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Amid an energy crisis, Germany turns to the world's dirtiest fossil fuel

The chimney of the Evonik coal plant in Marl, Germany, on Sept. 13. This coal-fired power plant helps power a chemical park run by Evonik. The park employs more than 10,000 people and the plant, which was scheduled to shut down this year, will be open for at least another year to replace natural gas that has been cut by Russia.
Rob Schmitz
/
NPR
The chimney of the Evonik coal plant in Marl, Germany, on Sept. 13. This coal-fired power plant helps power a chemical park run by Evonik. The park employs more than 10,000 people and the plant, which was scheduled to shut down this year, will be open for at least another year to replace natural gas that has been cut by Russia.

DORTMUND, Germany — Power Plant Manager Bernard Vendt stands on a platform jutting out from a smokestack, 20 stories above his company's chemical park. Past the park's menagerie of twisting pipes, scaffolding and chimneys below him is a waterway that connects these factories to their energy source.

"Over there, that's our harbor," Vendt says, pointing with one hand while the other keeps his hard hat steady in the gusting wind. "You see the yellow crane moving there? That's where the coal has landed by ship."

The coal's destination lies underneath Vendt in a massive furnace whose heat will spin turbines and generate enough energy to keep this chemical park running through the winter, maintaining more than 10,000 jobs.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. This coal-fired power plant is one of several nationwide that were scheduled to be shut down by the end of the year, to maintain Germany's commitment to phasing out coal by the end of this decade. But with Russia cutting natural gas deliveries to Europe, and with no quick options to replace that energy, Germany is warily turning to its most reliable — and environmentally polluting — fossil fuel. At least 20 coal-fired power plants nationwide are being resurrected or extended past their closing dates to ensure Germany has enough energy to get through the winter.

A desperate attempt to keep the business going — and the lights on

For Evonik, the company that runs Vendt's power plant, burning coal will mean the company's business stays intact. But Heiko Mennerich, the company's head of energy, says it's costly.

Heiko Mennerich, head of energy for German chemical company Evonik, at the coal-fired power plant at the company's chemical park in Marl, Germany, on Sept. 13. The plant was scheduled to shut down for good this fall, but due to the German energy crisis, it's one of several coal plants nationwide that will continue to burn coal to get the country through the winter.
Rob Schmitz / NPR
/
NPR
Heiko Mennerich, head of energy for German chemical company Evonik, at the coal-fired power plant at the company's chemical park in Marl, Germany, on Sept. 13. The plant was scheduled to shut down for good this fall, but due to the German energy crisis, it's one of several coal plants nationwide that will continue to burn coal to get the country through the winter.

"It's a lot of effort Evonik is spending to secure the energy supply of this site and also for Germany," Mennerich says. "But having no energy, having no electricity, having no steam in the winter, is much more serious than this question."

He says staying competitive globally will remain difficult for Evonik given the cost of coal in Germany, which rose from $64 per metric ton at the beginning of 2021 to nearly $400 this summer.

"If you compare the energy price level in Europe with the energy price level in the U.S., we are suffering under the competition," he says. "So I fear what happens to the European industry if we have this high energy price level for a longer period of time."

Germany's central bank recently predicted a clear, broad-based decline in the country's economic output mainly due to the energy crisis.

Not all doom and gloom

In another part of Germany's industrial heartland, one company expects to thrive.

At a coal-fired power plant near Dortmund run by the utilities company Steag, turbines are spinning at full speed, producing enough energy to power 1.3 million homes.

Steag was preparing to shut down five of its six coal plants this year, including this one, but the government has renewed their licenses for the next two years while putting a cap on Steag's and other utilities' earnings. Still, this setup means Steag will generate power for 3% of Germany's households.

"Economically, it isn't a bad situation," says Steag spokesman Daniel Mühlenfeld. "On the one hand, the government will restrict our earnings for energy, but on the other hand, looking back two years to 2020 when we were in a situation to organize a hard coal phaseout, we had a very demanding situation."

Even environmental groups agree this might be best short-term solution

Steag's earnings from burning more coal will go into constructing more wind turbines and solar panels, but environmentalists are worried the German government isn't doing enough to ensure that.

Still, even the country's staunchest environmentalists admit that coal is the quickest and most cost-effective answer to Germany's energy crisis.

"We can understand the government restarting coal-fired power plants in Germany," says Greenpeace Germany's Karsten Smid, "but on one precondition: Coal is destroying the climate. So in the end, we do not accept any additional CO2 emissions without a commitment to savings."

Smid says the government will need to ensure that every ton of CO2 emitted from burning coal will be offset by reducing emissions elsewhere in the economy.

The problem, says Smid, is that the German government hasn't promised that. Instead, it's given a green light to operators to burn more coal so that Germany — and its economy — doesn't freeze this winter.

Esme Nicholson contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.