German coal commission member: If we don’t come up with a roadmap, it’ll be a disaster

Coal power plants Neurath (L) and Niederaussem (R) produce steam near the Hambach opencast mining in the Rhineland during protests prior to the UN Climate Change Conference COP23 in Bonn, Germany, 5 November 2017. [EPA-EFE/PHILIPP GUELLAND]

Ahead of Germany’s coal commission meeting on Tuesday (18 September), one of its members explained to EURACTIV what is behind the meaning of ‘structural economic change’, which the newly appointed institution has to deal with. 

Last June, Berlin appointed a long-awaited commission to define a roadmap for the country’s coal phase-out, with a double mandate: to protect both the climate and jobs.

Officially called the Special Commission on Growth, Structural Economic Change and Employment and dubbed the ‘coal commission’,  it is to submit initial social and economic policy recommendations for coal regions by next October, as well as a final report that is to include a coal-exit date in Germany by the end of the year. 

In this week’s edition of German weekly Der Spiegel, Commission co-chair Ronald Pofalla is quoted as saying that Germany could phase out coal between 2035 and 2038, while putting aside 5 to 7 gigawatts as capacity reserve before 2020.

But the RWE power utility said in a separate statement the 2035 deadline was “unacceptable”.

Germany launches coal commission in a bid to protect climate and jobs

After being postponed three times, Germany’s government has appointed the long-awaited commission which is to define a roadmap for the country’s coal phase-out. It will have a double mandate: to protect both the climate and jobs.

Reiner Priggen, member of the coal commission, head of the renewable energy association in NRW and a Green Party member, spoke to Claire Stam.

Can you describe the current labour situation of the coal workers in Germany?   

A massive structural change in North-Rhine Westphalia [western Germany)] has already been taking place in the past decades [see background for examples] and we are now seeing the end of Germany’s last two hard coal mines, in Bottrop and Ibbenbüren, both in North-Rhine Westphalia. The official final shift is scheduled for 21 December. In the 1950s, there once were 600,000 miners in former West Germany, now there are about 9,000 left in North-Rhine Westphalia. For a long time, Germany has subsidised hard coal mining because it was not competitive in a bid to protect miners jobs. 

The situation is more difficult in the Lusatia region (eastern part of Germany) than in North-Rhine Westphalia. There, the number of jobs in mining fell from around 100,000 to 8,000. Despite efforts at regeneration, many people moved away, retired early or became unemployed. Part of the reason why is that there was enough electricity coming from the western part of the country, so the coal power plants inherited from the former GDR had to be closed because of their inefficiency.

And how can the commission help? 

We are talking about a change of paradigm based on two technological changes: the rise and the expansion of the renewable energy sector alongside the digitalisation of the economy. The latter opens up so many new possibilities, take e-mobility for example.

We need to consider all aspects of the problem, infrastructure for instance. For example, if we improve the railway infrastructure in the Lusatia region, then it would only be an hour train from Berlin and that would make the region more attractive. And we also need to invest in digital infrastructure.

The solutions are there, we now need to integrate them in a roadmap and this is what we are trying to do now, in the coal commission. Its strength lies in its wide range of actors: alongside representatives from the government, civil society, business, and labour unions10 out of Germany’s 16 Länder are also being represented in the commission. 

So, if we don’t manage to come up with a roadmap in that political constellation, then when? It would be a disaster.

Yet, nobody here in the commission believes that we can end coal-fired power production in the next three, four or five years. This is not about a sudden coal exit, the necessary procedures take much too long for that. But it’s also clear that we cannot wait until 2045 and exploit everything that we theoretically could until then.

It is a very difficult task to find compromises because of the sometimes opposite views of the commission’s members. There are members who are much in favour of a rapid phase-out when others are arguing we cannot do it until 15, 20, 25 years.

The Commission is working under extreme pressure. I am currently literally in Berlin every week. We strive to actually come up with proposals under the very tight timeframe set has been for us. 

Do you see the danger that Germany can miss the train as you say? 

The old energy world is defending its monopoly. RWE, E.on, Steag were always against the Energiewende [Germany’s energy transition]. It took about 40 years to finally phase out nuclear power and the old forces are still at work to protect their coal industry. 

In North-Rhine Westphalia, RWE is the biggest problem. Its competitor E.on is almost entirely out of the coal business, except for its hard coal power plant in Datteln that it decided to build in 2007. It should soon be operational, only, the company would be very happy not to have built this power plant as it does not make sense economically anymore. It invested 1,2 billion euros and yet, it can expect no profit because of the operational costs and the rising carbon price on the European trade carbon system (EU ETS). 

RWE is not that far as we can see with the row over the expansion of its lignite mine in Hambach and the clearing of a nearby forest it adamantly wants to implement even though the commission is actually at work to find a way to phase-out coal.

The same applies to the German automobile industry. Electrical vehicles will become cheaper just as electricity produced by renewables has become cheaper. If Germany does not get seriously started, then it will have to import those vehicles and that would of course have a large impact on the national economy.

In Europe, Norway, the Netherlands and France are leading, not to mention Japan and China on the international stage. Yet, just like our coal industry, the German automobile industry has chosen to defend its diesel engine. 

It is worth pointing out that the diesel scandal came into light because of the work of a comparably small NGO. Until that point, the German government trusted the automobile industry to lead its own reliable tests. 

This example shows that political action is needed and that we cannot rely solely on the industry to act.  

German political think tank Heinrich-Böll Stiftung pointed out in a report two examples of structural transformation that have taken place in North-Rhine Westphalia:

The city of Essen has transformed one of the biggest coal industrial sites into a dynamic cultural location with museums for industrial heritage and design. They host numerous events, provide space for artists and a big park where people enjoy walking or even ice skating during winter time. Since 2001, the Zollverein Coal Mine is part of the UNESCO World Heritage and around 1.5 million guests from all over the world come to visit the industrial monument every year.

In neighbouring Dortmund, a former steel plant side was converted into a technology hub where numerous new businesses and science institutions could be established. Another part was transformed into a recreation area called Phoenix with a lake, surrounded by pedestrian and bicycle paths and new residential units. The family-owned company Eickhoff in Bochum represents a success story of business transformation. By realizing the changing market they shifted their former production of coal machines to gear boxes for wind turbines, perfectly using their engineering know-how.

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