DORTMUND, Germany — Power Plant Manager Bernard Vendt stands on a platform jutting out of a chimney 20 stories above his company’s chemical park. Beyond the menagerie of twisting pipes, jetties and chimneys below him is a waterway connecting these factories to their source of energy.
“There, that’s our harbour,” Vendt says, pointing with one hand while the other holds his helmet firmly in the wind. ‘Do you see the yellow crane moving there? That’s where the coal landed by ship.’
The coal’s destination lies below Vendt in a huge furnace whose heat will spin turbines and generate enough energy to run this chemical park through the winter and maintain more than 10,000 jobs.
It shouldn’t have been like this. This coal-fired power plant is one of several nationwide that were slated to shut down by the end of the year, in order to maintain Germany’s obligation to phase out coal by the end of this decade. But now that Russia has halted natural gas supplies to Europe and there are no quick options to replace that energy, Germany is cautiously turning to the most reliable – and environmentally polluting – fossil fuel. At least 20 coal-fired power plants across the country are being revived or extended beyond their closing dates to ensure Germany has enough energy to get through the winter.
A desperate attempt to keep the business going – and the lights on
For Evonik, the company that runs the Vendt power plant, burning coal means that the company’s operations remain intact. But Heiko Mennerich, the company’s head of energy, says it’s expensive.
“It takes Evonik a lot of effort to secure the energy supply for this site and also for Germany,” says Mennerich. “But having no energy, having no electricity, not having steam in the winter is much more serious than this question.”
He says it will continue to be difficult for Evonik to remain globally competitive given the cost of coal in Germany, which rose from $64 per metric ton in early 2021 to nearly $400 this summer.
“If you compare the energy price level in Europe with the energy price level in the US, we suffer from the competition,” he says. “So I’m afraid what will happen to European industry if we have this high energy price level for a longer period of time.”
The German central bank recently forecast a clear, broad decline in the country’s economic output, mainly due to the energy crisis.
Not all doom and gloom
In another part of Germany’s industrial heartland, a business expects to thrive.
At a coal-fired power station near Dortmund, run by utility company Steag, turbines are running at full speed and producing enough energy to power 1.3 million households.
Steag had planned to shut down five of its six coal plants this year, including this one, but the government has renewed their licenses for the next two years, while also limiting revenues to Steag and other utilities. Nevertheless, this arrangement means that Steag will generate electricity for 3% of German households.
Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images
“It’s not a bad situation economically,” said Steag spokesman Daniel Mühlenfeld. “On the one hand, the government will limit our revenues for energy, but on the other hand, if we look back two years to 2020 when we were in a situation to stage a coal phase-out, we had a very demanding situation.”
Even environmental groups agree that this may be the best short-term solution
Steag’s earnings from burning more coal will be spent building more wind turbines and solar panels, but environmentalists fear the German government isn’t doing enough to ensure that.
Yet even the country’s most staunch environmentalists admit that coal is the fastest and most cost-effective response to Germany’s energy crisis.
“We can understand that the government is restarting coal-fired power stations in Germany,” said Karsten Smid of Greenpeace, Germany, “but on one condition: coal destroys the climate. So in the end we won’t accept additional CO2 emissions without a commitment to savings.”
Smid says the government should make sure that every ton of CO2 emitted from burning coal is offset by cutting emissions elsewhere in the economy.
The problem, says Smid, is that the German government has not promised. Instead, it has given operators the go-ahead to burn more coal so that Germany — and its economy — doesn’t freeze this winter.
Esme Nicholson contributed to this report.