White shiny walls, clean big spaces and glass walls separating offices from industrial areas – that is generally not the typical image one would associate with a lignite power plant. Lippendorf in Saxony, about 15 km south from Leipzig, looks just like that and is perfect to discuss the challanges of energy transition.
Lippendorf belongs to one of the youngest and most modern lignite-fired power plants in Germany. Finished after eight years of construction in the year 2000, with the budget of more than two billion Euros, it is expected to function till 2040. But was it actually a reasonable decision to open such a traditionally oriented facility on the verge of the new millennium?
European politicians were slowly beginning to think about renewable resources as an alternative for coal at that time, and how to reduce the amount of energy delivered from the traditional, non-renewable sources. Energiewende was just about to be adopted in 2002.
Launched by the opponents of nuclear power in the 1970s, the idea of energy transition, or Energiewende, was mainly aimed at switching to renewable energy as well as at decreasing energy consumption. Today, however, with the large CO2 emissions and all the subsequent ecological issues connected to the use of coal, the focus has shifted to decreasing the reliance on this source of energy.
Germany has traditionally used coal as a primary source of its power supply. Despite its harsh effects on the environment, decreasing coal usage has shown to be more difficult than expected. Coal remains a major pillar in Germany’s power sector and is the main domestic fossil fuel, with reserves sufficient for another two centuries at current usage rates.
The plans for a new, modern lignite power plant emerged not long after the fall of Berlin Wall. Before the reunification, there was a total of 750 thousand people employed in the mining industry. After 1989, many Eastern Germans have found themselves jobless. “People in the region wanted to continue with the mining. But they needed to know first if the coal from Lusatia, which is the second biggest coal mining region in Germany, would be able to compete and earn on itself without government subsidies,” says Albrecht Wolf, a Vattenfall employee who gives guided tours through the facility. “But research had shown that the quality of this coal would bring profit without subsidies – on the condition that it would be processed by a new, more effective plant.”
Just a few years later after the opening, the financial crisis kicked in, reducing the amount of energy being consumed, and lowering the prices of electricity by two thirds. And for a range of various reasons, its owner, Swedish state-owned Vattenfall, is now about to sell it away.
“The reasons to sell Vattenfall’s coal mines and power plants are mainly environmental and political,” continues Mr. Wolf. “The other reason was that the Swedish government also makes steps to emancipate itself from coal industry and to become carbon neutral. Vattenfall as a state owned company then has to follow.” The new focus should then shift to water power plants at the Ostsee, nuclear energy and offshore wind power plants.
One of the parties interested in buying Vattenfall’s assets is the Czech energy corporation ČEZ. “There is quite an interesting parallel here,” thinks Konrad Thurm, an energy consultant based in Leipzig. “The Czechs had invested in the lignite industry here in Central Germany already at the beginning of the 20th century, before the First World War. And in a way, they have returned again in the recent years: the coal mining company Mibrag, which was originally German, is now owned by the Czechs, and ČEZ considers to buy Vattenfall’s power plants and mines.”
Despite the big goals, coal-generated energy is, however, likely to retain its position during Germany’s nuclear phase-out, unless new policies are implemented. “If we do not manage to pull off the low-carbon transition without social and economic disruption in the lignite regions, we are really at risk of making it an example that other are hesitant to follow,“ thinks the researcher Juilian Schwartzkopff.
Still, with the possibility of the rising price of coal and the increasing competitiveness of renewable power, coal industry will eventually have to be replaced in the long run. At the moment, coal serves mainly as a temporary energy source. With this in mind, Energiewende will still remain a challenge.
The approaches to the problematics are also polarised: On one side, there is fear of losing jobs and economic impact on the region if the whole industry closes down. Some also believe that climate change is just an artificial ideology that feeds on fear. On the other side, especially young researchers are convinced that the toll of environmental burden of mining and CO2 emissions is simply too high. And that the sooner the new strategy will be put into practice, the better.
Varvara Morozova, Jana Safarikova