Dream derailed: Coal plant Datteln IV upturns Deutsche Bahn’s green ambitions

Germany’s state-owned railroad, Deutsche Bahn (DB), proudly boasts it’s the largest green electricity user in the nation. With uptake scheduled to grow to 80% by 2030, in tandem with the newly passed German coal-exit laws, DB aims to become 100% renewable by 2038. But by beginning the long-sought phase-out by simultaneously firing up of the new Uniper-owned Datteln IV coal plant, Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition government has thoroughly derailed the railroad’s green ambitions. In one of the worst missteps on Germany’s tortured road towards carbon neutrality, politics has turned Deutsche Bahn into the land’s largest publically-funded greenwasher. L. Michael Buchsbaum takes a look

Deutsche Bahn is greenwashing its energy consumption. (Public Domain)

Climate Protectors

Emblematic of its commitment to renewables, most of Deutsche Bahn’s flagship sleek, white Intercity Express (ICE) train fleet has been proudly emblazoned with green stripes down their flanks. “Train travel is active climate protection.” The mostly state-owned firm credits their passengers, especially holders of 25% and 50% discount cards, with “driving Deutsche Bahn to become CO2-free.”

To accelerate this transition, under the federal government’s climate and economic stimulus packages, Germany is investing well over 100 billion euros in the railroad through 2030. Hands down the largest cash infusion since the industry’s initial development in the 1840s, the money will be used to expand Germany’s existing rail network, construct new train stations, rebuild flagging infrastructure, and retrofit Deutsche Bahn’s power system to better integrate with renewables.

The company will also be hiring up to 100,000 new staff members. Many will find work on-board 200 new long-distance train-sets, including some 30 super high-speed trains (capable of cruising above 300 km/h). But no matter how fast those streamliners race, until the electricity that powers them changes, they’ll all be running dirty.

Green accounting tricks

Even before the new Uniper-owned Datteln IV coal plant came online in June 2020, DB’s trains were not really as 60% green as the railroad likes to claim. Though they are gradually replacing fossil energy and investing in new renewable projects, the railroad remains more than 55% dependent on conventional energy sources.

As late as 2018, when they claimed a green threshold of 57%, a significant portion of that “green” came not from actual carbon-free energy but “green” offsets and “guarantees of origin” that sister company DB Energie buys. While looking good on paper, this accounting maneuver does precious little to reduce actual fossil fuel usage or real-world emissions.

In the railroad’s defense, a long-term contract with several aging river-run hydropower plants provides enough renewable energy to actually balance out what the ICE fleet consumes, but this is only a fraction of DB’s total demand. In a positive sign of things to come, earlier this year, DB announced a new contract to directly connect photovoltaic energy directly onto their specific traction current network for the first time. This follows sister DB Energie tendering for 500 GWh of green power purchase agreements (PPAs) through 2027.

But with an annual electrical requirement of around ten-terawatt hours, in reality the state-owned rail giant can only cover some 45% of its consumption with green electricity, a number that has frustratingly risen just a measly 1% since 2018.

Contrary to their advertising campaign, most of Deutsche Bahn’s electricity is generated under a slew of long-term fossil gas, nuclear and coal-fired generation contracts, the latter of which constitute nearly 25% of the total. Datteln’s addition to the grid all but assures DB will remain largely coal-fired until 2038.

Datteln Debacle

Beyond its 18 year duration, another of the absurdities of Germany’s coal phase-out is that Merkel’s ruling coalition government decided to herald its beginning by simultaneously firing up a new 1100 MW plant: Datteln IV. What’s worse, it has only one remaining, albeit reluctant customer: Deutsche Bahn.

To help understand how this happened, Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND) published a detailed history of the Datteln debacle. Essentially beginning in 2007 the railroad adopted a policy of contracting with a few centralized power plants to ensure a long-term supply at, what at the time, were relatively low prices. Under that rubric, DB agreed to purchase over 400 MW of output from the then under-construction plant. Two years prior, RWE had also purchased 25-year advance supply contracts with a combined capacity of 450 MW. Then scheduled to come on line in 2011 in order to replace several older coal plants, Datteln IV was built largely to suit the railroad’s specific needs. Today it hosts the world’s most powerful rail frequency converter — a single 413 MW unit –ensuring DB a steady flow of electricity at precisely the right voltage.

However, in the decade plus since RWE and DB struck their power contracts with plant owner Uniper, energy prices have largely crashed. In light of this, RWE sued repeatedly, alas unsuccessfully, to be released from its earlier agreements.

As Germany slowly deliberated its coal exit, the railroad clearly hoped that the Coal Commission, and the government’s promise to follow its decisions, would put an end to Datteln once and for all. This seemed all but assured given that it was co-headed by DB rail infrastructure director, Ronald Pofalla. As part of its hard won consensus, he and the rest of the Commission members recommended that the federal government compensate Uniper and never let the plant come online.

But, after a short round of negotiations, the government walked away from the bargaining table, declaring Uniper’s reputed asking price of EURO 1.5 billion too expensive. The bewildering rationale: a brand new Datteln would spew less pollution and hasten the retirement of several other of Uniper’s older hard coal fired power plants. When these plants will come offline remains undetermined given the byzantine provisions of Germany’s coal exit plan.

But with Datteln now generating power, it’s expected to supply the entire traction current for North Rhine-Westphalia, the nation’s most populated state, as well as cover a quarter of the entire German traction current.

Illustrative of the situation’s “whole absurdity,” Green Party chairwoman Annalena Baerbock remarked on Deutschlandfunk Radio that even as RWE, historically Germany’s worst coal polluter, is “paying money for this electricity, they are not accepting it because they say ‘we no longer want coal.’” This has left Deutsche Bahn to buy the remaining electricity, “which is much, much more expensive than the power currently available on the energy markets.”

“It’s possible DB could follow RWE and refuse to accept that power,” said BUND director in NRW, Dirk Jansen, in an interview with ET. “But so far they haven’t. If they did, then Uniper would have a really big problem.”

Frustratingly for the BUND and other green groups is that they don’t want to start bashing the railroad. “Though, we have an anti-Datteln IV campaign with Fridays For Future and others, we still want to support DB. The best solution would be for us to win our on-going lawsuit against Uniper. But until we have new elections, we don’t think much will change. In the meantime, we don’t want to start a rail boycott or for folks to go back to their cars or onto planes. Train travel is still best for the environment.”


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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