pollution goals

With German renewable energy surging, when is the best time to exit coal?

renewable energy
Environmentalists want an immediate end to coal, but the government worries about what comes next? Source: Reuters

The use of coal to produce electricity in Germany has dropped dramatically in the last year, but it’s not fast enough for environmentalists. For German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier, who is charged with coordinating the country’s planned exit from coal generation, it’s not just a question of protecting the environment, but ensuring security of supply and making sure electricity costs don’t skyrocket.

Recent figures show that so-called hard coal electricity generation fell by 53.2 percent in the year ending in January, while lignite coal generation dropped by 6.6 percent, At the same time, power generated by wind turbines increased by 89.7 percent in January compared to the same month last year.

As a result of this dramatic change, coal operators are pressing the government to relax its timetable for giving up the use of coal, arguing that the market itself is making renewable energy so attractive that coal-fired plants will become obsolete in the short term.

“Security of supply must be as assured in the future as it is today.”

Peter Altmaier, German Economics Minister

The new German coalition government decided to hand this politically charged football to a special commission composed of industry representatives, labor unions, the federal states, local governments and environmental organizations to decide the date the country should stop using coal to produce electricity.

The coal commission is due to start work this summer and have its work completed by the end of the year. The government will then submit its report to parliament, which is supposed to draft a “coal exit” law in early 2019.

The German government had committed to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2020 and by up to 95 percent in 2050, compared with 1990 levels. The government has acknowledged that these targets will likely not be met on time, prompting environmental groups to call for the coal commission to complete its work sooner.

The environmental organization WWF, for example, said that Germany had to “get rid of coal as quickly as possible.” The coal commission’s mission must be to protect the environment, said WWF Germany chairman Michael Schäfer.

But Franz-Josef Wodopia, managing director of the Association of Coal Importers, says this is not necessary because of the rapidly declining percentage of electricity made from coal. “There is no need for additional policy decisions to speed things up,” he said.

Mr. Altmaier is steering a centrist course. “Security of supply must be as assured in the future as it is today,” he said. “Electricity also has to be affordable, especially for industry.”

Lignite and hard coal together account for about 40 percent of German electricity generation and Mr. Altmaier wants to be sure there are adequate replacements, especially since Germany has also decided to close its nuclear power production at the same time.

Because of the high expense of mining hard coal, which is also known as anthracite, Germany now imports most of this type of coal. Hence, secure supplies become an issue particularly for imports from Russia. Germany also lacks a battery infrastructure to store electricity for the days known as “dark droughts” when wind power and solar power generation are far below normal levels.

Green politicians maintain that enough secure power supply can be obtained from electricity generation in neighboring countries. And, they argue, even if fossil fuel plants are necessary, natural gas generation is far less polluting than coal.

18 p06 Structure of power generation in Germany-01

Klaus Stratmann covers energy policy and politics for Handelsblatt in Berlin. This article was adapted into English by Charles Wallace, an editor for Handelsblatt Global in New York. To contact the authors: stratmann@handelsblatt.com and C.Wallace@extern.handelsblatt.com.

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