Germany struggles with coal phase-out as COP23 kicks off in Bonn

Coal power plant and wind mills in Neurath, North Rhine-Westphalia. [Pavol Szalai]

Germany’s Neurath coal power plant ranks second in the EU in terms of both installed capacity and CO2 emissions. The newest units of the lignite-powered facility are expected to operate until 2055, illustrating the difficulty of phasing out coal power entirely. EURACTIV Slovakia reports.

A few kilometres away from the North Rhine-Westphalian power plant, there is a spoil heap and lignite mine, which used to be one of Germany’s largest. Now it hosts a test site for a new generation of wind turbines. The region already operates thousands of classic turbines.

This is the German paradox: Despite its much-touted ‘Energiewende’ or energy transition, the country still relies on coal power for much of its electricity needs. In 2013, coal made up about 45% of Germany’s electricity production.

The debate on coal phase-out gained fresh momentum in Germany with the ongoing government coalition talks involving the Greens, the Liberals (FDP) and Angela Merkel’s conservative CDU/CSU.

Germany’s efforts to wean itself off its coal addiction will be further highlighted this week in Bonn, the capital of North Rhine-Westphalia, which is playing host to the United Nation’s annual climate conference, COP23.

Coalition talks

“Germany has been seen for a long time as a model for the energy transition,” says Jürgen Döschner, veteran journalist and energy expert at the public radio WDR.

“But the ‘old model’ opposes it more and more violently,” he told journalists at a press trip funded by the German government’s European Climate Initiative.

According to Döschner, the “old model” mainly refers to companies with assets in coal power. “Coal phase-out is the most crucial point in the coalition talks,” says the German journalist, referring to the three-way negotiation currently taking place between the CDU/CSU, the FDP and the Greens following the September election.

As part of their demands, the Greens have requested a plan to close all coal power plants, making it one of their red lines.

“There will be a coal phase-out plan or there will be no coalition,” Döschner says.

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Climate and energy policy could emerge as a make-or-break topic in Germany’s coalition negotiations, after Sunday’s election result put Angela Merkel’s Conservatives on a path to forming a government with the Liberal and Green parties.

Nuclear precedent

Coal and renewable energies are strange bedfellows in Germany. As operators follow the 2011 decision to phase out nuclear energy and integrate weather-dependent renewables, they see coal as a reliable source to ensure the stability of the electricity grid.

In 2016, 40% of gross power production came from coal, with lignite alone providing 23%. Rhineland-Palatinate, considered a pioneer state in the ‘Energiewende’, imports 30% of its electricity, much of which comes from North Rhine-Westphalia’s coal power stations.

The coal phase-out is also a social issue, with the lignite industry employing about 20,000 people in Germany.

But Döschner believes the process to phase-out coal does have a precedent in Germany – nuclear energy. According to him, the lesson from the nuclear phase-out is that “you have to start discussions with all participants early enough”.

German nuclear damage shows atomic and renewable power are unhappy bedfellows

A Germany nuclear plant was damaged because its operators increased and decreased its output to respond to energy grid fluctuations. The incident supports the theory that nuclear and renewable energy generation are incompatible. EURACTIV’s partner Der Tagesspiegel reports.

The end of nuclear energy for 2022 was initially declared by the German government in 2000. It rolled back the plan in 2010 only to resume it after the Fukushima accident in 2011.

“Energy companies had 22 years to organise the nuclear phase-out. With coal power, we are discussing 2030. It can be managed, if we decide now,” Döschner argues.

According to him, the need for a clear political direction is critical, because it sets the framework for companies and their workers.

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If Germany wants to meet its obligations under the Paris Agreement then it must start phasing out coal as an energy source by the end of the decade, according to a major new study by WWF Germany. EURACTIV Germany reports.

The hard-coal experience

Döschner highlighted that Germany also has experience with the phase-out of hard coal production, pointing out that the last mine will close next year.

The phase-out of hard coal is “generally considered successful as the economic fundamentals in the Ruhr area… have improved markedly – albeit only after years of efforts and billions of euros in support”, Julian Schwartzkoff from think tank E3G wrote in an op-ed for EURACTIV.com.

“This already shows that structural policy should not be pursued with unrealistic expectations. It cannot create a prosperous and diversified economy over night,” he argued.

A coal phase-out in Europe can be planned

Italy just added its name to the list of country’s pledging to phase out coal. A fair energy transition requires significant efforts but there is experience to build on, writes Julian Schwartzkopff.

The Ruhr also provides a useful counter-example of what not to do: The failed effort to revitalise the hard coal industry in the 1970s showed that new jobs supported by government incentives have to be sustainable in the long term. Otherwise, policies will fail.

“Maybe the most important lesson to be learnt from the German experience is to plan the transition out of coal proactively, rather than reacting to unfolding events,” Schwartzkopff said, echoing Döschner’s words.

And indeed, while Germany dithers, other countries are taking resolute action. In late October, Italy’s industry minister said the country would phase out coal power by 2025, in line with the country’s new energy strategy.

Italy eyes a coal-free future with new energy strategy

Italy plans to phase out coal power plants by 2025, the country’s industry minister said during a presentation of a new energy strategy on Tuesday (24 October), joining a growing trend of moving away from coal in the EU.

Plans to phase out coal have also been announced in Portugal, Netherlands and the United Kingdom. This could be proof of Europe’s determination as COP23 kicks off in Bonn.

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This article is part of EURACTIV Slovakia’s coverage of energy innovation ahead of the Central European Energy Conference – SET Plan 2017 taking place in November and December in Bratislava.

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