Coal-fired plants hinder German climate targets

If all the 20 planned coal-fired power plant projects in Germany are realised, they would together emit more than 140 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually from 2050 onwards. This would make it impossible to achieve the climate targets of the German government.

Energy-related CO2 emissions make up over 95 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in Germany. Recently published reports show that many German coal power plants have an efficiency standard comparable with that of the 1960s and should therefore be closed, and that no new coal power stations should be built in Germany if the climate targets set by the government are to be achieved.

Almost half of Germany's coal-fired power plant fleet is outdated and thus particularly harmful to the environment. According to research by Oeko-Institut, reported by Frankfurter Rundschau, 76 fossil-fueled power plants are in operation, using technology that has been outdated for decades and producing much higher amounts of carbon dioxide than modern plants. In 2008 these power plants emitted 352 million tonnes of CO2.

The list shows that air pollution and environmental legislation in Germany during the last 30 years has not led to modernisation of these old plants or replacement with more environmentally friendly energy sources.

These old power plants convert less than 39 per cent of the energy contained in the fossil fuels into electricity. The average for modern facilities is about 45 per cent efficiency. Most of the old plants were built in the 1960s and 70s and are owned by the four major energy companies E.ON, RWE, Vattenfall and EnBW. More than half of the plants are fueled with lignite, 30 plants use hard coal, five more gas or oil.

The generating capacity of these old plants is nearly 21 gigawatts and in total the German coal-fired power plants have a capacity of around 50 gigawatts (GW). This shows that a large share of the coal-fired power plants that supply nearly half of Germany's electricity is outdated and wasting valuable and expensive resources.

More efficient technology has been available for decades, and new plants were achieving 43 per cent efficiency even by the mid-80s. Because of all the old power plants, the average efficiency 20 years later is still only 38 per cent in Germany. According to the reports the inefficient coal power plants will continue to operate, since the investment costs have already been written off, and they will remain in operation despite high fuel consumption and rising costs for carbon dioxide pollution because there are economically attractive allowances for the energy companies. German NGOs demand an energy efficiency of at least 58 per cent for existing fossil fuel power plants.

In Germany, eight hard coal and two brown coal power plants with a gross generating capacity of 11.4 GW are in the construction phase and 10 more are planned.

If all the 20 planned coal-fired power plant projects in Germany are realised, they would together emit more than 140 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually from 2050 onwards.

According to the report by the environmental alliance Umwelthilfe, this would make it impossible to achieve the climate targets of the German government for 2050. Without the conversion of electricity production to renewable energies, the long-term climate goal is not achievable.

The Umwelthilfe report argues that the often repeated statement that new coal plants would edge the old and inefficient power plants out of the market, is wrong. Many of the operators that are planning new power plants have no generation capacity of their own that could be shut down as a result of opening the new plants. Umwelthilfe also concludes that as long as the operation of an old coal-fired power plant is economical there is also no economic reason for its closure. Old power plant units remain in service despite higher fuel consumption and rising costs for emissions, because their capital costs have already been written off.

Reinhold Pape

Reference: Frankfurter Rundschau 28 October 2011, Umwelthilfe Deutschland: Energie-, umwelt- und klimapolitische Gründe gegen den weiteren Zubau von Kohlekraftwerken in Deutschland (2011)

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