The Energy Challenge German Energy Policy At The Crossroads

As energy companies plan several new coal-burning power plants to replace nuclear reactors, experts warn against the environmental impact. Cleaner technologies are not yet production-ready.

By Sebastian Knauer and


This plant in Boxburg is the first of three new coal plants that will eventually deliver 1900 megawatts of energy, derived from 50,000 tons of coal a day. environmentalists say the costs are too high.
DPA

This plant in Boxburg is the first of three new coal plants that will eventually deliver 1900 megawatts of energy, derived from 50,000 tons of coal a day. environmentalists say the costs are too high.

Hamburg's mayor has two jobs. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel's climate change commissioner, Ole von Beust must make suggestions as to how the country can implement international agreements aimed at reducing the climate-killing gas carbon dioxide.

But as a regional politician, the member of the Christian Democrat Union (CDU) must soon rubber stamp a building permit from energy company Vattenfall AB that directly contradicts these goals. Vattenfall wants to build two coal-burning power plants with a total capacity of more than 1,600 megawatts in the Hanseatic city's port. Conveniently located for the delivery of Russian black coal by large cargo ships, the Moorburg plant would be one of the most modern power plants in Europe.

Vattenfall expects the plant to connect to the electricity grid in 2012. Then, about seven million tons of carbon dioxide will pour from the smokestacks every year—about 40 percent of Hamburg's current level of carbon dioxide emissions from industry, households and power plants. "This is a capitulation of climate policy," complains Fritz Vahrenholt, Hamburg's former environment senator, who has since entered the wind power business.

Beust is not the only one caught in such a predicament. German energy policy is caught on the horns of a dilemma. Chancellor Merkel does not want to scuttle the negotiated elimination of nuclear energy. But at the same time, she insisted during an energy summit in early July that Germany must reduce its CO2 output by 40 percent by 2020.

Phasing out nuclear energy, however, will require the substitution of 20 gigawatts of electricity production, says Peter Poppe, a Vattenfall spokesman. An additional 20 gigawatts will be necessary, he adds, as obsolete coal-burning, natural gas or oil-burning power plants go offline.

While politicians like Economic Minister Michael Glos and Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel debate how they'll fill the gap, energy companies are already taking action. Unable to rely on nuclear energy and skeptical of the potential capacity of alternative energy sources, they have chosen instead to go retro. From cities like Stade in northern Germany to Karlsruhe in the south, power companies want to both build 30 new coal-burning power plants and modernize several older plants, even though brown and black coal are the worst energy sources in terms of pollutants, accounting for about 40 percent of CO2.

If the power companies succeed, this share will soon increase in Germany. A technological device that filters CO2 from emissions is still a long way from large-scale production. "A reliable energy mix cannot be guaranteed without further construction of coal-burning power plants," says Werner Brinker, CEO of energy company EWE AG in Oldenburg. Neither petroleum ("crisis-prone"), nor natural gas from Russia ("politically risky") or uranium ("limited availability") can replace coal, Brinker says.

And there is plenty of coal. Known deposits global will probably last for 220 years at current consumption levels. Coal is also cheap and more evenly distributed than petroleum throughout the world.

Cheap and Plentiful

As nuclear plants are phased out, something has to fill the gap. Politicians are pushing coal -- to the dismay of NIMBY activists and environmentalists.
DER SPIEGEL

As nuclear plants are phased out, something has to fill the gap. Politicians are pushing coal -- to the dismay of NIMBY activists and environmentalists.

German Environment Minister Gabriel has a weak spot for coal: He sees it as a guarantee that there will be adequate fuel for economic growth after nuclear energy is phased out in 2020. Critics complain that as an ambitious member of the Social Democrat Party (SPD), Gabriel sides with the SPD supporters in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, who care more about jobs in the struggling mining sector than the environment. "Gabriel is a coal politician and caught in the climate trap himself," says Jürgen Resch, the director of Deutsche Umwelthilfe, a German non-profit association devoted to environmental protection. Stavros Dimas, European Commissioner for the Environment, recently warned against constructing new power plants as long as reliable CO2 disposal remains elusive.

Still, Gabriel turned away Greenpeace demonstrators who were protesting in front of the chancellery earlier this month: "We need these power plants." It is only a question of nine new plants, he added.

The Federal Environment Agency (UBA), which Gabriel oversees, has come up with different data. According to a new study on coal, the Federal Network Agency for Electricity, Gas, Telecommunications, Post and Railway has received at least 45 applications for the construction of new plants or the conversion of existing ones. In one analysis, the UBA concludes that if built, these plants would keep Germany from achieving its own climate protection goals.

Communities throughout Germany are already demonstrating how resistance to coal-burning power plants could form a new social movement akin to that against nuclear power. The city council of Krefeld, for example, refused to allow the Aachen-based energy group Trianel to build a proposed 750 megawatt coal-burning power plant. Some 3,000 activists recently demonstrated against the construction of a power plant in Mainz. According to the publication “Neue Energie” ("New Energy"), this is, for some, "the beginning of a new movement against coal-burning power plants.”

In Bremen, the proposed construction of a coal-burning plant became the most sensitive aspect of the negotiations over a governing coalition between the SPD and the Green Party. While the Social Democrats are mainly worried about investments and jobs, the ecologically-motivated Green Party wants to prevent the construction of the plant. In order to form the coalition, the parties temporarily shelved the issue.

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