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Germany’s coal revival may threaten its climate goals

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Germany’s coal revival may threaten its climate goals

The power plant in Becksbach, Germany, is stocking up its coal storage in preparation for the resumption of full-time energy production.  (Daniel Etter of The Washington Post)
The power plant in Becksbach, Germany, is stocking up its coal storage in preparation for the resumption of full-time energy production. (Daniel Etter of The Washington Post)
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Bakersbach, Germany — The last coal pit near Bakersbach closed a decade ago, leaving the power plant spewing pollutants and a relic of a dying regional industry.

But now that factory equipment is being repaired and the contractor has retired, manager Michael Lux faces a new prospect: expanding the workforce.

“The hiring feels good,” he said, as he sat down to discuss plans to bring Bakersbach in the southwestern German state of Saarland from “reserve” status to full capacity. By winter, Lux expects to burn at least 100,000 metric tons of coal a month in what some in the industry have dubbed “springtime” for Germany’s coal-fired power plants.

It’s part of a pan-European sprint to ditch Russian gas and get rid of President Vladimir Putin’s energy bottleneck. While the Ukraine war has simultaneously boosted EU competition for renewable energy, fossil fuels remain the fastest solution.

Germany fears enough gas for winter amid summer heatwave

France, Italy, Austria and the Netherlands have all announced plans to restart old coal plants. But nowhere is the plan as extensive as in Germany, which has allowed 21 coal-fired power plants to restart or work past planned shutdown dates for the next two winters.

That means fighting for an industry that is dying in Germany. The country will have to import more coal from producers such as Australia and South Africa, even as those countries face pressure to cut domestic coal burning. A coal recovery could make it harder for Germany to meet its climate goals, some experts have warned.

Horst Haefner points to the coal pile in the Bexbach yard: “Everyone wants to get rid of it, but they can’t live without it.”

Hefner, 70, agreed to retire to work in Becksbach, inspecting the factory machinery he last inspected in 2004. He said it was better than hanging out in the garden as other workers rested in the shade.

With temperatures reaching 91 degrees Fahrenheit, the day was so hot for the region that the local beer garden closed early for a “hot day.” It serves as a reminder of why countries have pledged to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels such as coal – and what risks they face if they fail to do so.

More coal, more emissions

As Putin squeezes gas flowing to Europe — what EU officials say is retaliation for their support for Ukraine — Germany is trying to save energy. It is also urgently looking for an alternative power source. It has few options.

Putin fuels European uncertainty, Gazprom to cut gas supplies to Germany

Adding renewable energy will take time. The new LNG terminal has not yet been completed. The government is considering keeping the last three nuclear plants online beyond a planned year-end shutdown date, but they represent a relatively small portion of the county’s electricity generation.

The German government, including the Greens, has described the coal revival as a painful but necessary move, and has assured it will be temporary.

Germany has also committed to a new target of 80% of its electricity from renewables by 2030 – double its current contribution. It has begun to ease the permitting process for windmills and push ahead with the rollout of renewable energy, which many analysts say has stalled under former Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The government insists the push will help the country stick to its climate goals and stop using coal by 2030.

“If it’s happening in a vacuum and we’re not pairing all the other legislation, then I’d be concerned,” said Ysanne Choksey, policy adviser on fossil fuel transition at climate think tank E3G.

But some experts have raised concerns about a short-term increase in Germany’s emissions — and whether it will be harder for the country to meet its 2030 goal of reducing emissions by at least 65 percent from 1990 levels.

Simon Müller, Germany director of the climate-focused nonprofit Agora Energiewende, said achieving this would require a substantial reduction in electricity sector emissions “as quickly as possible”.

However, Agora estimates that fossil fuel plants that have been restored or allowed to remain open will add between 20 and 30 million tons of greenhouse gases per year, equivalent to about 4 percent of Germany’s total emissions.

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

“It is certain,” he said, “that only a massive rollout of renewable energy and an expansion of the grid will break our dependence on fossil energy imports and put us on track to meet Germany’s 2030 climate goals.”

Is nuclear energy green? France and Germany lead opposing camps.

In Germany last year, due in part to low winds and natural gas prices have risen, hard coal and lignite accounted for 28% of electricity production, resulting in a 4.5% increase in total emissions from the previous year.

To be sure, it wasn’t just Germany that was derailed. Last year was a record year for global coal despite global pledges to cut emissions. As the world emerges from the pandemic and demand for electricity surges, more coal is being used to generate electricity than at any time in history. This year is expected to break the record again.

Claudia Kemfert, head of the energy and environment department at the German Institute for Economic Research, said that even if the government prioritizes climate policy, the red tape that hinders the development of the country’s renewable energy industry has not been sufficiently removed.

“We’re not going to meet our climate goals anytime soon,” Kenvert said.

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

What it takes to revive coal-fired power plants

It is unclear how many of the coal-fired plants now allowed to fully start up will choose to do so this winter. Energy companies will weigh the costs of the necessary investments against the potential profits. The Mehrum plant in Lower Saxony was the first to exit reserve status on Monday, according to the Federal Network Agency.

Managers in Bakersbach say their 40-year-old plant is aiming to return to full-time service, as well as sister plant Weiher, about 14 miles west.

“The responsibility is fully understood,” Lacks said.

Just five years ago, power company Steag tried to close the plants, arguing that they were unprofitable because of cheap natural gas flowing out of Russia. The German government requires them to be included in “grid reserves” – so that they can be called upon to supplement imbalances in the grid when needed, and the cost of running them is paid by the government.

Becksbach burned just 319 hours last year.

Rising again will bring challenges. In addition to keeping factories fully operational, managers must find qualified employees and secure supplies.

Bakersbach was built to burn local coal, but the last hard coal mine in the region closed in 2012. Before the Ukraine war, Russia had been supplying most of the coal imports used by German factories. However, with the EU embargo on Russian coal coming into effect in August, energy companies had to look elsewhere: the Cerrejón mine in South Africa, Australia and Colombia, also known as the “monster” for its poor environmental and safety record And notorious.

To reach inland factories like Bakersbach, coal must be transported hundreds of miles by road or train from the ports of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Antwerp. A contraction in the industry has led to bottlenecks, with coal inventories at European ports reaching their highest level in three years.

Stephan Riezler, head of trade at Steag, said: “The whole market is expecting a decline in coal consumption: ports, rail operators, barge operators.”

An additional problem for other plants that receive coal by barge is the low water level on the Rhine, the logistics artery of German industry, where ships cannot be fully loaded.

The government has now prioritised coal cargoes on rail lines to speed up deliveries – a transport union has warned could have a knock-on effect on public transport.

As it develops, 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 the government needed a “signal” that “we have a five-year outlook to justify recruiting, investing and improving.”

Under the new coal law, plants like Bakersbach planning to return to the market are required to increase their inventories to 180,000 tonnes of coal, which energy companies see as a financial risk.

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

Still, there’s money to be made even if coal prices rise, and managers say it’s just a matter of working out the details.

“We’re going to do everything we can to get all these millions of tons of fuel to power plants,” Bethe said.

Florian Neuhof in Berlin contributed to this report.

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