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Germany revives dirty coal amid Russian gas war

Insa Wrede
June 20, 2022

Germany has struggled to fill its gas storage sites since Russia began throttling its supply. Among the possible solutions are an increased use of coal for power production, and industry incentives to reduce consumption.

Picture of the Neurath coal-fired power plant spewing smoke
The Ukraine war has forced Germany to revive its power dinosaurs, which had been deemed over and done withImage: blickwinkel/S. Ziese/dpa/picture alliance

German Economy Minister Robert Habeck recently described his current energy policy as "a sort of an arm wrestling match" with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Putin may have the longer arm for now, he said on Sunday, but that doesn't mean "we can't attain a stronger arm with effort."

Habeck, a member of the environmentalist Green Party, is facing a nightmare scenario. With Russia slowing its gas supply in retaliation to Western sanctions imposed over Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, German energy security has been plunged into disarray.

Berlin is eager to fill its gas storage sites to 80% capacity by October 1, and 90% by November to meet gas demand for the cold winter months. Currently, gas stores are only about 57% full. The "effort" Habeck was alluding to now means saving gas wherever possible, including that which is used to generate electricity.

A picture of Robert Habeck.
Habeck has been doling out bitter pills to his Greens amid the German gas war with RussiaImage: Britta Pedersen/dap/picture alliance

Power from hard coal and lignite

Electricity from gas accounts for about 16% of Germany's total power production. Renewable energies, notably wind and solar, make up about 42% at the moment, but are impossible to ramp up quickly. A viable alternative could be existing coal-fired power plants, of which there are 151 or so still in operation across the country, despite a government plan to phase them out by 2038.

Before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in late February, the German government alliance of the center-left Social Democrats, the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats had even decided to bring the coal phaseout forward, "ideally" to 2030. But it is now insisting that the surprise U-turn on energy policy didn't mean an exit from the coal exit itself.

Infographic showing Germany's electricity mix in 2020

A bill providing the legal basis to burn more coal for power generation is now making its way through parliament, aiming to boost the output of so-called reserve power plants that are irregularly used for grid stabilization and were scheduled to go offline over the next few years.

In addition, power plants that were already mothballed under the phaseout plan but are still technically operational are to be brought back online. Those so-called plants of last resort usually burn more polluting lignite from mines in eastern Germany.

Coal revival only temporary

Kerstin Andreae, head of the German Association of Energy and Water Industries, told German public broadcaster ARD on Monday that reserve power plants burning German lignite can be brought online in "a relatively short time span." Those using hard coal for electricity generation would need coal imports from abroad, she said.

Germany closed its last remaining hard coal mine in 2018, and has since relied on Russia for half of its needs of the fossil fuel. "Russian coal can be completely replaced by other countries in a few months. Especially from the US, Colombia and South Africa," Alexander Bethe, board chairman of the Association of Coal Importers, said in a statement.

While parliament is scheduled to vote on the coal bill by July 8, the government has made it clear that the revival of the fossil fuel in Germany will last only until March 2024. By that time, Berlin wants to have Russian gas supplies reduced to about 10%, from 55% before the war and 35% currently.

A picture of the Rehden gas storage facility, western Europe's largest gas storage site
After Gazprom Germania was put under state trusteeship, its former Russian owners slowed supplies to Rehden storageImage: Mohssen Assanimoghaddam/dpa/picture alliance

No comeback for nuclear power

But using coal for power production wouldn't solve all of Germany's problems, however, as many of the gas plants also generate heat for households and industrial processes.

Another alternative would be nuclear power, but the use of the more climate-friendly energy has been ruled out by both government authorities and nuclear operators. Germany is preparing to shut down its remaining three nuclear plants by the end of the year, and Markus Krebber, CEO of the RWE energy utility, has said there would be no turning back to this form of energy.

Saving gas with industry auctions

Habeck said reviving coal was a "bitter" decision, but added that it was "simply necessary in this situation to reduce gas consumption." One way Berlin hopes to achieve this is to curb gas usage with a new market-based gas auction model offering industry incentives to reduce consumption, and diverting the unneeded supply to long-term storage.

Unlike government-ordained blanket gas rationing, the measure would redirect gas flows from areas where reductions "hurt the least to where they hurt most," said Karl Haeusgen, president of the Association of German Mechanical and Plant Engineering.

Lusatia: The end of lignite

The new measures come amid heightened German efforts to buy so-called liquefied natural gas (LNG) on the world market — an increasingly crowded trade, given that other countries are also eager to cut their gas dependence on Russia. For that, Germany is planning to use floating regasification plants, because it doesn't have any of the facilities needed to import LNG.

Moreover, the government has launched a controversial public gas-saving campaign urging Germans to turn down their heating in the coming months and shower with lukewarm water.

It seems Germany's economy minister has some ideas about how to strengthen his country's muscles for its arm wrestling bout with Putin. And yet, the Kremlin leader still seems to have the upper hand: Russian gas continues to flow to Germany for now — less of it, but it hasn't been entirely shut off. 

This article was originally written in German.