Sat Jun 30th, 2012 at 03:43:36 AM EST
Today the last coal mine closes in the German state of Saarland. This is the end of an era, because Saarland was one of the two main high-grade coal regions in post-WWII Germany, alongside the Ruhr Area.
The background of the mine closure is the phasing-out of subsidies for the mining of high-grade coal by 2018 (though the closure in Saarland was accelerated after a 4.7 earthquake in 2008). These coal subventions were fought over hard ever since the first Social Democrat (SPD)–Greens coalition governments in North Rhine-Westphalia state (NRW, 1995) and at federal level (1998). While the Greens could only get the SPD to agree to reductions, in 2007 EU pressure forced the then Grand Coalition (CDU+SPD) federal government to decide for a phaseout by 2018, and again at the behest of the EU, a 2010 revision accelerated the annual reduction of subsidies.
The end of subsidies effectively means the end of coal mining: now only four mines in NRW remain active, of which the first closes at the end of the year, another in three years, and the last two when the subsidies run out. But the defenders of the subventions proved right in one point: coal users just switched to imports (now 80%), which brings additional problems like fine dust pollution in ports. As things stand, the future of coal use depends on factors like the stringency of environmental protection demands on new plants, the international market price of coal (currently on the rise again), and the domestic market price of scheduled power (currently depressed by solar).
Two notes for context.
First, it is always worth to emphasize that coal terminology differs in different languages: the high-grade coal mentioned here, Steinkohle ("stone coal") mostly overlaps with "bituminous coal" in English terminology, but without the lowest grades of the latter and also including the lowest grades of English-terminology anthracite.
Second, in stats you can download here, you can see that last year, when eight nuclear power plants were closed in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, production from plants firing high-grade coal fell 2.5 TWh, while gas- and oil-fired power plant output also fell by 2.8 TWh resp. 1.4 TWh, and "brown coal" (corresponds to the English sub-bituminous coal and lignite) rose by 7.1 TWh. This shift is mostly down to the rise of solar power, which reduced the share of conventional plants in scheduled variable power, even while the intermittent production from wind rose last year.