On Thursday, the German government decided to phase out some 2.7 gigawatts of brown coal-fired power in order to meet the country’s 2020 climate goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent compared to 1990 levels — a target that the rest of the EU hopes to reach a decade later.
After months of back and forth between members of chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition and heavy industry pressure, the announcement was met with mixed reaction.
Environmental groups had hoped for a levy, or tax, on carbon from the most polluting power plants. But that proposal was opposed by unions, plant operators, and local governments. Instead, operators will now be offered financial incentives to take plants offline. In addition, a “capacity reserve” system will be put into effect in which utilities can switch to brown coal-fired power plants during power shortages rather than be part of the normal power market.
Brown coal, otherwise known as lignite, is a cheap, carbon-intense form of coal with a relatively low heat content. It is generally brown in color as opposed to black and has a high water content.
The 2.7 gigawatts slated to go offline is the equivalent of about five large coal-fired power plants, or about 13 percent of Germany’s total lignite-burning power plant capacity. The plants will be entirely phased out four years after going on reserve in 2017.
The economy ministry said that the agreement will lead to an 11 million tons-per-year reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, compared to the previous levy plan which would have eliminated at least 16 million ton per year. Bloomberg Business reports that the lignite industry also “agreed to cut an additional 1.5 millions tons a year from 2018 in a way that still needs to be negotiated.”
The climate action group 350.org released a statement saying the good news is that “the decision by the German government to mothball some of the oldest lignite power plants is yet another sign that coal is on its way out.”
The bad news: “It doesn’t go nearly far enough. In fact, the government caved in to big polluters and went with a watered-down proposal.”
Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions fell for the first time in three years in 2014. According to the environmental ministry, the drop came both from the expansion of renewables and a relatively mild winter. Renewable sources accounted for 27.8 percent of power consumption in 2014, up from 6.2 percent in 2000, and carbon emissions dropped 4.3 percent year-over-year.
This made 2014 a big year for Germany’s renewable energy transition, known as Energiewende, which requires the phasing out of nuclear energy by 2022 and reducing GHGs at least 80 percent by 2050. The government also wants the at least double the percentage of renewables in the energy mix by 2035.
In response to the Fukushima nuclear meltdown in Japan in 2011, Germany decided to shutter its nuclear power operations, causing the country to rely more on coal as it transitions to renewables. Currently coal still accounts for some 44 percent of the country’s power generation.