End of the Line for Coal: Why Coal Has No Future

On September 24, the German coal commission convened for another meeting. The situation is extremely tense: In Hambach Forest, the clearing of additional trees is slated to begin even though the future of coal remains undecided. The business-oriented association BDEW has urged that phasing out coal would jeopardize the electricity supply, and energy conglomerates cite the high costs that a phase-out would cause.

It’s time to take a look at the relevant issues surrounding the coal debate from a bird’s-eye view. In the following six theses, we at LichtBlick and WWF Germany set out why we need a phase-out and why it will work.

We have to decide - Do we want green energy or dirty coal?, Photo: PantherMedia
We have to decide – Do we want green energy or dirty coal?, Photo: PantherMedia

Thesis 1: No Energy Transition Without Coal Phase-Out

Coal power plants still generate roughly 40 percent of Germany’s electricity. In fact, the number of power plants is slowly decreasing. However, hanging on to coal-fired generation while continuing to expand renewable energy has counterproductive consequences. Coal power is increasingly “clogging” the power grids for wind and solar electricity. This causes renewable energy systems to sit inactive from time to time, even though the wind is blowing or the sun is shining.

Thesis 2: A Coal Country Cannot Be an International Trailblazer for Energy Transition

With power plant output of around 49 gigawatts and 31% of the total power plant output in Europe, Germany ranks as the largest coal power plant operator by a significant margin. Germany is also a leading climate offender in terms of energy-related CO2 emissions per capita; at 9.6 tonnes per capita per year, it pollutes at a rate far higher than the EU average of 6.9 tonnes.

Abroad, Germany continues to coast on its image as a climate protection trailblazer, although doubts are growing. The primary responsibility for increasing doubts about Germany’s seriousness towards energy transition lies with its years of adherence to coal-fired generation.

Thesis 3: Coal Isn’t Cheap

In the last 60 years, the German federal government has granted hundreds of billions in subsidies for lignite and hard coal. And this number only refers to direct funding. Societal and external costs also come into play. These include energy tax breaks, the redevelopment of former surface mines, support for the relocation of villages including their infrastructure, environmental costs, “hidden” reserves, and so on and so forth. Many billions of euros can be attributed solely to the environmental costs that are incurred due to coal power plants each year.

Thesis 4: Coal Is a Health Hazard

According to recent studies, nearly 23,000 people die prematurely as a result of toxic exhaust from coal power plants, Photo: PantherMedia
According to recent studies, nearly 23,000 people die prematurely as a result of toxic exhaust from coal power plants, Photo: PantherMedia

According to recent studies, nearly 23,000 people die prematurely as a result of toxic exhaust from coal power plants – almost as many as traffic accidents. In summer 2017, the European Commission tightened emission limits for nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, fine particulates, and mercury. The vast majority of German lignite power plants, however, fail to comply with the new limits. Technical retrofits would need to be carried out in order to meet these requirements. Nevertheless, as of August 2018, the German federal government has failed to implement the new EU regulation in national law.

Thesis 5: Coal is Increasingly Unnecessary for a Secure Power Supply

Despite all of the predictions, the proportion of wind and solar energy in Germany has grown steadily, but this has not led to an increase in interruptions of power supply or major blackouts. On the contrary – in spite of higher and higher feeds of solar and wind energy into the power grid, the average annual power outage duration has dropped. In the past couple years, the average power outage lasted 12 to 13 minutes. This figure has fallen substantially since 2006, when it still stood at 21.5 minutes, and the proportion of renewable energy was just 11.3%. By 2017, it had tripled to 33.3%.

Thesis 6: Continuing to Wait for the Coal-Phaseout Will Impede Socially Necessary Structural Change

Structural change is the rule, not the exception, in societal progress. At present, structural change is under discussion in Germany in relation to topics such as digitalization and the anticipated disruptions of the automobile industry. Throughout Germany, the number of people directly employed by the lignite industry in 2018 lies well below 20,000; even in the affected states of Brandenburg, North Rhine-Westphalia, Saxony, and Saxony-Anhalt, this represents less than one percent of all employees subject to statutory social insurance. With a skillfully-managed coal phase-out – by 2035, for example – roughly two thirds of the workforce can be released into retirement normally. The transition to the energy system for the 21st century must be accompanied by a structural change in the affected regions.

If you would like to dive deeper into the subject, we highly recommend the Coal Report (in German). At 52 pages, the report isn’t a quick read, but it comprehensively consolidates all relevant arguments on the coal phase-out.

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