Energy transformation?

map-germanyThere are tensions underlying Germany’s energy transition. Brown coal production has expanded at the same time the government decided to transition German energy systems away from nuclear. Germany has a ‘coal conundrum’. How do we explain the recent boom in lignite coal? Is Germany building new brown coal fired power plants to replace nuclear energy?

Many researchers and commentators have argued that the nation is engaged in a ‘dash for coal’ or a ‘coal comeback’. Others say Germany is suffering Europe’s ‘temporary coal fever’, a ‘detour’ from the road to green energy.

German per capita greenhouse gas emissions fell from about 10 to 9.1t in 2007 (see World Bank graph), largely due to energy efficiency measures. Renewable energy has expanded significantly in Germany, substituting market share previously taken up by nuclear. The share of renewable energy has risen fourfold in the last ten years. In 2013 renewable energy met 13% of total energy consumption and 23% of electricity consumption, up from 20.5% in 2011 (see UNEP renewables report).

However, coal continues to be a substantial part of Germany’s domestic energy production. Germany is the world’s largest producer of emissions intensive soft brown coal. Coal-fired power plants currently generate 47% of total electricity used in Germany, and account for approximately a quarter of national greenhouse gas emissions. In 2012 ten new coal-fired power plants were proposed. Lignite (brown coal) energy production in 2013 with 162 billion kilowatt-hours produced, 26 percent of total electricity. This is the highest rate of lignite energy in Germany since 1990.

In order to understand the dynamics of Germany’s brown coal rush, we combine analysis of political economy of Europe’s energy industries, with analysis of national politics and policies, and long term ethnographic observation of the communities affected by coal expansion.

Policy, Politics and Culture

In 2011 the German Parliament passed a package of laws providing for a phase-out of all nuclear power plants by 2022. Known as the ‘German energy transformation’ (Energiewende), these laws set an ambitious target of 35% of total energy use to be provided by renewables by 2020, with 80% by 2050.

Germany would need to burn an extra 3-4 million tonnes of coal a year to meet the shortfall from the nuclear phase-out. At present, renewable energy is meeting the shortfall, however, a policy gap has become evident. Germany does not have policies aimed directly at lignite coal usewhich remains a mainstay for electricity generation. This would be needed especially in the context of a failing EU emissions trading scheme.

Debates over gas as an alternative transition fuel in need of policy support are also ongoing, and over coal carbon capture and storage (CCS) legislation, with continuing legal conflict over property rights where coal is being expanded.

The politics of energy in Germany has been defined by longstanding political divisions over nuclear energy. Anti-nuclear movements have campaigned in Germany since the 1970s. Worries about fossil fuels and climate change are comparatively recent in the debate. As in other parts of Europe and the global North, a climate and energy protest movement is now visible, for instance through ‘Climate Camp’ events held at sites of fossil fuel expansion.


Lignite coal in Lusatia

The Lausitz region in Eastern Germany, close to the Polish border, has been a centre of open-cut brown coal mining for ninety years. There are currently five operating mines in Lusatia, supplying three coal-fired power stations. Both mines and power stations are owned by the state-owned Swedish energy concern Vattenfall, a major player in the European energy market.

Vattenfall is seeking approval to open 5 new open-cut brown coal mines and build new power plants. Vattenfall is a major employer in Lusatia, with 6000 employed in the coal industry; but some local residents whose villages will be relocated if the mines go ahead oppose these plans and environmental organizations such as Greenpeace and the German Climate Alliance, Jänschwalde, have campaigned against it.

In November 2014 Vattenfall announced that it would seek to sell its interests in lignite. The company was divesting from carbon-intensive energy production, as part of a “strategy to improve our CO2 footprint and refocus our portfolio on renewable energy’. The divestment demonstrated the intensifying pressures on coal in the context of climate policy. Once sold, though, the mines are unlikely to close.