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Back To Black: Dirty Coal Celebrates Comeback In Germany

It’s a real paradox: As a result of Germany’s green energy transition, nuclear power is on its way out, but coal, Germany’s dirtiest resource, has become the most important energy source again. For Germany’s climate budget, this trend is devastating.

Brown coal (lignite) in experiencing a renaissance in Germany. Last year, about a quarter of the electricity generated used this most environmentally adverse resource. Its consumption grew by 3.3 percent. This has made lignite the number one energy supplier. All other energy sources – except for renewable energy sources – saw their market share decline, sometimes dramatically so, according to data by the Working Group on Energy Balances (AGEB).

Thus, Germany’s energy revolution is suffering a serious setback. The Government’s planned energy transition was supposed to, among other things, produce environmentally friendly electricity. It turns out, however, that the power gap, which was created by the shutdown of eight nuclear power stations, will be largely filled by brown coal.

“We have to understand that we cannot phase-out nuclear power and coal power at the same time,” says Claudia Kemfert, energy expert at the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW). Greenpeace energy expert Gerald Neubauer however, calls for a withdrawal by 2030: “From a climate point of view, it is fatal that the most harmful energy source with regards the climate is the biggest beneficiary of the nuclear phase-out.”

For Germany’s climate budget, the trend is devastating. If the weather had remained the same, greenhouse gas emissions would have increased by 0.8 percent in 2011, calculated the AGEB. Only thanks to significantly warmer weather in the past year, CO2 emissions did not increase. Energy consumption decreased by 5.3 percent, but CO2 emissions fell only by 3.9 percent.

“It would be an error to go ahead with the new lignite-fired power plants”

The power suppliers are expecting continued high consumption. “With the agreed phase-out of nuclear power, lignite is gaining in importance,” said Hans-Wilhelm Schiffer, head of science department at RWE. The Group is the largest producer of brown coal power in Germany. Only lignite could simultaneously guarantee security of supply and ensure competitive energy supply, so Schiffer.

Lignite-fired power plants run, much like nuclear power plants, almost around the clock – more than 7,000 hours per year. Solar power, by comparison, produces energy only during 900 hours per year. In addition, the production cost of lignite is comparatively low at around 4 cents per kilowatt hour. A kilowatt hour of renewable energy electricity costs on average four times as much, 18 cents.

Environmental organizations warn that an expansion of coal power will inevitably increase greenhouse gas emissions. “It would be a big mistake to connect new lignite-fired power plants to the grid,” said Elmar Grosse Ruse, an industry expert with the environmental NGO Nabu. The coal industry is currently benefiting from extremely low prices for emissions credits. Furthermore, renewable energy source could fill the gap in the foreseeable future

Worldwide, lignite and hard coal have been gaining in importance again for years. According to the International Energy Agency, nearly 30 percent of global energy demand is met by coal, as much as back in 1970. The worldwide production has increased by more than 60 percent since the turn of the century – three times the rate of oil consumption. In China alone, where four-fifths of the electricity is generated in this way, a new coal-fired power plant is taken into operation every seven to ten days.

Translation Philipp Mueller

Impulse, 6 March 2012