[‘Garzweiler panorama’ (2013) Photo: Raimond Spekking]
Lignite or brown coal supplies more than 25% of Germany’s electricity (Chazan and Foy, 2016). The soft peat-based rock forms close to the surface and is considered the lowest rank of coal due to its relatively low heat content, low energy density and typically high moisture content. Lignite causes the highest CO2 emissions per ton when burned, one-third more than hard coal (bituminous black coal) and three times as much as natural gas. Germany has the world’s largest reserves of it (Schwärgerl 2015), which (according to Wikipedia) is almost exclusively used as a fuel for steam-electric power generation.
Since 2000 Germany has pursued Energiewende (literally ‘energy turn’), a series of policies designed to shift its energy production away from nuclear and fossil fuels to renewables, which hastened following the 2011 Fukishima nuclear power plant disaster (Graupner 2013). The market incentive to develop clean-energy production comes in the form of a ‘feed-in tariff’ by which utility companies are legally obliged to purchase any available renewable energy and at a higher wholesale price than power generated by fossil fuels, regardless of it coming from corporate wind farms or domestic solar panels. The price varies according to the different technologies in use, but the overall scheme is locked in for years into the future to assure market stability. Each year, however, the offered price is reduced, so that those who enter the market early benefit the most. The incentive is funded by a levy on German households and small enterprises (McDonnell 2014).
Despite this scheme, Christian Schwärgerl (2015) writing in Yale Environment 360 claims lignite has become the cheapest source of electricity from fossil fuels. He explains that in recent years in power production in Germany has increased due to the establishment of wind farms, solar and biomass (26% of electricity generation in 2014), which has caused a significant drop in wholesale prices for electricity bought by large consumers. Simultaneously, as European economies weakened due to the global financial crisis and companies reduced their production, they bought fewer EU certificates to emit CO2. As a result, the price utilities companies had to pay for emitting CO2 crashed from a historic high of nearly €30 euros per tonne in 2008 to just over €3 per tonne in 2013, which made burning lignite very attractive. Schwärgerl observes that while Germany has become a source of cheap electricity for industrial users, it is German households who bear the brunt of clean-energy transition.
In October 2015, following Ende Gelände, German economics minister Sigmar Gabriel of the Social Democrats and energy companies RWE, Vattenfall and Mibrag (a subsidiary of the EPH consortium) agreed that from October 2016, a capacity of 2.7 gigawatts of power output from lignite coal plants will be shifted into a power reserve in case of emergency. The plants will be turned off but maintained in running order in case of power shortages over the next four years. Eventually, the lignite-fired power plants will be taken off the grid entirely (Rönsberg 2015). According to a recent report on VICE INTL (2016), this strategy will cost taxpayers €1.6 billion but achieves only 1% of Germany’s target to reduce greenhouse gases by 40% of 1990 levels by 2020.