Will another coal plant ever be opened in Germany? Only one is currently in the pipeline officially, and it has almost been completed—and could be put into operation soon. So what’s the holdup? Craig Morris takes a look.
A wave of new coal projects is now over in Germany. It resulted from two actions at the EU level:
- the Industrial Emissions Directive of 2010, which requires much cleaner coal plants and this year; and
- emissions trading, which swamped utilities with tens of billions in windfall profits.
Around ten years ago, utilities across Europe thus began planning a slew of coal plants and gas turbines to replace old coal. Germany’s made news partly because they were completed just after Fukushima in 2011, and Energiewende critics jumped on the opportunity to claim that Germany aimed to replace nuclear with coal—even though no new coal plant has received a permit since 2009.
Vattenfall is selling its coal assets in Germany, whereas Eon has spun off its conventional energy divisions (now listed as Uniper), and RWE is floating its renewable division this week. RWE has one more coal plant on the drawing board at Niederaussem. This summer, the firm applied for legal clarification towards getting a permit, but there has been no news since; the latest report also states that the project would only lose money for the firm (in German).
In contrast, Uniper’s potentially next new coal plant—Datteln 4—is 80% finished. It has an illustrious history: built on land five kilometers from where a permit was granted for construction, the plant saw construction discontinued after two years in 2009, when a court revoked the permit. Environmental groups tipped off of local pig farmer to the breach, and the farmer took the firm to court—and won.
At least initially—Uniper eventually continued construction as further court challenges came in. The latest one was quashed last week (in German), when a court overruled objections by the town adjacent to the actual site (as opposed to the originally permitted location). The firm is now free to proceed; the permit for the actual site was granted after the fact. Uniper’s options seem to be opening a plant that will lose money or abandoning a project that has already cost more than a billion euros.
What does the stock market think?
As chance would have it, Uniper went public in September. The price was less than half of what Eon valued its spin-off at. By the end of the month, the stock price was up one percent and hence relatively stable.
As for RWE, the spinoff of its renewable energy division will come this week. Some municipal utilities are taking advantage of the opportunity to sell stakes. The demise of RWE could impact numerous municipal budgets, as so many city councils bought into the giant utility as a supposed safe bet. The deals often go back decades, but recent buy-ins have proven painful; for instance, the city of Düsseldorf bought shares at 60 euros in 2007, but the current price is closer to 15 euros (in German). Municipalities will thus have to suck up their losses and try to reinvest for the community’s benefit. The new RWE will no longer have any renewables after the spinoff and is thus unattractive for city councils politically and financially.
It’s hard to imagine either Datteln or Niederaussem going forward, especially in light of the latest news: German utilities are planning massive early retirement of existing coal facilities. But as each facility is closed, the price pressure on the other loosens. That article closes with a metaphor of coal plant closures as a game of chicken; I have called it “whoever blinks first loses.” German utility association BDEW keeps a list of power plant plans (PDF in German). The current version expects a reduction of up to 18 GW by 2025, 10.8 of which will be nuclear by the end of 2022.
German utilities will therefore tap their liquidity to absorb losses in the midterm from money-losing power plants. If they can keep plants from closing, the rewards could be lucrative next decade. By 2023, power prices in Germany should be much higher than today if so much fossil and nuclear capacity is removed—and if the government sticks to its plans to cut the growth of renewable power by two-thirds.
The market would then reward whatever plant managed to stay open. It’s yet another example of a market incentive that is counterproductive in terms of the climate. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that the last coal plant in Germany may have already been built.