Black Future The World's Ever-Increasing Hunger for Coal

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Part 3: The Impending Energy Gap


In many places, energy companies want to modernize old lignite power plants or build new black coal power plants. Opponents of such schemes are protesting everywhere, and they have been surprisingly successful. The utilities have already abandoned or postponed a dozen projects, sometimes because of questions surrounding profitability, but often as a result of local residents' objections.

The industry is already warning of a potential power supply gap if further projects are torpedoed. The German Energy Agency estimates that by 2020 the country will lack about 13,000 megawatts in power generation capacity, which corresponds to about 10 large coal-fired power plants. "Things are getting tight," says Schmitz, who warns that it is becoming more and more difficult to guarantee the country's electricity supply.

Coal critics counter that the supposed power supply gap is an invention of the energy industry. The anti-coal movement is led by the so-called Climate Alliance, a group of about 100 organizations, including BUND (the German branch of Friends of the Earth) to the major Christian aid charity Brot für die Welt. The Climate Alliance has two staff members who do nothing else but provide assistance to local citizens' initiatives which are trying to stop energy projects. Any time there is a hearing on the construction of a power plant somewhere in Germany, a member of the Climate Alliance is there, for example at a recent hearing in the northern town of Brunsbüttel, at the mouth of the Elbe River.

Health Concerns

There are plans to build Germany's largest power plant complex for black coal in Brunbüttel, just a few steps away from the old nuclear power plant. Südweststrom (SWS), an alliance of more than 50 municipal utilities, plans to build the first two units. Bettina Morlok, the CEO of SWS, arrived at the hearing with a large entourage.

The hearing was being held to address the issue of expected concentrations of pollutants in the air. Morlok had brought along an expert on environmental medicine from Giessen in central Germany to testify. The professor assured his audience that everything would be fine, and that nothing would really change for local residents. Many audience members shook their heads in disbelief.

"It sounds as if it's whipped cream that will be coming out of the plant's chimneys," one citizen said derisively. An apple farmer expressed his concern that fine dust would rain down on his fruit in the future. One mother explained how her daughter suffered from respiratory infections. "What will happen to her when we have the coal-fired power plants?"

Local residents are uneasy. Some have had past experiences in protests against the energy industry, such as those directed against nuclear power plants in Brunsbüttel and nearby Brokdorf three decades ago. At that time, the hearings were accompanied by police officers with dogs, says Karsten Hinrichsen, a retired meteorologist from Brokdorf. The resistance movement, he says, was more radical, more passionate and more leftist. "Today we take a more matter-of-fact, bourgeois approach," says the veteran activist. Perhaps this is because today's anti-coal movement cuts across all social classes, from doctors to farmers and church ministers to scientists.

More Cooperative

But their adversaries also behave differently today. They are smarter, more open and more cooperative. "We take this very seriously," says SWS CEO Morlok. After all, the SWS alliance of municipal utilities also includes Tübingen, a city with a Green Party mayor.

Morlok listens attentively as one local, who suffer from asthma, talks about her fears. "I can understand people's concerns very well," Morlok insists. Naturally that won't stop her from building the power plant the minute the authorities have issued the necessary permits.

Brunsbüttel is seen as an ideal location for a coal-fired power plant. Thanks to the Elbe River, the plants don't even need their own cooling tower, because the tide simply carries the heated water out to sea. And even the largest coal ships from abroad can unload their cargoes there, which would comprise between four and five million tons a year.

Unlike lignite, domestic black coal only plays a secondary role for German utilities today. They are buying more and more of the material abroad, mainly in Russia, but also in Colombia, which is already the world's fourth-largest coal exporter, and Australia.

Mining companies like BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto, Xstrata and Peabody Energy are outbidding one another for licenses to extract coal in the best production areas. They are scattered around the entire globe, for example, in Australia's Hunter Valley, in the Powder River Basin in the US state of Wyoming, and on the eastern coast of Kalimantan, one of Indonesia's two main islands. In places like these, the coal seams are readily accessible, mining is cheap and labor costs are usually low.

Nevertheless, only one in seven tons of coal enters the global trade. The biggest coal-producing countries need most of the fuel themselves. In China, in particular, the coal industry is in full swing.

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