East German lignite at a crossroads

Lippendorf is one of the Vattenfall lignite power plants that might soon be for sale. Photo: Danny Sotzny/flickr.com/CC BY-NC

Lignite power in eastern Germany is disastrous for the climate and displaces more people than any other industry in Europe. Despite a target of 80 per cent renewable energy by 2050, phase-out plans are conspicuous by their absence.

Before 1990, East Germany mined 300 million tonnes (Mt) of lignite (brown coal) annually to cover 70 per cent of all energy needs. Inefficient power stations and antiquated factories wreathed in sulphurous smoke generated 100 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity per year.

Today, advanced-technology plants belonging to the Swedish Vattenfall AB produce two thirds of this grid energy from less than 80 Mt of lignite. Modernized power stations at Jänschwalde (recently upgraded to 2,998 MW net electrical generation) and Boxberg (939 MW of original capacity expanded by 1,475 MW) have been supplemented by dual-turbine configurations at Schwarze Pumpe (1,500 MW) and Lippendorf (1,750 MW, with lignite from the MIBRAG mining corporation).  

Industrialization policy in eastern Germany has been widely ineffective, leaving a good deal of surplus electricity for export to other regions. Newly erected wind and solar farms have further increased total capacities, making the early retirement of lignite power plants now plausible.

Following Swedish government policy resolutions, Vattenfall announced on 30 October 2014 the intention of “investigating options for its German lignite mining and generation activities”. The possible sale of these assets precludes any near-term reductions of lignite usage. To protect revenues for corporate debt reduction, CEO Magnus Hall has instead emphasized “the current and future importance of lignite-based generation for the local economy and the German energy policy”. For now, a “close dialogue” has been pledged with the states of Brandenburg and Saxony as “key stakeholders for Vattenfall’s activities in the Lusatia region”.

The continuation of lignite power generation is reinforced by political intrigues. The Social Democrat Ulrich Freese from Brandenburg, a former national vice-chairman of the mining union IG BCE, remained on the Vattenfall supervisory board after being elected to German parliament (Bundestag) in 2013. His parliamentary IG BCE colleague Thomas Jurk, SPD minister of the economy in Saxony until 2009, is a ceremonious “honorary miner” of the lignite trade association DEBRIV. He shares this distinction with past chancellor Helmut Kohl and other influential politicians.

Germany’s lignite reserves could sustain one quarter of national electricity generation for another two centuries. The Öko-Institut in Berlin has found lignite to be more competitive than coal or natural gas at ETS (EU Emissions Trading Scheme) prices below €40 per tonne. Attaining the government’s 80 per cent renewable electricity target by 2050 would only provide 24 per cent of dependable grid supplies according to the German Energy Agency (dena). In addition to 9 per cent power storage and 25 per cent reduced demand, 60 per cent fossil fuel backup capacity would still be required to accommodate fluctuating solar and wind availability.  

A megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity generated from lignite adds about a tonne of carbon dioxide (CO2) to the atmosphere. Since the enactment of nuclear phase-out legislation in 2011, German lignite mining output has increased by 8 per cent. On present fossil fuel usage trajectories, Germany’s 40 per cent CO2 reduction target for 2020 cannot be achieved in relation to 1990.

With a water content exceeding 50 per cent, lignite provides less heat per tonne than even wood chips. Generating one fourth of the country’s electrical power therefore necessitates extracting a half-million tonnes of lignite per day from beneath five times the amount of overburden (topsoil and sand). Fertile agricultural regions such as Western Saxony, which once supplied the city of Leipzig with fresh produce, have been widely devastated by mining. Enduring hydrological disruption, the cumulative detriments of power plant effluents, and the decline of real estate valuations are not reflected on electric power bills. Government policies for lignite power generation are confronted with public awareness of mining landscape devastation that could be reduced by increasing renewable generation capacities.

German lignite plants comply with existing regulations for sulphur dioxide and particulate effluents. However, the residual pollutants from these large emission sources still constitute statistically relevant imperilments of human health. Without the activated carbon filters employed as standard equipment in the USA, furthermore, each lignite power station emits up to a half-tonne of toxic mercury per year.  

The German lignite industry resettles the most people of any enterprise in Europe. Private property rights have been abridged by mining regulations that originated in the Third Reich. The inhabitants of threatened communities usually accept nominal financial compensation for confiscated property in preference to unsuccessful legal challenges.

Under the new Swedish government policies, 2,400 people living in Lusatian villages near the Polish border had hoped to be saved from resettlement by Vattenfall. However, the announced intention to sell the company’s German lignite holdings includes all mining inventories. To the southwest, a proposed MIBRAG 680 MW power project at the regional Profen mine probably will not be built because of growing competition from renewable energies. However, long-distance lignite deliveries have already begun to the recently acquired Buschhaus power station near the Volkswagen factory in Lower Saxony and to two plants in the Czech Republic. Long-term mining plans now imperil up to ten additional villages.   

The Czech MIBRAG owner EPH has been negotiating the purchase of Vattenfall’s lignite operations. Lusatian lignite might then be delivered across the border to power plants in Northern Bohemia, where a number of mining licenses will be expiring in the year 2022. In contrast to Germany, Czech mining law already prohibits expropriations of private property.

MIBRAG could also begin mining near the city of Lützen for supplying lignite to the Bohemian region. Included in the path of possible devastation is the 12th century church at Röcken, the birthplace and gravesite of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. MIBRAG has provided a €600,000 grant for the archaeological excavation of a nearby battlefield from the 30 Years’ War, where the Swedish king Gustav II Adolphus was mortally wounded in 1632. The destruction of human settlements and historic sites might nevertheless be contested if the mined lignite was intended for delivery to commercial and foreign customers not essential to national energy security.

Reducing domestic lignite usage remains an eminent priority for climate target achievement. The environmental organization BUND (Friends of the Earth) has proposed legislation for shutting down Germany’s 24 oldest lignite power plants mainly in the western

Rhineland between 2016 and 2019. By decommissioning this least efficient half of the lignite power industry, up to 88 Mt/a of CO2 emissions could be avoided to meet the 2020 greenhouse gas target of 749 Mt.

However, the Vattenfall Moorburg coal power station in Hamburg (8.5 Mt/a CO2) will have meanwhile entered service. Solar and wind generation potential in East Germany is plentiful in the mining regions. Lignite plant retirements would immediately reduce CO2 emissions.

Jeffrey H. Michel


In this issue