Irrational thinking: Merkel’s government stunningly green-lights new coal-fired power plant

Despite all their rhetoric, Angela Merkel’s Grand Coalition government is clearly not all that interested in really powering past coal. The latest evidence is its decision to allow the Uniper-owned 1,200 MW hard coal-fired power plant, Datteln 4, to come online in 2020 — against the recommendations of the Coal Commission. As the government embarks on a bizarre sales campaign peddling the idea that Datteln’s advanced technology will somehow help improve the climate, activists are organizing a protest wave that will dwarf previous actions around the embattled Hambach Forest. Michael Buchsbaum reviews the situation.

Merkel’s government allowed another coal power plant to get connected to the grid in 2020 (Public Domain)

Tricks, but no treats

Just before Halloween, Reuters reported that the Merkel’s German government would indeed allow utility Uniper to start commercial operations at its 1.5 billion euro ($1.7 billion) Datteln 4 coal-fired power plant as early as the summer of 2020.

Controversial from the first draft, despite its eventual completion in 2011, the 1.1 gigawatt plant has never had a certain future. As part of the Coal Commission’s agreement, all parties agreed that it never be allowed to link to the grid, recommending instead that owner Uniper receive compensation payments for its lost investment.

Way back in January 2019, Germany’s Coal Commission, charged with creating a pathway for the nation’s “coal-exit” agreed on a series of steps to end coal-fired power production no later than 2038, but key details of the still evolving federal plan remain controversial between the government’s coalition parties. As of mid-December, no concrete steps have been taken, no coal plants or mines have been permanently closed, nor have any dates been announced.

However, the Coal Commission was quite clear that no new coal plants should come on-line. Nevertheless, a draft bill of the government’s promised coal exit law has created a notable carve-out, one that can only apply to a single plant. “It is forbidden to commission new coal and lignite-fired power plants unless the coal-fired power plant has been granted emission-control approval at the time of its entry into force.” Datteln 4 has held such a permit since 2017.

Talks about compensation payments, which reportedly dragged on for several months, have been broken off as the government has instead decided that Datteln 4, as one of the most modern coal-fired power plants in the world, would help Germany reduce overall CO2 emissions if older coal plants were shut down after it comes on line.

Datteln to become the new Hambach Forest

Incensed by the idea and promising mass civil disobedience, Martin Kaiser, leader of Greenpeace Germany responded, “if Datteln 4 goes on the grid, then the federal government breaks the coal compromise.” Green Party co-leader, Annalena Baerbock, echoed Kaiser, warning that “the launch of Datteln 4 would put an end to the coal compromise…destroying the hard work of the Coal Commission.”

The German Agency for the Environment and Nature Conservation (BUND) criticized that the decision over Datteln “undermines the credibility of this federal government in terms of climate protection,” said the chairman of the environmental organization, Olaf Bandt.

Though it doubtlessly will become the subject of legal action, a growing alliance of climate activists is already preparing for a massive response if the plant actually connects to the grid, promising a second Hambach Forest-like protracted protest struggle. Given the swelling numbers of activists joining Fridays For Future, Ende Gelände, Extinction Rebellion and other activist groups, there will be no shortage of demonstrators.

Coal is clean

Datteln’s commissioning was originally scheduled for 2011 after a five-year construction period. But due to planning errors, legal objections and material difficulties in the boilers, the “most modern coal-fired power plant in Europe,” languished on the sidelines. Over time, it’s become, as other media commentators termed it, “a symbol of arrogance with which the established energy industry has ignored the boom of renewable energies.”

During its existence, the ownership of the hulking plant has drifted to the former E.ON branch of Uniper, in which the Finnish state-owned company Fortum took a majority stake last year. Ironically, Finland itself has already decided to exit coal by 2029 while firmly committing not to build any more coal plants.

Nevertheless, Merkel’s government has refused to pay off Uniper, instead embracing the Orwellian logic that turning on a cleaner Datteln would actually help coal save the environment.

Invoking reason and rationality

Armin Laschet (CDU), the state premier of Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), has emerged as one of the government’s primary coal salespeople. He has already spent much of his tenure defending Europe’s largest polluter, RWE in their quest to burn as much climate-killing brown coal as possible. He has also helped lead and defend police efforts to combat protestors in the ancient Hambach Forest. Now he’s Datteln’s most public water-carrier.

In a recent interview with the Rheinische Post newspaper he claimed that in fact “the commissioning of Datteln 4 will lead to a reduction in CO2 emissions,” arguing that the modern hard coal plant will allow the taking of older and less efficient brown coal plants off the grid sooner. He followed this suggestion by calling for more “reason and rationality” in the growing “emotional debate” around Germany’s promised but still nebulous coal exit.

According to Laschet, Uniper has offered to switch off other power plants in return for permission to operate—but it too has yet to publically reveal which ones or when.

The only possible candidate, however, is Uniper’s Schkopau facility. Scheduled to remain online through 2035, the filthy lignite-fired power plant in Saxony-Anhalt has a capacity of 900 MW. Officially in standby service, it has relatively rarely been used this year–only operating at about 38 percent of capacity. Nevertheless Schkopau by year’s end will have released over six million tonnes of CO2.

By contrast, Datteln 4 could belch up to 8.4 million tonnes of CO2 annually provided it is running at full capacity. Unlike many other coal plants, Datteln has the capability of ramping up and down relatively efficiently to meet fluctuating demand, but in so doing, it would actually release even more emissions, further undermining the government’s logic.

Moreover, since Germany no longer mines any hard coal, all of Datteln’s feedstock would have to be imported, creating additional environmental damage, increasing biodiversity and habitat loss and releasing even more emissions across global supply chains.

If allowed to operate through 2038, then it will produce more than 30 million cumulative tonnes of CO2 over the next 18 years.

Surely you’re bluffing…

One sliver of hope remains –an unnamed member of the coal commission told energy policy newsletter Tagesspiegel Background that the government’s announcement could be a “bluff”, as both Uniper and the government haggle over compensation payment figures. Uniper itself suggested during the negotiations earlier this year that it was not particularly interested in getting the plant online given satisfactory compensation, the source said.


L. Michael Buchsbaum is an energy and mining journalist and industrial photographer based in Germany. Since the mid-1990s, he has covered the social, environmental, economic and political impacts of the transition from fossil fuels towards renewables for dozens of industry magazines, journals, institutions and corporate clients. Born in the U.S., he emigrated to Germany and Europe to better document the Energiewende. He is also the host of The Global Energy Transition Podcast.

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