The past and future of energy collide in Germany. For years, it has been the main European advocate for the energy transition to cleaner sources. On the other hand, it is also one of the top CO2 emitters in the continent. Datteln-4, a coal thermoelectric, is a scandalous example of this discordant route.
Although Germany is officially preparing to end coal in 2038, near Datteln (north of Dortmund) Uniper has connected a new 1.1-GW coal-fired thermoelectric called Datteln-4 to the grid.
Last month, when the plant’s connection to the grid was inaugurated, dozens of protesters displayed a huge banner along the canal underneath the plant. At the same time, a boat filled with coal was going through while the crew mocked and yelled at the protestors.
The image was a symbol of the fight between the two sides of Germany. On one side, there’s the face that stands at the lead of the energy transition. On the other, the leader of the coal industry.
The opposition to Datteln-4 was expected to become the battle cry for the German environmentalist movement. But with the coronavirus pandemic and the imminent recession, the fight against the coal lobby has been tempered.
🇩🇪’s newly adopted #coal exit law means that approx 41 additional plants totalling 23 GW will close by 2030.
— Europe Beyond Coal (@EurBeyondCoal) July 3, 2020
The controversy around Datteln-4 is no surprise. In January, the discussion around the facility’s startup was very intense. Its opening creates the question of how will it amortize in the 18 years ahead.
The government recently approved a draft law for a coal exit. The shutdowns are scheduled for 2038 at the latest. They will be monitored and possibly revised in 2026, 2029, and 2032, if the country were to decarbonize its industry ahead of schedule.
The case of Datteln-4 has put the German ecologist movement on its head and possibly greatly affected the credibility of the government’s decarbonization programs. Today, coal thermoelectric plants still account for a third of Germany’s electricity production.
“It’s a climate crime, what’s happening here,” says Lisa Göldner, a Greenpeace activist involved in the protests against Datteln-4. “I see it as part of our job to send messages of hope. But I’m really frustrated when it comes to this. This feels like a lost battle.”
— Ende Gelände (@Ende__Gelaende) July 10, 2020
A complex transition
When the construction of the Datteln-4 began in 2007, there were no ambitious decarbonization plans like the current ones. However, changes over the past years have not slowed down the project. On the contrary, in the face of lawsuits and protests against the plant, Uniper stated that, due to its recent construction, the plant is more efficient and environmentally respectful. Furthermore, it explained that its plans include closing another five coal plants which emissions are three times higher than the new facility that will replace them.
In this scenario, there should not be much controversy. But the plant’s commissioning has evidenced Germany’s shifting position regarding the energy transition over the past decades.
In 2002, the government of Gerhard Schröder set the first pieces of the Energiewende into motion. Since then, German energy policy has been building on decisions lacking proper planning. An example of this is the abrupt abandonment of nuclear energy after the Fukushima accident. These decisions have led to a dead end.
After yrs of dither & delay 🇩🇪 has finally adopted its late 2038 #coal exit law. Unfortunately it:
❌Fails on the #climatecrisis
🤑Capitulates to the fossil industry
⏰Ignores that coal is in rapid decline
— Europe Beyond Coal (@EurBeyondCoal) July 3, 2020
Environmentalists grow concerned
In this scenario, activists are growing suspicious, as well as many analysts. With the end of the Merkel era, no one knows what may happen in the coming years. Another question is which way the German Christian Democratic Union, greatly strengthened after the management of the coronavirus pandemic, will choose.
With Germany facing the possibility of its worst recession since World War II, public attention has turned away from the German Green Party. Preferences go back to the main parties. Last year, by this time, the Greens were at the top of the polls, with the support of 27% of Germans. The latest Forsa poll showed that support for the party has now dropped to 16%.
German environmentalists hoped that Datteln-4 would become their next “Hambach Forest Moment”, referring to the 50,000 protests they blame for triggering a court ruling against the expansion of a lignite mine into a patch of ancient forests. In addition to fighting Datteln-4, activists are trying to protect several villages that will be demolished in order to extract the coal below them.
They also fear that Datteln-4 may help facilitate the EU’s leniency on coal from central and Eastern Europe.
Nonetheless, there are also significant advances in terms of energy transition. In 2019, 74% of all new installed capacity in the world was renewable. In Europe, Austria and Sweden have announced they will shut down their last thermoelectric plants ahead of time. It seems to be the global trend.
Late last month, Spain closed seven thermoelectric plants with the end of the National Transition Plan, which allowed them to operate from January 30, 2016, without meeting the emissions limit set by the EU’s Industrial Emissions Directive.
Uniper has said it will close the oldest and less efficient coal plants by 2025. This way, it will reduce the company’s CO2 emissions, even with Datteln-4 operating until the deadline.
Furthermore, the company could consider closing Datteln-4 prior to the official date in 2038, if the conditions are right at the time, according to executive manager Andreas Schierenbeck.
Fortum, a company focused on power generation from fossil-free sources and based in Finland, owns a majority share of Uniper.
For more information, check Energía16