By Joop Hazenberg On

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Niederaussem is the second-largest coal-fired power plant of Germany, generating over 3,800 megawatts of electricity. The facility is ancient, dating back to the 1960s, and is a testament to the region of North Rhine-Westphalia’s long tradition of coal mining, which helped drive the country’s rapid industrialization. But many are wondering if this 19th century technology is really suited for the 21st century.

Indeed, Niederaussem is symptomatic of a region and country which has struggled to put into practice its lofty goals for increasing renewable energies and reducing carbon emissions. Niederaussem alone emits 27.2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. The external health and environmental costs have been estimated by the European Environment Agency at around 1.56 billion euros annually.

The plant uses lignite, also known as brown coal, which emits large amounts of carbon for relatively little heat. Because of its low energy density, brown coal is impractical to transport, meaning that Niederaussem must be fueled by local mines. Open-cast lignite mines feeding Niederaussem and other plants scar the Rhenish landscape. Around 10,000 hectares of land has been permanently ruined and another 10,000 is slated for the same treatment.

The largest and heaviest vehicles in the world at 13,500 tons terraform the planet. In the background is the Niederaußem lignite power plant, which blows such a huge amount of steam into the air, that in winter the steam falls down to earth as "industral snow". (CC) Henning Mühlinghaus
The largest and heaviest vehicles in the world at 13,500 tons terraform the planet. In the background is the Niederaußem lignite power plant, which blows such a huge amount of steam into the air, that in winter the steam falls down to earth as “industrial snow”. (CC) Henning Mühlinghaus

The surface to be mined in the so-called Garzweiler II area includes eleven villages, with 7,600 inhabitants to be displaced. One of these villages, Holzweiler, is over 1,200 years old, dating back to the Merovingians, including centuries-old churches. “These are very old villages as the region was settled some 7,000 years ago. The Romans were there, there are old water-castles dating from the 13th century, and everything is going to be destroyed,” said Dirk Jansen, a coal specialist at Friends of the Earth (FoE) Germany.

Resistance to the plants and mining has been slow to build up in the face of the power of the coal industry in North Rhine-Westphalia. The larger coal-fired plants in the area have a capacity of some 11,000 megawatts and 3.2 billion tonnes of coal have been licensed for mining, meaning big operations and money for lobbying efforts. “These are the biggest power plants in Germany and they are responsible for the emission of 80-85 million tonnes of greenhouse gases every year. They are the main obstacle to reaching our climate coals,” said Jansen.

Coal plants limited, not shut down

So far, environmentalists have mainly succeeded in limiting the expansion of new plants as opposed to shutting down existing ones. Friends of the Earth Germany has successfully sued to block the launch of new power plants in the towns of Datteln and Lünen. This was argued on environmental grounds as local nature reserves were threatened. “We have some very rare ecosystems in our forests which are protected by European law. The emissions of sulfur, mercury, chlorides and other chemicals would have had a big impacts,” said Jansen.


One case was even won before the European Court of Justice, the highest court in Europe, because companies questioned whether ordinary citizens had grounds to complain for environmental damages which did not directly affect them. More legal battles are ongoing however, as energy companies have already invested hundreds of millions of euros in the two sites, leading them to make new attempts to relaunch.

Actually shutting down Niederaussem, the main plant, however depends on the will of the local politicians in North Rhine-Westphalia. So far the ruling Social Democrats, who are close to pro-coal industry and unions, have been eager to keep coal going.

Missed opportunity: Climate levy proposal abandoned

Germany as a whole is far less dependent on coal than North Rhine-Westphalia, suggesting that perhaps national policy could be the way to wind down the fossil fuel. Germany after all has the stated objective of shifting to a low-carbon, nuclear-free and sustainable energy-based economy. The country has committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 40% between 1990 and 2020 and to increase the share of renewable energies to 35% of its electricity sector by the same year.

Germany’s attacks on nuclear and expansion of renewables, notably solar and wind power, have been impressive. But the country remains massively reliant on coal power and is indeed the biggest coal-polluter and coal-subsidizer in Europe. Environmental activists argue this reliance on coal is doubly unnecessary with the explosion of renewable energies and the fact that Germany is already a net electricity exporter. The Niederaussem plant is then symptomatic of a much wider problem.

Last year, the government recognized that without change it would miss its 2020 targets. Economy and Energy Minister Sigmar Gabriel, a Social Democrat, suggested the introduction of a so-called climate levy (Klimabeitrag) for the most-polluting plants to pay their fair share for environmental damages. The levy would have particularly targeted brown coal-fired plants, which pollute heavily, and likely led to significant reductions in production.

For a time, it seemed Germany tantalizingly close to moving towards a policy which would have dramatically reduced the role of coal. Gabriel ultimately backed down however in the face of lack of support from Chancellor Angela Merkel, a conservative, and fierce lobbying by the coal industry and trade unions.

Instead, Gabriel presented a significantly weakened compromise proposal on July 1: coal polluters would gradually phase out production for some 11 million tonnes of CO2 in exchange for financial compensation of between 800 to 900 million euros per year.

Ende Gelände [picture from the August 2015 occupation of the lignite mines in the area, video below]

Far from making companies pay the cost of coal, activists fear this represents another subsidy for fossil fuels. “The introduction of this instrument instead of the climate levy would have serious consequences for climate protection in Germany for consumers and will distort the market,” wrote WWF Germany in an analysis. Germany has long had a heavily skewed market in favor of coal, with an estimated 3 billion euros in subsidies for the industry in 2012 alone, by far the largest amount in Europe.

Coal recognized as problem, but only slight wind down

What Gabriel’s new plan means for Niederaussem is unclear. It could lead to a shutdown of a small part of the facility, possibly representing a mere 10% of production. “The government and companies will discuss the plan behind closed doors over the next months. As the process is totally opaque, we’ll have no influence from the outside,” said Friend of the Earth’s Tina Löffelsend, an energy analyst based in Berlin.

One fear is that the companies will agree to phase-out generation units which were already so old that they were going to be phased out anyway, in effect meaning that the government would be subsidizing them for doing something they were already going to do.

This particular battle appears to be lost for environmentalists. But some are taking heart as the debate has moved forward, with the national environment minister even conceding that coal would eventually have to be phased out. The media as a whole were also highly critical of the government’s handling of the climate levy. “We have been telling the government for at least three years that they would not reach their target. When they finally admitted this last summer that was really a change in the debate,” Löffelsend said. “A coal phase-out is now something that is discussed, and that wasn’t the case before.”

Video of the Ende Gelaende action in August 2015

Photos of the March 2015 human chain

Thousands of people stand hand in hand, demonstrating near Garzweiler II lignite open-pit mine. They call for consistent climate protection and protest against the environmental damages caused by lignite.

Thousands of people stand hand in hand, demonstrating near Garzweiler II brown coal open-pit mine. They call for consistent climate protection and protest against the environmental damages caused by lignite. People from numerous environmental and development organizations as well as from churches form an uninterrupted Human Chain, spanning seven and a half kilometres. Greenpeace activists display banners: " Coal ist toxic" and "Stop coal diggers and climate killers". Tausende Menschen nehmen teil an einer Menschenkette fuer Klimaschutz und gegen Braunkohle. Mit der 7,5 Kilometer langen Anti-Kohle-Kette am Tagebau Garzweiler II, zu der Greenpeace, BUND und andere Umwelt- und Entwicklungsorganisationen aufgerufen haben, setzen sie ein Zeichen fuer den Kohleausstieg. Greenpeace Aktivisten mit einem Banner:"Kohle ist giftig", auf dem gemeinsamen grossen Banner fordern sie mit weiteren Organisationen:"Stoppt die Kohlebagger und die Klimakiller".
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