Wed Sep 23rd, 2009 at 04:30:59 AM EST
Two and a half years ago, the media was abuzz with German plans for 26, even 40 new coal plants (especially in the context of the planned nuclear phase-out). Back then, I judged this as a campaign of wishful thinking on the part of existing large energy companies: meant to pave the way for the few plants they will actually be able to realise, in the struggle to maintain market share they would otherwise be destined to lose to renewables developers.
Seeing how some of the plans foundered already by then, I saw confirmation a year ago. This year, it was projects much closer to realisation that ran into trouble:
- the owner of an in-construction plant in Hamburg is suing against conditions imposed by the environment minister that makes the plant unprofitable;
- the certainty that whatever government will be formed in the state of Saarland after the elections in early September, the Greens will have to be part of it, spells the end of plans there;
- last week's part-annulment of the building permit for another large in-construction plant in the Ruhr area appears poised to kill that project, too.
The last example is a victory for anti-coal activism, which is less glamorous than anti-nuclear or anti-GMO activism, nevertheless, companies (and the politicians and media dogs supporting them) are already alarmed. The battle lines are drawn.
The 1.6GW coal-fired power plant in Hamburg's Moorburg neighbourhood is built by Vattenfall. It can't be justified with shortage to supply local demand: neighbouring Schleswig-Holstein an Lower Saxony states are full of still expanding on-shore wind power, and off-shore wind farms will also be close by. On the other hand, within Vattenfall's portfolio, the Moorburg plant will (would?) be an obvious replacement for the scandal-ridden (see "Not a reliable operator") and ageing Brunsbüttel and Krümmel nuclear plants.
However, the fate of the Moorburg plant has a lot to do with politics.
Until the local elections in February 2008, Hamburg was run by the Christian Democrats (CDU). And the CDU was very much in favour of Vattenfall's plans. So much so that they proposed a doubling of capacity in the planning stage (at least according to a later indignant Vattenfall).
After the elections, the CDU formed a coalition with the Greens. The Greens were against the Moorburg plant, but the CDU engineered a situation in which the fresh environment minister had no legal basis to refuse the building permit. So he gave the permit -- but added conditions.
the company was instructed that it needed to release "less hot water" into the river. Likewise, the company was also told that it would have to use the most up-to-date technology available for separating, capturing and safely storing the carbon dioxide emitted from the coal the power plant would burn. However, carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology is still in the pioneer phase and is seen by energy corporations as an additional cost burden that reduces the efficiency of power plants.
(If you want to read this story in more detail, read the above quoted SPIEGEL article and the Salon thread discussing it from July.)
These conditions mean (1) generation at less than full capacity, (2) greatly increased initial investment costs -- that is, there goes profitability. For a while, Vattenfall thought that these conditions won't be taken seriously, and went ahead with construction -- but even asking Merkel didn't help. So last April, Vattenfall sued against the conditions at the World Bank's arbitration court.
The outcome of the arbitration will be most interesting. But there is more: the CDU-abandoned Vattenfall could not just lose hundreds of millions of Euros on a plant built on sand, but there are considerations to re-communalise the local electricity distribution system (now in Vattenfall's hands).
Saarland is small state next to France and Luxembourg with a long tradition of coal and steel. It is also a state with a somewhat special political landscape: it is made up of the same five parties as the federal parliament, but recently the Left Party is not a small but a third big party; and the CDU and FDP on one hand and the Social Democrats (SPD) and Left Party on the other hand hate each others' guts, placing a Grand Coalition out of question.
And now, after the regional elections last month (see German regional elections open thread), neither block has a majority --making the Greens the kingmakers.
The Saarland Greens, like their Hamburg comrades 1½ years earlier, made a rejection of new coal plants a centerpiece of their campaign. (RWE has a project in Ensdorf put on hold.) But they are now in a much better position to enforce it than their Hamburg counterparts. In fact, the very first coalition offers from both the CDU and the SPD contained the shelving of new coal plant plans.
Datteln (Ruhr Area)
In Datteln, on the Northern edge of another traditional coal-and-steel industrial area, the Ruhr Area, German energy giant E.on was building a 1.05 GW coal-fired power plant.
As in Hamburg and Saarland, the regional government is led by the CDU after preceding long years of SPD rule. However, in the conflict over this plant, the political sides are blaming each other for actions of the same bureaucrats, and real action is taken by non-politicians.
Having failed to prevent the project, resistance went to the courtrooms. As SPIEGEL reports, two weeks ago the regional court already nixed the land-use plan, because certain zoning and environmental laws weren't heeded. But the big strike was prepared by German environmental activist umbrella organisation BUND: a lawsuit against three of the building permits themselves.
The lawsuit capitalises on sloppy work by the above mentioned bureaucrats: in theory, the lots of procedural omissions and mistakes could be corrected, but they would cost money --and time, time during which BUND can bring in more lawsuits.
In addition, BUND requested from the local government that they immediately withdraw the permits, so that finished facts won't preempt the court ruling -- and last week, the request was granted for one of the permits.
The end of this road could be very costly for E.on: if BUND wins the case at court, they will not just abandon but will have to completely dismantle the already finished superstructure.
BUND & co were emboldened by the success in Datteln.
- The currently CDU-led Schleswig-Holstein government wants to push through a 0.8 GW project of GdF Suez in Brunsbüttel (yes, near the nuclear plant). The Datteln example of attacking the land-use plan could work there: residential areas are even closer. What's more, a local utility partnering with GdF Suez is to stand down due to pressure. And regional elections will be held simultaneously with the federal ones.
- 21,000 opponents of a plant planned by E.on in Staudinger, in Hessen state, signed a petition for a regional planning procedure.
- In Lubmin, on the Baltic sea, Danish company Dong Energy wants to build a 1.6GW plant. The project awaits permission from the Grand Coalition-governed Mecklenburg-Vorpommern state -- opponents staged a protest on Monday.
- The potential weak point of two more planned coal plants in the Ruhr Area, at Lünen and Krefeld (both planned by local company Trianel) is the local effect of their emissions.
Currently, apart from the troubled projects mentioned above, five more coal-burning and two lignite-burning power plants are in construction and about a dozen more are planned.