Now the German coal phase-out by law is getting serious. Since the beginning of the year, coal-fired power plants with a total output of more than 5,000 megawatts have not been connected to the grid, of which almost 4,800 megawatts are hard coal. In addition, there is Block D of the Niederaussem lignite power station with around 300 megawatts, which the operator RWE took off the grid in mid-December. Like many of the coal plants, it is an ancient block that went into operation in 1968.
The 4800 megawatts of hard coal that were awarded the contract in the Federal Network Agency’s first shutdown auction in autumn went offline on January 1 and not later in the year, a spokesman for the Federal Environment Ministry said when asked. The hard coal plants would first go into a safety standby “without causing CO2 emissions” and then finally shut down in the course of the year. Security readiness means that the blocks can be approached again if necessary, if the Federal Network Agency sees a stable power supply at risk.
When and how many megawatts go from the grid is not as decisive in terms of climate policy as the question of how much CO2 emissions are actually saved. Federal Environment Minister Svenja Schulze (SPD) had dared to come up with a number before the holidays. All coal blocks now decommissioned by law would have “caused over ten million tons of greenhouse gas emissions” in 2019, stated Schulze – with the subliminal message that so much CO2 would now also be saved thanks to the decommissioning.
The first question is how the Minister comes to the ten million tons. “We looked at how much the blocks that are now going offline have emitted in recent years, and then rounded off or estimated for 2019 or used the estimates made by the Federal Environment Agency,” explains a spokesman. Much of the final data is only available for 2018 – and emissions have also been very fluctuating in recent years.
According to the results obtained in this way, some of the hard coal units that have now been disconnected from the grid emitted little or no CO2 in 2019, such as the Jülich thermal power station, the Höchst power plant and the power plants of the Warburg and Brottewitz sugar factories. According to this, the Steag power plant in Walsum, the power plant in Bremen-Hafen, the Uniper power plant in Heyden and the RWE power plants in Westphalia / Hamm and Ibbenbüren each emitted around one to two million tonnes in 2019. At peak times, the two RWE plants alone together emitted between seven and eight million tons of CO2 annually – for most of 2019, however, they apparently did not generate any kilowatt hours.
All in all, the Environment Ministry comes to around 12.5 million tonnes of CO2 emissions caused by the hard coal and lignite units in Niederaussem in 2019 – and they “will no longer be emitted in 2021”, as the spokesman emphasized. In view of the computationally possible 12.5 million tons, Minister Schulze is now on the safe side with her public statement of “over ten million tons” of CO2 emissions for 2019. You don’t really know.
But it is also a fact that the legal exit from the desolate market situation for coal-fired power generation is far behind. The minister expects figures for 2019 – but according to the AG Energiebilanzen, the use of hard coal in power plants for electricity and heat generation decreased by another 26 percent, i.e. by more than a quarter.
The hard coal operators only receive 317 million euros in compensation for the shutdown of their often idle plants. To put it polemically: the taxpayers are pounding millions for – in terms of climate policy – scrap. When it comes to CO2 reduction, the coal phase-out that has been paid for is initially ineffective.
It is also clear: the implicit message from the Federal Environment Ministry that “over ten million tonnes” are no longer emitted and would therefore be saved in the CO2 balance for 2021 does not work. In the end, that would only work if the coal-fired electricity was “replaced” either by decreasing electricity consumption or by renewable electricity generation. Neither is to be expected for this year. In 2020, electricity consumption only declined due to the corona – at the same time, there was also an increased use of natural gas in electricity generation. It also remains to be seen whether, after the weak EEG amendment this year, the generation of green electricity will continue to grow.