Germany’s Brown Coal Boom

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - Brown coal is making an unexpected return in Germany, a country often regarded as a role model for its strong push for renewable energy and a world leader for tackling climate change, as about a quarter of the nation’s electricity comes from renewable sources. Brown coal electricity production in Germany rose last year to its highest level since 1990, despite the country’s campaign to shift to green sources of energy. Alternative energy has great public support here; big subsidies have helped push solar and wind power forward in the past decade. Moreover, politicians have committed to 80 percent renewable power by 2050, which is why this increase in coal power seems an antithesis to Germany’s energy revolution, especially as brown coal is the lowest grade of coal, with the highest carbon dioxide emissions per kilowatt-hour produced. It is cheap coal.

Now, the German village of Atterwasch, a tiny hamlet with a single church is under threat, and may soon disappear because Vattenfall, a Swedish energy company, hopes to relocate the villagers in order to strip-mine the ground underneath for lignite, or brown coal. This new mine is planned for 2030 to 2070. For Atterwasch and other similar towns, experts say Germany's energy revolution is in danger—more coal could be on its way. In the Rhineland region in the west, the village has become a ghost town to make way for expansion of German utility lignite mining operations. In the region of Lausitz, Vattenfall has plans to mine, forcing the relocation of 10,000 people.

In 2012, newly opened coal-fired power plants added 2,743 megawatts to the country's grid. Last year was the biggest year for lignite-fired energy production in the country since 1990, with 162 billion kilowatt-hours produced, which is about 26 percent of Germany’s total electricity. The increase in coal-generated power also led to a new record in German electricity exports to around 33 billion kilowatt hours. No other country produces more brown coal than Germany.

Some think the return of coal is due to the imminent end of Germany's nuclear power industry. In 2002, politicians decided to shut down Germany's nuclear plants by 2022. Germany’s leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel backed away from the move when she was elected in 2005, citing climate change and economic concerns. However, in 2011, after the disaster at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant, the German government reversed its decision and once again, decided to shut down its nuclear plants.

This will leave a hole in the country's energy supply that renewables can't quickly fill, which means fossil fuels will continue to be part of the German energy mix for a sometime. Coal is the most greenhouse-gas-intensive fuel and this coal boom endangers Germany's credibility on climate protection and the energy revolution, which is a worry to environmentalists. 

Photo Credit: Wikimedia