Environment

Germany’s Renewable Energy Push Doesn’t Mean Forsaking Coal — Yet

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Across the Atlantic Ocean, governments and businesses are taking big steps toward renewable energy. Their transition could provide lessons for Kentucky.

This is the third in a five-part series. Read the others here.

For 900 years, ships and goods have been unloaded in Hamburg, Germany’s second-biggest city and an industrial center. On a fall day, tourists stroll along the Landungsbrücken, or floating dock, watching the boats come and go.

Like in Kentucky, manufacturers in Hamburg need to know that they’ll have a large and constant supply of affordable electricity. And two very different power plants in Hamburg show the tension in Germany’s energy market.

On one end of the city is Moorburg, a brand-new coal-fired power plant about 20 minutes away from Hamburg’s main train station. It’s been more than a decade since Moorburg was first planned, though it just began operating at full capacity this year.

And although Germany is transitioning to renewable energy, many still argue there’s a role for fossil fuel-generated electricity — if not without some controversy.

In the past six years, while the plant was under construction, Gudrun Bode has taken 21,000 people on tours of Moorburg.

“Everybody can come and have a look here at the power plant,” she said.

Moorburg is a super-efficient 1,654 megawatt coal-fired power plant owned by energy company Vattenfall. That’s bigger than Mill Creek, Louisville Gas & Electric’s largest plant. It looks similar to those in the U.S., with a few European touches.

Workers ride bicycles from one end of the property to another. Many of the power plant buildings are covered in Hamburg’s signature red brick because of local requirements. The large buildings that hold the coal and coal ash are covered with giant, architecturally-pleasing domes. In a control room on site, employees sit all day every day, controlling how much energy the plant produces.

One of the policies behind the steep rise in German renewable energy gives renewable sources priority access to the grid, which puts coal plants like Moorburg at a disadvantage. The plant shuts down entirely about two times a month, because the grid is full of renewable energy. But Vattenfall spokeswoman Barbara Meyer-Bukow said Moorburg was built to be flexible. The plant can increase or decrease its electricity production by about 40 megawatts a minute. That’s about one-and-a-half times faster than Kentucky’s Ghent coal plant, one of the state’s largest and most flexible plants.

“If there’s no sun and no wind and no renewable energy in the grid, we can reduce our production very quickly,” Meyer-Bukow said. “So we can react quickly and we are very flexible, and that’s important if we want to survive in this environment.”

She said the plant is still needed, even in a country that wants to get 80 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2050.

“Unless you find a solution in terms of storage of electricity, you still need backup capacities,” she said. “And backup capacities are, for example, gas-fired plants or coal-fired plants.”

But even Vattenfall admits the decision to build Moorburg was made in a different energy climate. The plant ended up costing the company about $3 billion U.S. dollars — a billion dollars over budget. And the company has already decided to take a $651 million loss on the project.

But Moorburg isn’t the only coal-fired power plant to open recently in Germany — it’s actually one of several that have opened since 2013. And the new plants coming online coincided with a slight increase in carbon dioxide emissions. Germany’s coal plants emitted more CO2 in 2013 than they did in 2011 and 2012, though the country’s overall greenhouse gas emissions are down 27 percent from 1990s levels.

Part of the continued investment in coal is due to plans that were made a decade or more ago, like in the case of Moorburg. But another part is the result of an energy policy that hasn’t worked out the way it was intended, according to Camilla Bausch of the German think tank Ecologic Institute.

As part of the European Union, Germany participates in an emissions trading system — basically the same model that’s referred to as cap-and-trade in the United States.

“I think the policy mix is all right, you can have a policy mix of a feed-in tariff and an emissions trading system, that is good,” Bausch said. “They can strengthen each other. They look at slightly different things and therefore have different effects, so that’s good. Policy mixes are generally to our analyses very good if they are well-designed.”

But she said the EU emissions trading system wasn’t well-designed. The plan issues certificates for carbon dioxide emissions; it’s supposed to make carbon-intensive fuels more expensive. But Bausch said the EU issued too many certificates, driving down the price of carbon dioxide.

“The market works as the market works,” she said. “If you have too much supply and the demand doesn’t match it, then the price goes down. So it actually worked pretty well, just that there was an overallocation. Now some say, ‘well, it worked.’”

The emissions trading system was supposed to reduce the cost for lower- or no-carbon fuels, like renewable sources or natural gas. But because the certificates are so cheap, it’s still affordable to build a new coal plant in Germany.

Despite the setback in the emissions trading system, renewable energy is still growing, and provides more than a quarter of Germany’s electricity.

“This is a very hard contrast when you see Moorburg with the coal on the one hand side, and on the other hand side you can see the energy bunker with the renewables. So, this is Hamburg.” Anna von Vietinghoff

The Renewables Bunker

You could see the smokestacks of Moorburg from the roof of a very different energy project across town, on the urban island of Wilhelmsburg. There, on the roof of Hamburg’s energy bunker, is a café. As the sun began to set on an autumn afternoon, people sat outside, drinking coffee and champagne.

Anna von Vietinghoff pointed toward Moorburg.

“This is a very hard contrast when you see Moorbunrg with the coal on the one hand side, and on the other hand side you can see the energy bunker with the renewables,” she said. “So, this is Hamburg.”

Von Vietinghoff works for city-owned utility Hamburg Energie, the company that operates the energy bunker. This is a literal bunker: a hulking concrete reminder of World War II. It was built in 1943 for the dual purpose of trying to shoot down Allied bombers and protect Hamburg’s residents from attacks.

On the roof of the bunker, tour guide Adam Gancarczyk pointed to the four massive towers at each corner. “These were the anti-aircraft towers,” he said. “And the idea was to save Hamburg by such buildings.”

But what was inside the bunker was more important. Protected by 80,000 tons of concrete, hundreds of thousands of families sought shelter during attacks. And although it stood as a neighborhood eyesore for decades after the war, the bunker was reinvented in 2011 as a source of renewable energy for thousands of its neighbors.

“I know it’s like a big jump now, but you can see above us is a solar heat system,” Gancarczyk said. “Of course, that one wasn’t existing during the war time. They installed it here like four years ago.”

The contrast between the Nazi bunker and its current use is stark. In the bunker’s stairwells, fading signs tell residents to continue upward toward safety. In the elevator, a flyer advertises brunch at the rooftop café.

Solar panels cover the bunker’s roof and the south side. Inside, Hamburg Energie has a renewable energy system, utilizing solar energy, waste heat from a nearby factory and a combined heat-and-power unit. The bunker provides heat and electricity to more than 700 nearby homes; officials are working to add another 700 to the system.

From Bundestag to Bluegrass is a five-part web and radio series examining Germany’s energy transition — and its potential lessons for Kentucky.

Anna von Vietinghoff said this is a fitting use for the bunker, which used to be both a sign of a dark time in the country’s history and a neighborhood eyesore.

“It’s a good idea after the bad history, turning it into something good,” she said. “Good for the people and good for the environment.”

Now it represents the future. In the next three years, the company plans to expand its service to 3,000 households, and the island of Wilhelmsburg has a goal of being completely carbon neutral by 2050.

This story was originally published on December 9, 2015.

Photo credit: Erica Peterson

This series was supported in part by a grant from the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

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