Closing sooner than expected: baseload power
On Friday, German power provider Eon confirmed that it will shut down a nuclear plant ahead of schedule. The premature discontinuation of lignite excavation also announced that day, however, is a governmental decision, albeit one the firm may have been about to make itself.
Only a week after the original announcement of the possibility, Eon has made good on its word to close the Grafenrheinfeld nuclear plant ahead of schedule. On Friday, the firm said that the nuclear fuel tax, which would become payable when the plant is refueled next spring, would make the plant unprofitable until it has to be shut down at the end of 2015, so it will be switched off for good instead of for refueling, probably in May.
Wholesale prices have been quite low recently, with no sign of improvement in sight. Last year, RWE's CEO said that conventional plants cannot be profitable at wholesale prices below four cents per kilowatt-hour, a level increasingly not reached.
RWE is probably therefore secretly less upset than it seems about another announcement on Friday; the government of North Rhine/Westphalia has decided that 300 million tons of lignite – nearly a quarter of local resources – will not be excavated at the Garzweiler open-face coalfield near Cologne. Last fall, the firm indicated that it might not need all of the coal it could excavate by 2017/18 at current prices, which make both coal and nuclear unprofitable.
The decision is also significant because Social Democrat governor Hannelore Kraft proved to be a great defender of coal power in the parliamentary elections last fall, so this decision reveals that she is less adamant about coal than feared – and a bigger campaigner for the Energiewende than expected.
German environmentalist organization BUND spoke of a "minor victory after many years of resistance." The new decision means that 1,400 people will be able to keep their homes.
This event in particular also reveals recent coverage of Germany's alleged "sudden hunger for coal," as the New York Times put it, to be an uninformed interpretation of events. The NYT article makes it sound like Germans are rushing to destroy villages to get at the coal underneath them because "there are days when the wind is not blow and clouds fill the sky," and "with eight nuclear reactors shut since 2011 and the push for renewable energy still in its infancy [sic], the country needs to bridge the power gaps." In reality, there's nothing new about villages disappearing because of coal excavation; in 2004, I wrote about the situation in Germany here. The Energiewende did not cause or increase the devastation of villages for coal mining; rather, it made baseload power production (coal and nuclear) unprofitable.
Finally, the Times confuses coal and coal power when it writes that "last year Germany burned more brown coal than at any time since its Communist-era factories began closing in 1990, according to AG Energiebilanzen." In fact, according to AG Energiebilanzen, Germany burned 3.2 exajoules of brown coal in 1990, compared to around 1.7 exajoules in 2013 – a decrease of nearly 50 percent. (Craig Morris)