Germany turns to coal as its energy crisis deepens: NPR
DORTMUND, Germany — Power plant manager Bernard Vendt stands on a platform protruding from a chimney, 20 stories above his company’s chemical park. Beyond the park’s menagerie of twisted pipes, scaffolding, and chimneys, there’s a waterway that connects these factories to their power source.
“Over there is our port,” Vendt says, pointing with one hand while the other holds his helmet steady in the gusts of wind. “Do you see the yellow crane moving over there? This is where the coal landed by boat.
The coal’s destination is under Vendt in a massive furnace whose heat will spin turbines and generate enough energy to keep this chemical park running all winter, now supporting over 10,000 jobs.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. This coal-fired power plant is one of several national plants that were to be closed by the end of the year, in order to maintain Germany’s commitment to phase out coal by the end of this year. decade. But with Russia cutting off natural gas deliveries to Europe and no quick options to replace that energy, Germany is cautiously turning to its most reliable and environmentally polluting fossil fuel. At least 20 coal-fired power stations across the country are being revived or extended beyond their shutdown dates to ensure Germany has enough power to get through the winter.
A desperate attempt to keep the business going – and the lights on
For Evonik, the company that runs the Vendt power plant, burning the coal will mean that the company’s business will remain intact. But Heiko Mennerich, the company’s energy manager, says it’s costly.
“Evonik is putting a lot of effort into securing the energy supply for this site and also for Germany,” says Mennerich. “But having no power, no electricity, no steam in the winter is much more serious than this issue.”
He says staying globally competitive will remain difficult for Evonik given the cost of coal in Germany, which has risen from $64 per metric ton at the start of 2021 to nearly $400 this summer.
“If you compare the level of energy prices in Europe with the level of energy prices in the United States, we are suffering from competition,” he says. “So I fear what will happen to European industry if we have this high energy price level for a longer period of time.”
The German central bank recently predicted a clear and widespread decline in the country’s economic output, mainly due to the energy crisis.
Not all dark and dark
In another part of Germany’s industrial heartland, a business expects to thrive.
At a coal-fired power station near Dortmund run by utility company Steag, turbines are running at full speed, producing enough energy to power 1.3 million homes.
Steag had been preparing to close five of its six coal-fired plants this year, including this one, but the government has renewed their licenses for the next two years while capping revenue from Steag and other utilities. Nevertheless, this configuration means that Steag will produce electricity for 3% of German households.
Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images
“Economically, it’s not a bad situation,” says Steag spokesman Daniel Mühlenfeld. “On the one hand, the government will limit our revenues for energy, but on the other hand, looking back two years to 2020, when we were in a position to organize a gradual exit from coal, we had a very demanding situation.”
Even environmental groups agree this might be the best short-term solution.
Steag’s income from burning more coal will be used to build more wind turbines and solar panels, but environmentalists fear the German government is not doing enough to ensure this.
Yet even the country’s most staunch environmentalists admit that coal is the quickest and most cost-effective answer to Germany’s energy crisis.
“We can understand that the government is restarting coal-fired power plants in Germany,” says Karsten Smid of Greenpeace Germany, “but on one precondition: coal destroys the climate. So, in the end, we don’t accept any CO2 emissions additional without commitment. to savings.”
Smid says the government will need to ensure that every tonne of CO2 emitted from burning coal will be offset by reduced emissions elsewhere in the economy.
The problem, says Smid, is that the German government hasn’t promised this. Instead, he gave the green light to operators to burn more coal so that Germany – and its economy – does not freeze over this winter.
Esme Nicholson contributed to this report.