Germany clings to coal amid energy crisis

Once committed to phasing out coal by 2030, Germany now sees it as an important source of fuel amid an energy crisis caused by the Ukraine conflict.

Bernard Vendt, the director of a power plant, stands on the railing outside a chimney towering over the company’s chemical compound. Outside this area is a waterway that connects the factories to their main source of energy.

“Over there is our harbour,” Vendt said, pointing into the distance. “You see the yellow crane over there? That’s where the coal ships docked.”

The coal-fired power station was one of several that Germany was due to close by the end of the year, as Berlin pledged to phase out coal by the end of the decade. But the energy crisis, due to Russia cutting off gas supplies and the lack of quick alternatives, has prompted Germany to be wary of giving up its most reliable source of fossil fuels, but also polluting the environment. heavy school.

Coal at the port of Rheinberg-Orsoy, in Rheinberg, Germany in April 2022.  Photo: Reuters.

Coal at the port of Rheinberg-Orsoy, in Rheinberg, Germany in April 2022. Image: Reuters.

At least 20 coal-fired power plants across Germany are being revived or closed due to be delayed to ensure the European country has enough energy to weather the winter.

For Evonik, the company that runs Vendt’s power plant, burning coal means the business remains fully operational. But Heiko Mennerich, the company’s head of energy, says it’s expensive.

“Evonik is working very hard to secure an energy supply for this plant and for the whole of Germany. No energy, no electricity, no hot water in winter is a much more serious problem,” Mennerich said. .

He said maintaining global competitiveness will be very difficult for Evonik when coal prices in Germany are very high, rising from $64 per tonne in early 2021 to nearly $400 this summer.

“If we compare energy prices in Europe with those in the US, we are not competitive enough. So I fear what will happen to the European industry if we have to buy high-priced energy in the short term. long time,” he said.

The German central bank recently predicted a large drop in the country’s economic output, mainly due to the energy crisis.

In another part of Germany’s industrial heartland, a coal power plant near Dortmund run by utility company Steag is running turbines at full speed, generating enough energy to power more than 1 3 million houses.

Steag had planned to close five of six coal-fired power plants this year, including the one near Dortmund. However, the German government extended their license by two years, while also imposing a profit cap on Steag and other utility companies. These measures help Steag continue to generate energy for 3% of German households.

“It’s not a bad situation economically. The government restricts our energy income, but it’s still very good compared to two years ago when we faced a phased out policy. coal,” said Daniel Mühlenfeld, a spokesman for Steag.

Steag’s income from burning more coal will be used to build more wind turbines and solar panels, but environmentalists fear the German government has not done its best to ensure that.

Yet even Germany’s most staunch environmentalists admit that coal is the fastest and most cost-effective solution to Germany’s energy crisis.

“We can understand the government is restarting Germany’s coal power plants, but with one precondition: because coal is destroying the environment we will not accept any additional CO2 emissions. without a commitment to saving energy,” said Karsten Smid, a member of Greenpeace.

Smid says the government will need to ensure every tonne of CO2 emitted from coal burning is offset by reducing CO2 emissions from other sectors of the economy.

The problem is that the German government has not yet made such a commitment, according to Smid. Instead, they give the green light to power plants that burn more coal so that Germany and its economy don’t freeze next winter.

The EU's dependence on energy imports.  Click image to see details.

The EU’s dependence on energy imports. Click on the picture to see details.

10 months ago, Jennifer Morgan, as the leader of Greenpeace, once criticized world leaders as “weak” for only committing to phase out coal instead of completely abandoning this polluting fuel source. . When she became Germany’s special envoy for international climate action, she became more cautious, saying polluting fuel was the bitter medicine Germany had to take this winter.

“We are suffering from the war in Ukraine. We need to make sure that our people have enough heat for the winter,” she said.

Thanh Tam (Theo NPR, Fortune)

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