Starting this week, German hard-coal-fired power stations are restarting operations. They were being phased out because of the hugely detrimental impact they were having on an environment already ravaged by global warming. Germany’s goal is to phase out all coal-generated electricity by 2038
Now, the government is swallowing the bitter pill of allowing them back onto the network. It is hoped that they will replace the gas-fired electricity that currently makes up some 10% of Germany’s overall electricity mix.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz spoke of temporary emergency measures “imposed for a very short period of time that don’t take anything away from our climate targets.”
“What must not happen is that we slide into a global renaissance of fossil energy, and coal in particular,” the chancellor warned.
But at first glance, last year’s global data seems to suggest that is precisely what is happening: never before has the world used so much coal to generate so much electricity. And the International Energy Agency (IEA) says the same pattern of high demand and high production will be repeated this year.
Import ban on Russian coal
Alexander Bethe, chairman of the Board of the Berlin-based Association of Coal Importers, is sure that: “This winter, we will certainly import over 30 million tonnes of hard coal to keep our power stations in operation. That would be 11% up on 2021.”
Before the war in Ukraine, 50% of the coal for Germany’s power stations was imported from Russia. But on April 9, the EU hit Russia with a sales and import ban on coal and oil — but not with immediate effect. Oil will be delivered until the end of the year, but coal shipments may only be delivered and offloaded through August 10.
Finding other suppliers is not the problem, say German coal importers. These include South Africa, Australia, the US, Colombia, and Indonesia, says Alexander Bethe. But these various kinds of coal each have different characteristics and qualities. It’s important to see which mix is the best for the German power stations. And tests are underway.
More difficult perhaps according to Bethe: the transport routes for the coal. The big sea ports like Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Antwerp are booked up. Inland shipping routes taking coal by ship or train from the big ports to the power stations are at their limit. This is also in part due to Germany’s shortage of skilled labor.
The workforce had already been cut back in line with German’s goal of phasing out coal by 2038. Inland waterways were frantically reducing their capacities in line with expectations.
One-third of Germany’s coal imports come up the River Rhine. But at the time of summer drought, the water levels there are so low that ships can only sail at 30% to 40% of their loading capacity.
Coal price hikes
At the beginning of 2021, a tonne of hard coal would go for 64 dollars (€62.8) on the world market. Now the price has risen close to 400 dollars. 7.4 billion tonnes of hard coal were mined last year, half of it in China. But the coal-mining countries meet their own needs first and only 1 billion tonnes are actually traded on the global market.
Given the fact that electricity prices are rising dramatically, there are huge incentives for operators of decommissioned plants to make every effort to get them back on the grid. The first operator to do so was the Mehrum plant in central Germany which belongs to Checz energy concern EPH and had been closed down at the end of 2021. Others say they want to follow suit.
German energy supplier EnBW only wants to keep one plant in operation longer than previously planned. Five other plants that had been turned off for good are too old and out-of-date to be reactivated.
Lignite comeback, too?
But it is not only hard coal-fired power plants that are to be returned to the grid. The German government is also preparing a regulation for the restart of lignite-fired power plants that have already been shut down for the beginning of October. This also affects the Jänschwalde power plant in Brandenburg, where two units have already been switched off to so-called “safety standby.” If they were to be restarted, they could supply as much electricity as a regular nuclear power plant.
But if they were to be restarted now, 13 million cubic meters of water would be needed to drive the steam turbines, says the environmental network Green League. According to the network, this would further exacerbate the water shortage in the Spree River.
Another problem is that the old units do not comply with emissions regulations, and the operator did not consider it necessary to upgrade them in view of the complete shutdown.
Moreover, there is a lack of skilled personnel. The workers have long since been deployed elsewhere.
This article was originally written in German.
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