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Green Revolution? Germany’s New Coal Boom Reaches Record Level

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

Germany’s energy transition has also been a transition to coal: in 2013, Germany generated more electricity from brown coal (lignite) than in any year since its reunification.

Braunkohlebagger im Tagebau Garzweiler in Nordrhein-Westfalen

A lignite excavator stands at the edge of an open-cast mine in Garzweiler . Photo DPA 

Despite multi-billion subsidies for renewable energy sources, power generation from brown coal (lignite) has climbed to its highest level in Germany since 1990. This has been revealed by preliminary figures by the Working Group on Energy Balance.

In 2013, more than 162 billion kilowatt hours of electricity were generated by lignite-fired power plants – in 1990, when many old power plants were still running in (socialist) Eastern Germany, there were nearly 171 billion kilowatt-hours. This means that although green electricity now accounts for nearly 25 per cent, a further rise in German CO2 emissions is expected. Electricity from brown coal is generated especially in the Rhineland and in the Lausitz.

The Greens have called on the Christian Democrats and the Social Democratic Party to thwart this trend rapidly because it was damaging for climate protection. “Anyone who is serious about climate protection must ensure that fewer and fewer electricity comes from lignite,” said Green politician Bärbel Höhn. “The CO2 emissions require a corresponding price, so that climate-friendly gas power plants can prevail.” She added: “Lignite power plants are, after nuclear power plants, the decisive cash cows of RWE and Co. Thus, even the very old power plants are not switched off.”

Record electricity export

Overall, the increase in lignite production led to a record-high export of electricity of 33 billion kilowatt-hours in 2013. “Germany has exported more electricity than it imports on eight out of ten days in 2013. This is, to a large extent, electricity from lignite and coal power plants,” said electricity market expert Patrick Graichen of the Berlin think tank Agora Energiewende. “The lignite and coal power plants therefore displace gas power plants not only domestically, but also abroad – especially in the Netherlands,” he said. Experts estimate that exporting electricity generated by coal will generate excellent revenues.

The electricity generation in coal-fired power plants rose by 8 billion to more than 124 billion kilowatt hours, while the electricity generation in gas power plants declined by 10 billion to 66 billion kilowatt hours. Thus, it is especially German coal-fired power plants that are replacing the eight nuclear power plants that were shut down, while less CO2-intensive, but more expensive gas-fired power plants are currently barely competitive.

According to preliminary figures, the power generation from lignite has increased again by 0.8 percent compared to last year, said Jochen Diekmann from the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), a member of the AG Energy Balance. Firstly, the price of CO2 allowances in the EU emissions trading scheme is very low. Secondly, in 2012 alone new power generating units with a capacity of 2,743 MW had been added, while old power plants with a capacity of 1,321 megawatts were removed from the grid.

“Energy Transition Paradox”

Energy expert Graichen spoke of the “energy transition paradox”: the development of solar and wind farms, yet rising carbon dioxide-emissions. Around 23.5 billion Euros of subsidies for renewable energy sources were added to electricity prices – a four-person household must expect to pay a green electricity levy of almost 220 Euros this year.

The cause is that you have hardly to pay anything for CO2 emissions certificates, according to Graichen. “The European market for emission rights allowances needs to be reformed urgently to change that.” The amount of emission allowances must be reduced in order to increase the CO2 price, he demands.

Gerald Neubauer of Greenpeace said, directed to the new Economy and Energy minister Sigmar Gabriel (SPD): “He has to stop the shocking coal boom. This is the most serious undesirable development in the energy transition that greatly endangers the German climate protection goals.” Germany is world champion in the production of electricity from lignite. In no other country so much lignite is produced.

“The coal boom threatens Germany’s credibility for climate protection and the energy transition, also internationally.”

Translation Philipp Mueller

Full story (in German)