German ‘dirty deal’ on brown coal criticised

A 2015 protest against the use of coal outside Vattenfall's Jänschwalde Power Station in eastern Germany. [Greenpeace Polska/Flickr]

Germany is set to create an emergency pool of reserve power using its brown coal power stations. Reaction has been mixed to the proposal. EURACTIV Germany reports.

More than half a dozen German lignite-fuelled power stations are set to be transferred to an emergency reserve, before subsequently being decommissioned. Environmental organisations have reacted negatively to the plan, calling it a “dirty deal”.

Germany’s Economy and Energy minister, Sigmar Gabriel, has agreed on a roadmap for phasing out brown-coal power with three main energy providers, RWE, Vattenfall and Mibrag. The power plant operators will be paid an average of €230 million a year to remove around 13% of ‘dirty’ capacity, generated from brown coal (lignite).

>>Read: Voluntary efforts not enough to meet two degree climate target, study warns

For consumers, this could mean higher energy bills.

Energy giant RWE, which has five lignite-fired power plants with 300 Mw capacity each, has planned of its own accord to put the majority of this capacity on standby for four years, before phasing it out altogether. Three facilities in North Rhine Westphalia will be affected by the plan. Vattenfall will contribute two 500 Mw sites that are located in Brandenburg.

The IG BCE trade union said that the plan would affect eight sites, with a combined capacity of 2.7 Gw.

Gabriel: on the path toward climate goals

Gabriel defended the scheme, which is yet to be approved by the supervisory boards of the affected companies, saying “this measure is important to us achieving our climate goals and at the same time, ensuring structural upheaval is avoided in the regions concerned”. For workers and companies in the affected regions, it is a “good and viable solution”.

The German government is hoping to reduce CO2 emissions by 40% by 2020, in comparison with their 1990 levels.To achieve this, energy providers will have to contribute.

The IG BCE praised the idea. Its president, Michael Vassiliadis explained that it could mean job cuts without actual layoffs, as workers in the Rhineland and Germany’s east could be offered new opportunities.

>>Read: German nuclear providers to bear phase-out costs

In contrast, the Greens’ deputy leader, Oliver Krischer, accused Gabriel of shelling out billions to provide a coal reserve nobody needs. “Pure and simply, we’re going to be paying billions to RWE, Vattenfall and Mibrag for them to take decrepit power plants offline,” he said.

Eva Bulling-Schröter, an energy expert with Die Linke (the Left Party), complained that the private energy industry’s contribution to fighting climate change has only come about “after strong lobbying for billions in public coal-subsidies”.

Environmental organisations shared a dim view of the proposed plan. “This is a gift to the coal industry that is worth billions, and it’s the consumer who’s going to pay for it,” criticised Greenpeace’s Niklas Schinerl. His colleague, Tina Löffelsend of BUND, spoke of a “dirty deal”, branding it a plan that meant “more money for less environmental protection”.

>>Read: ‘Time is short’ to stop climate change

Nevertheless, Germanwatch at least saw it as a sign that coal power plants will be decommissioned in Germany for environmental reasons.

The energy companies provided a markedly different assessment of the plan. RWE’s CEO Peter Terium spoke about “a deep cut to our company and our employees”. As five of its power stations with a combined capacity of 1.5 Gw will be shutdown, RWE is set to be affected to the greatest extent.

Rainy-day contingency

The first of eight lignite-fired stations will be transferred to the new reserve at the beginning of winter in 2016. The others will be gradually transferred, with the final site to be added by 2019. The “rainy-day fund” of emergency power capacity will provide a backup in case of power shortages and blackouts.

The economic affairs ministry hopes that the plan will be classed as state aid by the EU. The initiative should be brought before the German cabinet in November, with the possibility of it coming into force in the first quarter of 2016.

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