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Home World News Washington Post World News As Putin puts pressure on gas supplies, Germany reverts to coal

As Putin puts pressure on gas supplies, Germany reverts to coal

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The power plant in Bexbach, Germany, is replenishing its coal storage facility in preparation for a return to full-time energy production.  (Daniel Etter for The Washington Post)
The power plant in Bexbach, Germany, is replenishing its coal storage facility in preparation for a return to full-time energy production. (Daniel Etter for The Washington Post)

Remark

BEXBACH, Germany — The last coal mines around Bexbach closed a decade ago, leaving the power station blowing plumes of pollutants as a remnant of a dying regional industry.

But now plant equipment is being repaired, contractors have retired and manager Michael Lux faces a new prospect: expanding the workforce.

“It’s a good feeling to be hired,” he said, sitting down to discuss plans to bring Bexbach, in the southwestern German state of Saarland, back from “reserve” status to full capacity. By winter, Lux expects to burn at least 100,000 tons of coal per month, in what some in the industry have called a “well” for Germany’s coal-fired power plants.

It is part of a pan-European effort to dump Russian natural gas and escape President Vladimir Putin’s energy stranglehold. While the war in Ukraine has simultaneously boosted the European Union’s race for renewable energy, fossil fuels still offer the fastest solution.

Amid summer heat wave, Germany worries about getting enough gas for winter

France, Italy, Austria and the Netherlands have all announced plans to put old coal-fired power stations back into operation. But nowhere are plans as comprehensive as in Germany, where 21 coal-fired power plants could restart over the next two winters or operate past their scheduled shutdown dates.

That means a race for an industry that has been in the throes of death in Germany. And some experts warn that the coal resurgence could make it harder for the country to meet its climate goals.

Horst Haefner gestured to the coal piles in Bexbach’s warehouse: “Everyone wants to get rid of them, but they can’t live without them.”

Haefner, 70, agreed to retire to work at Bexbach and check the factory machines he last inspected in 2004. Better than scurrying around the yard, he said, while other workers took a break in the shade.

With temperatures reaching 91 degrees Fahrenheit, the day was so unusually warm for the region that the local beer garden closed early for a “heat day.” It was a reminder of why countries have pledged to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels like coal — and what’s at stake if they don’t.

More coal, more emissions

As Putin pressures natural gas flows to Europe – in what EU officials say is retaliation for their support of Ukraine – Germany is trying to conserve energy. It is also urgently looking for alternative energy sources. And it has few options.

Russia’s Gazprom cuts gas to Germany as Putin stirs uncertainty in Europe

Increasing renewable energy takes time. New terminals for liquefied natural gas are not ready yet. The government is considering keeping the last three nuclear plants online after their scheduled closures for the end of the year, but they account for a relatively small portion of the province’s power generation.

The German government, which includes Greens as part of its coalition, has described the coal revival as a painful but necessary step – and assures it will be temporary.

At the same time, Germany has committed to a new target of 80 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2030 – double the current contribution. It has begun to facilitate the permitting process for windmills and boost the renewable energy rollout that many analysts say has stalled under former Chancellor Angela Merkel.

This pressure, the government says, will help the country meet its climate goals and end coal use by 2030.

“If it happened in a vacuum and we hadn’t combined all this other legislation, I’d be concerned,” said Ysanne Choksey, fossil fuel transition policy advisor at E3G, a climate think tank.

But some experts are expressing concern about Germany’s short-term increase in emissions — and whether it will be more difficult for the country to meet that 2030 target of cutting emissions by at least 65 percent from 1990 levels. .

To get there, emissions in the energy sector must be “reduced significantly and as quickly as possible,” says Simon Müller, Germany director of Agora Energiewende, a climate-focused non-profit organization.

Still, Agora estimates that the fossil fuel plants that have been revived or allowed to remain open will add between 20 million and 30 million tons of greenhouse gases annually, equivalent to about 4 percent of Germany’s total emissions.

Whether Germany will exceed its budget of 257 million tons of CO2 emissions for the energy sector this year remains uncertain, Müller said.

“What is certain,” he said, “is that only a massive renewable energy rollout and grid expansion will break our dependence on fossil energy imports and put us on track to meet Germany’s 2030 climate target.”

Is nuclear energy green? France and Germany lead opposing camps.

In Germany, partly due to low winds and the already rising price of natural gas, coal and lignite, last year accounted for 28 percent of electricity production, contributing to a 4.5 percent increase in total emissions from the previous year. year.

Certainly, it is not only Germany that is off the track. Despite global commitments to reduce emissions, last year was a record year for coal worldwide. As the world emerged from the pandemic and demand for power soared, more coal was burned for electricity generation than at any time in history. This year it is about to break records again.

Claudia Kemfert, head of the energy and environment department at the German Institute for Economic Research, said that even with a government that has put climate policy at the forefront, the red tape that has stopped the renewable energy sector in the country is not enough. taken away.

“We will not achieve the climate goals in the short term,” says Kemfert.

Leaning more on coal is now a “necessary step,” she said. “We are paying the price of 10 years of failed energy policies.”

What does it take to revive a coal-fired power plant?

It remains unclear how many of the coal plants that are now allowed to burn fully choose to do so this winter. Energy companies will weigh the costs of necessary investments against potential gains. On Monday, the Mehrum plant in Lower Saxony was the first to come out of reserve status, the Federal Network Agency said.

Managers at Bexbach say their 40-year-old factory is aiming to return to full-time service, along with its sister unit, Weiher, about 22 miles to the west.

“The responsibility is fully understood,” said Lux.

Just five years ago, energy company Steag tried to close these plants and deemed them unprofitable because cheap gas flowed from Russia. The German government has determined that they should be placed in “grid reserve” – ​​so that they can be switched on if necessary to make up for imbalances in the energy grid, with ongoing costs being paid by the government.

Bexbach burned just 319 hours last year.

Scaling up again brings challenges. In addition to getting the factories fully operational, managers must find qualified personnel and bring in supplies.

Bexbach was built to burn local coal, but the area’s last coal mine closed in 2012. Before the war in Ukraine, Russia supplied much of the coal imports used in German factories. But when an EU embargo on Russian coal came into effect in August, energy companies had to look elsewhere: to the Cerrejón mine in South Africa, Australia and Colombia, also known as ‘the monster’ and infamous for its poor state of environmental and safety service.

To get to a domestic factory like Bexbach, that coal has to be transported hundreds of kilometers by land or train from the ports of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Antwerp. And the contraction in industry has led to bottlenecks, with coal stocks in European ports rising to a three-year high.

“The whole market has expected the decline in coal consumption: the ports, the rail operators, the barge operators,” said Stephan Riezler, head of trade at Steag.

For other factories that receive coal by barge, there is an additional problem of low water levels on the Rhine, a logistical artery for German industry, with boats unable to be fully loaded.

The government has now prioritized coal cargo on its rail lines, in an effort to expedite deliveries – which a transport alliance has warned could have a knock-on effect on public transport.

As growth picks up, the industry is pushing for longer-term guarantees, which the country’s Ministry of Green Economy is unlikely to provide.

Alex Bethe, president of the German Coal Importers Association, said there is a need for a “signal” from the government that “we have a five-year perspective to justify hiring staff, making investments and improvements.”

Under the new coal law, plants like Bexbach planning to come back on the market have been asked to replenish their stocks to 180,000 tons of coal, which energy companies say poses a financial risk.

“So we say to the government, this is a great idea, we want to save the country in the winter, but what we need is a line of credit,” Riezler said, sitting down with factory managers to discuss what it would take to to re-enter the market.

But even with coal prices rising, there’s money to be made, and executives say it’s just a matter of smoothing out the details.

“We’ll do everything we can to get all those millions of tons to the power plants,” Bethe said.

Florian Neuhof in Berlin contributed to this report.



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