The Energy Challenge German Energy Policy At The Crossroads

By Sebastian Knauer and

Part 2: Jobs vs. the Environment


But the employees of the Bremen Public Services (SWB) don’t want to simply sit back and watch the political poker game. Several hundred employees recently marched noisily into the city center, carrying banners ablaze with the number 500, the number of jobs at risk if the project falls through.

BERLIN - JULY 03: German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Economy Minister Michael Glos after an energy summit in July. Merkel is struggling to find a way to phase out nuclear power by 2020 -- without introducing something even more environmentally damaging.
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BERLIN - JULY 03: German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Economy Minister Michael Glos after an energy summit in July. Merkel is struggling to find a way to phase out nuclear power by 2020 -- without introducing something even more environmentally damaging.

Admittedly, the city-state is hardly in a position to prevent the construction of the plant, even if it will ruin Bremen's CO2 balance for decades. The application must be approved by federal law. The government of Bremen must only approve the withdrawal of water from the Weser River for cooling purposes, and it could drag its feet for a while.

Essent NV, the Netherlands’ largest electricity provider, has been SWB's largest shareholder since 2000. Now the Dutch firm wants to significantly expand its capacity in Germany. It is hardly surprising that SWB has chosen to focus solely on coal, the cheapest form of energy, to make it more competitive. Only a third of the electricity the company plans to produce in the new plant will be sold Bremen; the majority will flow to customers elsewhere in Germany.

Essent hopes to merge with the number two electricity provider in the Netherlands, the Amsterdam-based company Nuon, which is currently pushing its way onto the German market with advertising campaigns like "Yummy Electricity" ("Lekker Strom"). Nuon is also wooing customers away from German providers by offering "nuclear-free electricity" at attractive rates—electricity that will be produced in coal-burning power plants in the future.

The companies are particularly attracted to locations along the coast, because they provide a variety of transport options. The firms plan to build plants not just in Hamburg or Bremen, but also in Kiel, Stade and Brunsbüttel on the other side of the Elbe River (see graphic).

Lower Saxony’s economic minister Walter Hirche, who is a member of the business-friendly Free Democrat Party (FDP), sees mainly the positive aspects of the coastal construction boom triggered by the electricity providers. Being by the sea is an advantage of location, he believes, one that increases the likelihood of major investments and enhances job creation.

Green Renaissance, Certain Death

Of course, local residents are not always pleased. Resistance is developing even in Lower Saxony's conservative Emsland district, where the Christian Democrat Union (CDU) sometimes gets as much as 70 percent of the vote in regional elections. The district has been buzzing ever since early June, when the Swiss company BKW FMB Energy Ltd. announced plans to construct a 900 megawatt power plant with a 150-meter (492-foot) cooling tower by 2013. The Green Party, which is otherwise hardly noticed in the area, managed to collect more than 2,500 signatures in just a few days.

Nikolaus Schütte zur Wick, the Green Party’s leader in the district assembly, is optimistic that the construction plans could be stopped. "There will be regional elections in Lower Saxony in early 2008. I don't think the CDU will push through the project against the will of the residents."

The German branch of Friends of the Earth, Bund für Umwelt und Naturschutz Deutschland (BUND), hopes so, too. The organization supports anti-nuclear citizens' action groups across Germany. Following the Berlin energy summit earlier this month, its director, Angelika Zahrnt, railed, "Anyone building new coal-burning power plants cannot be seriously concerned about climate protection."

The city council of Wiesbaden has demanded a moratorium on the construction of a coal-burning power plant in the neighboring city of Mainz. Forty-nine professors—including Paul Crutzen, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist from Mainz–-are protesting against the pollutant-belching power plant.

Many scientists are also distrustful of the electricity industry, which has promised that the old technology will be modernized and that carbon dioxide will be filtered out of emissions and deposited in the sea or in mining shafts in the future.

But so-called Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology is not just expensive -- it won't be ready for mass-production until 2020 at the earliest. Vattenfall is building the world's first pilot power plant with CO2 filtering capabilities in the German state of Brandenburg, but it only has the capacity of a large wind power plant.

The CO2 will be pumped some 800 meters into the ground. Beginning this fall, research will be conducted into how the gas behaves underground. Russian natural gas was already deposited for decades beneath the rock layers under the town of Ketzin. But the carbon dioxide could dangerous if it leaks. When CO2 saturates the breathing air by more than five percent, it becomes difficult for humans to survive. From eight percent onward, the invisible poison causes certain death.

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