26 September 2017

Vast German coal plant faces uncertain future

Niederaussem is the second-largest coal-fired power plant of Germany. Dating back to the 1960s, the facility is an ancient remnant of Germany’s industrialisation, and a symbol of the North Rhine-Westphalia region’s history of coal mining.

The plant burns extremely dirty brown coal called lignite, which creates large amounts of pollution for relatively little heat. This gives it an energy density so low, it costs more energy to transport the coal than can be recovered when burning it. Niederaussem must therefore be fueled by local, open-cast lignite mines, and these are so large 10,000 hectares of land around it is already permanently ruined, and another 10,000 is slated for new mining.

Greater Rhineland has seen well over 130,000 forced displacements historically, and this hungry plant and its expanding mine will see a further 2,000 people moved out of their villages.

19th century technology is not suited for the 21st century. This is especially true Germany, who has been at the forefront of of the renewable energy boom, but is struggling to live up to its responsibility to cut pollution and help protect the world from dangerous climate change.

Niederaussem is symbolic of this. On its own it emits 27.2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year, resulting in health and environmental costs estimated to be around 1.56 billion euros annually.

Resistance to the plants and mining has been slow to build up in the face of the power of the North Rhine-Westphalia coal industry, but community pushback is growing and the expansion of some new plants has been halted.

Legal battles are also growing more pronounced as the coal industry fights to extract as much money out of its business model as possible before its inevitable decline. Germany has committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 40% between 1990 and 2020, and to increase the share of renewable power sources to 35% by the same year, but this is proving easier committed to than done.

Germany remains the worst coal-polluter and coal-subsidiser in Europe. An unnecessary position given its renewable energy boom has made it a net electricity exporter.

The Niederaussem plant is then symptomatic of a much wider problem: a lot of political and financial capital has been invested in coal, leading to strong resistance to change.

The end of coal is in motion, however, and will come sooner rather than later. If the German authorities fail to listen to its people and help coal workers and communities transition to new, clean and sustainable livelihoods it will end up as stranded as the 19th century anachronism that is Niederaussem.

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