible rather than actively working together on gradually phasing it out.
There are good reasons to extract brown coal, commonly known as lignite. It is the only raw combustible material that Germany has available on a grand scale, with large coal-mining districts in the Rhineland and in Lusatia, an area straddling the German and Polish border. It is not an expensive fuel to extract as the seams lie close to the surface.
It therefore makes sense to extract brown coal in the medium term. No one is demanding the firms immediately exit the fields, either in the Rhine area where RWE is active or Vattenfall in eastern Germany. Brown coal can assume the role of a bridging technology to the green generation of energy, a role that was originally intended for nuclear power.
However, with its high carbon dioxide emissions, brown coal is not a suitable long-term option to aid Germany’s transition to renewable energy. Wind turbines and solar cells are being installed at a very high rate across the country, but it is almost inconceivable that coal chimneys will still be smoking in 2050.
Obviously, some supplementary energy sources are needed to support the weather-dependent renewable power sources. But plants powered by natural gas will take on that role, and until then, enough storage facilities are available.
RWE and Vattenfall should accept this and agree to use brown coal solely as a bridging technology. Old facilities must be adapted to accommodate it, and future surface mining must be planned so that modern plants can generate power for two more decades. The companies should seriously consider whether it is truly necessary to develop new fields.
If the industry actively agrees on such a compromise, this would also set a clear deadline for the end of the use of brown coal; though this may go on longer than if politics alone decides. That is what Germany learned from the dispute about nuclear energy: the attempt to push through maximum demands backfired, and the exit was accelerated, not slowed.
The author is an editor on Handelsblatt’s business and finance desk. He can be reached at: email@example.com