Coal Regions Fear Shift to Renewables

Just a little CO2. Source: DPA
Picture Source: DPA
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Burning coal to produce electricity is a major source of CO2 emissions, but Germany has already decided to phase-out nuclear power as part of its energy transition.

  • Facts


    • German want to cut its CO2 emissions, but coal regions fear the economic impact.
    • The German economy ministry calculates the operator of the Jänschwalde brown coal power plant would have to pay up to €160 million in added costs for CO2 certificates annually, starting in 2017.
    • Swedish energy firm Vattenfall wants to sell its German brown coal operations.
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From the coalfields and the capital, opposition to the German government’s shift to renewable energy is growing.

The Ver.di trade union rallied thousands of workers for a three-hour demonstration this week at four power plants run by RWE, Germany’s second largest utility, in North Rhine-Westphalia.

The IG BCE unions and general works council of power company Vattenfall plan similar protests in Lusatia, a mining region in eastern Germany. The action is planned in the town of Jänschwalde in southern Brandenburg, where the Swedish company produces and burns brown coal for electricity.

The impetus for the action is a benchmark paper by the German economics ministry on reorganizing the electricity market.

The 47-page paper, which became public last week, lays out a foundation for planned talks on the Germany’s transition to renewable energy between Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats and their coalition partners the center-left Social Democrats.

But the talks were quickly called off after many politicians in the right-left coalition said they did not accept the paper’s benchmarks.

“There is something that no one wants – that whole regions and industries will become energy transition losers,” said Michael Fuchs, deputy leader of the CDU parliamentary group.

The lawmakers are starting a fight with the government, because the paper used central points already made by coalition leaders. Chancellor Merkel and Sigmar Gabriel, economy minister and head of the SPD, had agreed to begin work on climate protection measures by the end of 2014.

Video: Rainer Baake, Director of Berlin-based think tank Agora Energiewende explains what challenges Germany
is facing to transform its energy system to renwables.

Burning coal is especially damaging to the climate, and must be part of the energy transition equation. Now there are concrete suggestions on the table: Coal-fired power plants that have been running more than 20 years would have to purchase additional CO2-emission certificates beginning in 2017.

Burning coal is especially damaging to the climate, and must be part of the energy transition equation.

If the plan goes ahead, most power plants in the eastern Lusatia region would no longer be able to cover their costs, said Ulrich Freese, an SPD member and member of parliamenet for the eastern German Cottbus-Spree-Neisse district.

In Jänschwalde alone, there are six old 500-megawatt power plants from the East German era. Two more are in Boxberg in the state of Saxony. Vattenfall would have to take 4,000 megawatts from its network, and the need for especially dirty-burning brown coal, or lignite, would drop accordingly, critics say.

In North Rhine-Westphalia, even 8,000-megawatt power plants could become unprofitable.

“Our region needs continuity now and not another break in structure,” said Mr. Freese. “I expect that Mr. Gabriel and Ms. Merkel will stand by their own words from the election campaigns.”

Ms. Merkel had described coal as a bridge technology at her appearances in Cottbus.

“I expect the government will match the benchmark paper with realities,” Mr. Freese said. The government should “refrain from everything that would spell the end of coal before the year 2050.”

Brandenburg’s economy minister, Albrecht Gerber of the SPD, planned to be at the employees meeting at the surface mine in Jänschwalde on Wednesday. The state government fears great losses in Lusatia, where insecurity prevails following the news that Vattenfall’s plans to sell its brown coal operations. Now there are worries that the Swedish company’s mining areas will become even more unattractive and ultimately be closed down completely.

For the Jänschwalde power plant, which joined the grid in 1989, the economics ministry calculates the operator would pay up to €160 million in added costs for CO2 certificates annually, starting in 2017. For the plant at Schwarze Pumpe, which has been in operation since 1997, added costs would go up to €100 million yearly, beginning in 2030.


Brown Coal Produced but not Consumed-01


Energy providers say they can’t make enough money to pay those costs. Also, approved plans for two new surface mines in Brandenburg and Saxony would be void. The state governments fear Lusatia’s entire economy could be thrown off balance.

Dietmar Woidke, the Brandenburg state premier, described the recent benchmarks of the economy ministry as an “ideologically motivated strike against important indigenous energy sources.”

Mr. Gerber said the benchmarks were “dangerous to industrial policies, irresponsible toward energy policy, ineffective for climate policy and devastating for regional economics.”

On Friday, Mr. Gabriel is expected to meet with economy ministers of the affected states. It could be uncomfortable encounter for everyone.


This article first appeared in Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the authors:

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