As Europe bakes, Germany reckons with a return to coal

Europe is scorching.

Temperatures across parts of the continent are soaring to dangerous highs again on Tuesday. The high for London will be close to 40 degrees. Berlin will hit 35.

Amid what’s been an intense, dangerous heat wave, there are difficult conversations happening across Europe about the future of energy, and how to prevent even more damage to the planet by burning fossil fuels.

By their own admission, a growing number of the world’s energy companies say they need to transition to renewables.

“The future (of) power generation definitely belongs to renewable sources,” acknowledges Guido Steffen, a spokesperson for RWE, a major German energy company.

But in Europe right now, gripped by heat, the exact opposite is happening. Major countries like Germany and the Netherlands are turning to coal to ensure they have enough power to keep the air conditioning running, and, in a few months, the heat on.

For decades, they’ve relied on gas imports from Russia, but now, with the war in Ukraine putting a squeeze on those supplies, there are fears of energy insecurity in the months to come.

Enter the village of Lützerath, in the western corner of Germany.

These days, all that remains of this hamlet are a few abandoned buildings and a cluster of trees.

The village is right in the middle of Germany’s “coal country,” and is a snapshot of the fight for the future of energy in Europe.

Just behind the trees of the village, there is a gaping hole – a giant opencast coal mine whose possible expansion environmentalists have been trying to block for years.

These days, all that remains of this hamlet are a few abandoned buildings and a cluster of trees.

The village is right in the middle of Germany’s “coal country,” and is a snapshot of the fight for the future of energy in Europe.

Just behind the trees of the village, there is a gaping hole – a giant opencast coal mine whose possible expansion environmentalists have been trying to block for years.

Two years ago, coal was worth about $50 U.S. a ton. Today, it’s close to $400 and coal majors are cashing in. Glencore, an Anglo-Swiss coal mining giant said it expects to make $3.2 billion in trading profit in the first half of 2022. That’s in comparison to $3.7 billion for all of 2021.

Russia’s war with Ukraine has made Germany particularly vulnerable to energy price spikes.

Last year, 55 per cent of Germany’s natural gas supply – needed to heat millions of homes in the winter – came from Russia.

Now, with Germany’s natural gas tanks hovering around 60 per cent full (far short of the 90 per cent level it would like those reserves to be), there is renewed interest in powering up from coal in order to protect those fragile gas reserves.

Adding to the worries, planned maintenance work has shut down the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, Germany’s lifeline to Russian gas. There are concerns the Kremlin may delay gas shipments once the work is complete.

“Nobody knows what is coming in the wintertime,” says Rudolf Juchelka, a professor of economic geography at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany, referring to the possibility of a gas supply shortfall this winter.

“Everybody is nervous.”

While Germany has committed to moving off coal – the dirtiest of fossil fuels – by 2030, there’s a pragmatic consideration being made, including by some environmentalists, that the country might need to rely on coal for a little longer yet to keep things functioning.

Earlier this month, federal lawmakers, including members of the Green Party, approved a plan to allow mothballed coal-fired power plants to resume operations, if and when needed. Germany’s economics minister, Robert Habeck, called the move “painful but necessary,” The Guardian newspaper reported, and industry leaders also welcomed it.

The federal parliament’s decision to “temporarily restart coal-fired power plants comes late but is correct,” said the Federation of Germany Industries. “In light of rising (energy) procurement costs, it is right that the state is directly supporting energy suppliers in order to secure gas supply in Germany.”

RWE, the energy giant that owns the mine next to Lützerath, is digging away at the seams of coal to help meet the country’s immediate energy needs.

This is happening despite both the company – and the country’s – commitment to renewable energy. But, ensuring short-term energy security “still requires a certain but ever-shrinking quantity of lignite (coal),” says Steffen, the company spokesperson.

Energy and climate experts say Germany’s 11th-hour (re)turn to coal shows that rich countries have long erred in relying so heavily on other countries’ fossil fuel reserves.

“You know, making the same mistakes again, relying on imported gas and oil and coal from other countries would be so extremely stupid,” says Andrzej Ancygier, a policy analyst with Climate Analytics, a Berlin-based environmental think tank.

But that’s precisely what has happened.

Yet, there are residents of coal-producing regions of Germany, says Professor Juchelka, who believe the country’s transition off coal needs “a little bit more time.” Families in this part of Germany, he says, have relied on the coal economy for decades.

More than half of the electricity produced in North Rhine-Westphalia still comes from this fossil fuel, points out Dirk Jansen, an environmental campaigner who has been working to block coal expansion in Germany for 30 years.

“We are still coal country here,” Jansen told Global News.

Domestic coal plants, he says, stand to make a lot of money in the current environment.

“Due to the Ukraine war, the price (of) electricity is very high, and therefore, the lignite-fired power plants make a lot of money,” he says.

That’s not just the case in Germany, but around the world – including in Canada.

There are reports that a coal mine in Cape Breton could reopen later this year, potentially cashing in on the spike. The Donkin mine in Nova Scotia began operating in 2017, but shuttered three years later as coal prices took a nosedive, and amid safety concerns. Now, it could reopen.

Meanwhile, the government of British Columbia continues to allow its ports to be used to ship millions of tonnes of coal overseas, mostly for use in steel making in Asia.

Then there’s China, where there is still a voracious appetite for coal.

The world’s most populous country and second biggest economy fears for its own energy security. So, it’s doubling down on coal – and renewables.

Last year, Global Energy Monitor, a group that keeps track of coal plant construction around the world, forecast 43 new coal plants for China.

“We definitely see continued coal expansion in China,” says Ryna Cui, a research professor who studies China’s energy policies at the Centre for Global Sustainability at the University of Maryland.

Spiking oil prices, and the return of coal, represents an unfortunate turn of events, and was entirely preventable, says John Bennett, with Friends of the Earth Canada.

He says if governments had reacted to climate change like they react to wars or other emergencies, “then (energy security) wouldn’t be a problem.”

Instead, governments have painted themselves into a corner by relying so heavily on fossil fuels. If the goal is energy security, Bennett adds, then countries should invest in renewable energy that is endless in supply and free.

“You know, it’s really hard to wipe out a country’s energy supply if it’s relying on renewable energy from a whole bunch of sources rather than a handful of big power plants.”

“(That) also can get us out of this cycle of being taken to the cleaners every time something happens elsewhere in the world.”

That transition is happening, even in coal country – and even by energy giants that made millions by digging up planet-polluting fossil fuels.

Beyond the coal company’s massive mine near Lützerath, a handful of wind turbines pop out of the ground, like modern-day monoliths.

This is, Jansen suggests, the paradox of addressing the climate crisis while meeting the world’s energy needs in the here and now.

Coal, he says, can only be a blip – which is why Lützerath is so symbolic.

“It’s kind of an end game for coal,” he says, adding that the shift toward renewables is well under way.

“This is,” he says, the “market of the future.”

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