Open pit lignite mine in Hambach, North Rhine-Westphalia. Photo: CLEW

Commission watch – Managing Germany’s coal phase-out

In a bid to improve Germany's poor emission reduction record and to identify economic perspectives for people employed in the waning coal industry, the government has set up a commission tasked with managing the definite phase-out of coal-fired power production in the country. Representatives from the government, civil society, business, and labour unions are meeting regularly to debate and provide advice on the planned exit from coal extraction and combustion. CLEW’s commission watch traces the progress and public perception of this endeavour. [UPDATE Meeting in central German mining district]

  • By early December 2018, ahead of the COP24 in Poland, they are to provide guidance on how the world’s fourth-largest economy can close the gap to its 2020 climate target “as much as possible.”
  • By the end of the year, the commission is to present to the government a final report that is to include a coal-exit date in Germany.

Find further details and analysis in the factsheets Germany’s coal exit commission and Germany's three lignite regions, as well as the articles Germany starts coal exit talks in bid to improve patchy climate record and Hot summer turns up the heat on Germany’s coal commission.

To stay abreast of the most recent developments, also read our daily News Digest and follow us on twitter @cleanenergywire.

24 September

Coal commission meets in Central German mining district

Members of the coal exit commission met in the central German mining district in Saxony-Anhalt on 24 September. The visit “was important in order to discuss the special features of the region”, said the four chairs in a statement released after the meeting. The members debated the regional topics with input from local employers, politicians, NGO representatives and other stakeholders. The next meetings will take place in the Lusatia lignite mining region on 11 October, and then in Berlin on 12 October.

Saxony-Anhalt’s state premier Reiner Haseloff (CDU) reminded the commission members that it shouldn’t take the second step before the first. “The regions affected by structural change must first be shown realistic prospects for the future. Only then steps can be taken to reduce coal-fired power generation.” Experience with the end of hard coal mining in Germany had shown “that industry and the public sector will have to spend at least 60 billion euros to create jobs and infrastructure measures in the regions affected by the decline in coal-fired power generation”.

21 September

Saving Hambach Forest would cost billions of euros – RWE head

Not cutting down the embattled Hambach Forest would cost four to five billion euros, Rolf Martin Schmitz, head of energy company RWE, which wants to clear the forest to expand a nearby lignite mine, said  in the political talk show Maybrit Illner on public TV station ZDF. “The assumption that the forest can be saved is an illusion,” said Schmitz. It had to go because the land was needed to stabilise the embankments at the edge of the pit mine. If the forest remained standing, RWE would have to collect “huge amounts” of soil from other areas at great cost, said Schmitz. The Hambach Forest is “really just a symbol” and “this piece of forest cannot be saved.”

20 September

Clearing of anti-coal activist camps halted after journalist falls to death

The government of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) has stopped the clearing of anti-coal activist camps in Hambach Forest “until further notice” after a journalist fell to his death. “We cannot simply return to business as usual,” said NRW interior minister Herbert Reul. According to the police, a journalist broke through a suspension bridge between two trees and fell 15 metres. He later died from his injuries. There was no police operation ongoing near the scene of the accident, according to a police statement.

18 September

Germany’s coal commission insists no decision yet on exit date

The country’s coal exit commission said there were no predetermined decisions regarding a date for the end to coal-fired power generation. Following irritation about reports of a supposed compromise on a 2038 end date, economy minister Peter Altmaier used the task force’s fifth meeting to reassure members that the government would not interfere. A government advisor told the commission that the total amount of CO₂ emitted by Germany's coal fired power plants over the coming years is far more important than when the last plant goes offline.

In an interview with German public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk, miners’ union IG BCE head Michael Vassiliadis said that he could not “make sense” of the proposal the Spiegel reported, because “it doesn’t go with anything we’ve discussed in the commission so far.” He said that Germany will have a step-by-step reduction of coal-fired power generation and the speed also depends on the permit durations for the individual plants. Regarding the 2016 decision by the state government in North Rhine-Westphalia to honour existing permits allowing mining until 2045, Vassiliadis said that operators would let the most modern plants run into the 2040s “if we need the power then. If we don’t need the power, they are going to be pushed out of the market, anyways”. The decisive factor in when coal would be pushed out of the market is renewables expansion, he said.
On the embattled Hambach Forest, which the RWE wants to cut down to expand a lignite mine, Vassiliadis said he understood the protest, but also that “RWE is not willing to simply shut down its energy generation capacities because of the protests, without any compensation or view to the future”.

16 September

Media report about coal exit proposal causes irritation

A report about a proposal by one of Germany’s coal commission co-heads for a coal exit by 2038 has caused irritation. Co-chair Ronald Pofalla also proposes taking 5-7 gigawatts of coal capacity off-line and into a security reserve by 2020, and revisiting the exit path by 2027, according to a report in magazine Der Spiegel. Some commission members are quick to reject the report and warn that the commission's work was in peril should individual members rush ahead. Commission member Christine Herntier, mayor of a twon in the affected lignite mining area of Lusatia, says the media report raises fundamental questions about the procedures of the commission, which she will raise at the meeting on 18 September. Meanwhile, thousands of protesters march at Hambach Forest, scheduled to be cleared to make room for lignite mining, after police has started to remove protest camps from the site.

14 September

Eviction of anti-coal activists in Hambach Forest divides commission

After police start moving into the Hambach Forest to throw out anti-coal activists, the commission is divided into camps approving of and condemning the move initiated by energy company RWE. Commission member Martin Kaiser of Greenpeace warns that the crackdown on activists "puts a massive burden on the so far trustful cooperation" in the commission. Fellow commission member Eric Schweitzer of industry lobby grou DIHK, on the other hand, says energy company RWE had every right to proceed with mine expansion, as courts had given the green light. “It’s merely upholding the rule of law if RWE continues mining operations.”

Commentators warn that RWE risks a PR disaster ahead of the coal commission's next meeting on 18 September. Journalist Michael Bauchmüller of the Süddeutsche Zeitung says that while the company may be legally entitled to pursue mine expansion, the conditions that gave RWE this right have changed substantially. Stefan Schultz of news website Spiegel Online comments that environmental groups should not get distracted by the Hambach row and instead focus on achieving a quick coal exit in the commission.

The Hambach Forest's embattled remainder lies on the coal mine's bottom right corner. Photo: Google Maps

12 September

Govt adviser says EU ETS price hike could quickly reduce coal capacity

Should the current prices for EU Emissions Trading System (ETS) allowances remain high, about half of Germany’s coal-fired power generation capacity could be closed on economic grounds alone by 2030, economist Andreas Löschel tells Montel News. However, “even with half of the [coal] capacities phased out, there is still a gap” to reaching the energy sector’s goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 61-62 percent by that year, Löschel says.

“The coal commission is pretty much fixed on a regulated phase-out,” Löschel adds. “If this is not accompanied by [CO₂] price signals, this is not going to do the job.” According to the expert, closing coal plants according to a timetable – much like the country’s planned exit from nuclear power by 2022 – would probably increase operating hours for those presently underutilised coal plants allowed to remain in the market, which would keep German emissions elevated, Löschel says.

4 September

Coal commission to discuss impact of rising CO₂ price – report

The German coal exit commission will debate the impact of the rising price for EU Emissions Trading System (ETS) allowances in its upcoming meeting on 18 September, report Claus Hecking and Stefan Schultz in a lead story on Spiegel Online. Volatile prices for CO₂ mean that a plan to phase out coal in Germany, which the coal commission wants to present by the end of 2018, could already be outdated by the time it is decided, write Hecking and Schultz.

31 August

Federal energy minister encourages talks on coal mine expansion, NRW state premier rejects them

Germany's federal economy and energy minister, Peter Altmaier, encourages the rival factions in the row over the clearing of the Hambach Forest to make way for a lignite mine to strive towards finding a mutually acceptable solution. This could only be done "through negotiations and talks, and not in public debates," he says.

However, Altmaier's fellow CDU politician Armin Laschet, state premier in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), where the Hambach mine is located, rejects renewed talks over the mine's expansion or a moratorium for expansion works. Laschet says the case had already been decided in court and neither NRW's government nor the state parliament intended to change it. 

Environment minister Svenja Schulze (SPD), on the other hand, reiterated her call for a standstill agreement for the Hambach mine until the coal commission has finished its work. Mining labour union IG BCE previously criticised the minister for conflating the commission's long-term coal exit mandate with energy company RWE's current business activities in the Hambach mine.

RWE says it is being "blackmailed" by anti-coal activists holding out in the embattled forest by using the country’s coal exit commission as a vehicle for their own particular agenda.

Meanwhile, a report in energy policy newsletter Tagesspiegel Background says that many members of the coal exit commission are sceptical that the ambitious schedule that stipulates finding an end date for coal by December can be kept. Staying on schedule was "absolutely impossible," some commission members told Tagesspiegel, while others were more optimistic.

29 August

4th meeting “very constructive, despite differing views”

The fourth meeting of the coal commission saw “very constructive exchanges, despite differing views”, the four chairs wrote in a statement. The members discussed employment and value added in energy generation in Germany’s lignite mining regions with guest speakers Markus Krebber (Chief Financial Officer RWE AG), Armin Eichholz (Chairman of the Board MIBRAG), and Helmar Rendez (Head of the Management Board LEAG). The commission also talked about supply security, with expert guests from the federal economy ministry (BMWi), the Federal Network Agency (BNetzA), transmission grid operators and the European Commission. The next meeting will be held on 18 September.

28 August

Row over embattled forest continues to burden commission

The internal dispute over the expansion of a lignite mine and the clearing of a nearby forest continues to weigh on the commission's work ahead of its fourth meeting, despite a decision by the group's leadership to not touch take part in the row. After protests in the Hambach Forest escalated over the weekend, several environmental groups, energy company RWE and environment minister Svenja Schulze condemn the violence, but remain split over how to proceed. Schulze and the environmental groups continue to call for a moratorium for coal mine expansion until the commission has finished its work while RWE insists it needs to start clearing the forest now to ensure an uninterrupted coal supply for its power plants.

24 August

Commission stays out of mine dispute, minister calls on RWE to wait with forest clearing

Germany's environment minister Svenja Schulze (SPD) calls on RWE to abstain from clearing any forest until the commission has finished its work. "When a societal consensus is being organised, we cannot create faits accomplis in such a phase," she says according to report on the website of Germany's public broadcaster ARD. "That would be as unacceptable as if we just enpassant decided to shut down a power plant during those talks." RWE reacts with surprised about the remarks, according to the report, pointing to the commission's statement and the fact that they had told the minister before that the clearing was necessary to secure lignite supply from the Hambach mine in the short run.

The coal commission makes clear that it will not intervene in the ongoing dispute between some of its members and energy company RWE over the expansion of the Hambach lignite mine and the clearing of a nearby forest. The four chairs say the controversial issue is not part of the group’s mandate, a view supported by the majority of the commission's members. Ahead of the commission's 3rd meeting on 23 August, environmental group BUND said it might leave the commission if RWE does not halt its mine expansion activities until the group has finished its negotiations over a German coal exit.

In the meeting, the commission decides to suspend its working procedure in two separate task groups, one for “climate and energy economy” and one for “development and jobs” to turn back to debating in the general assembly, where the most fundamental questions can be discussed. It will convene again on 29 August, much earlier than initially planned.

22 August

Citizens' & environmental groups refresh call for coal moratorium

Several member groups of the coal exit commission have refreshed a call for a standstill agreement for lignite mine expansion in Germany until the country has decided on the fossil power source's future. The move coincides with an announcement by energy company RWE to resume preparatory work at the Hambach lignite mine, a symbolic battleground for climate activist groups from across Europe.

One day before the coal commission's third working session, the dispute about the Hambach mine is seen as potentially threatening the commission's stability. Environment minister Svenja Schulze urged all commission member groups to not further escalate the situation an "hold debates where they belong - within the commission."

21 August

Debate heats up ahead of next coal exit commission meeting

German energy company RWE rejects calls for a moratorium on forest clearing as part of lignite mining during negotiations within the coal commission, and said it would continue mining operations at the controversial Hambach mine. Environmental organisation WWF Germany sharply criticises RWE’s announcement, saying “no precedents should be created while the negotiations are still ongoing”. Commentators say that RWE’s announcement could easily upend the hope to find a compromise.

Energy-intensive firms fear higher power costs from an accelerated coal exit. A report commissioned by RWE, one of Germany's largest owners of lignite mines and coal-fired power generation, says that a mandated German coal exit by 2040 would shift power generation and related CO₂ emissions to neighbouring countries and lead to higher costs for electricity consumers. In a separate report, NGO WWF Germany and green power provider LichtBlick say that coal does not have a future in Germany’s energy transition. The German Association of Energy and Water Industries (BDEW) says that the surplus volume of secure power generation capacity will decline in the medium to long term throughout Europe.

A report by the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) points to the key role of a coal phase out in the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) for Germany’s climate goals.

20 August

Coal states’ energy ministers call for coal exit “stress test” to ensure supply security

On the eve of the coal exit commission’s next meeting on 23 August, the economy and energy ministers of the six affected coal states in Germany criticise the commission for failing to adequately consider supply security and the effects on power prices of an “early” coal exit. Led by North Rhine-Westphalia’s (NRW) economy and energy minister, Andreas Pinkwart, from the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), the six coal states say the stocktaking of energy system-related facts ahead of drafting a plan for ending coal-fired power production has been “inadequate.” They call for a “stress test” to ensure supply security, which they say should also factor in the repercussions in the neighbouring countries.

Pinkwart says that higher power prices are to be expected after a coal exit, which could damage energy-intensive industries and, as a consequence, could cost thousands of jobs across the county. Albrecht Gerber from Brandenburg says that the power grid and storage capacity must be modernised and ramped up quickly to enable the country to reduce coal-fired power production. Armin Willingman from Sachsen-Anhalt argues that the “impending structural economic change” in coal regions must be addressed “with vigour” to ensure proper support for industrial and research--related investments in the affected coal regions.

9 August

Government worried short-term coal plant closures will trigger compensation claims – report

The German government is concerned that short-term coal plant closures might lead to expensive compensation claims by operators, reports Klaus Stratmann in business daily Handelsblatt in a double-page article. A utility source said “we will see each other in court” if the government resorts to ordering short-term closures. Unnamed officials said the government was looking at operator Uniper’s proposal to transfer lignite plants into a security standby as one possible option for organising the phase-out.

7 August

Government stresses commission's independence

The German government emphasises that it will not actively take part in the coal commission's decision-making and stresses that it has been set up as an independent body that "works by its own rules," which include that meetings be held in close session. In an answer to a parliamentary inquiry by the Green Party, the government says a short-term shut-down of coal plants has not been included in the commission's mandate in order to "not anticipate its findings." However, the commission is tasked with finding short-term solutions for closing the gap to Germany's 2020 climate target, the government says.

3 August 

Employment minister Heil proposes plan for coal regions

Federal employment minister Hubertus Heil puts forward a six-point plan to soften the effect of a coal phase-out in the three lignite (brown coal) mining districts in Germany. There should be a special plan for road, rail, and digital infrastructure projects, and the federal government should negotiate support conditions with the EU since the "national effort" that is a coal exit is expected to benefit the European climate targets, Heil writes in a guest article for the WirtschaftsWoche.

The minister's plan includes the following six proposals:

  • Improving infrastructure in coal regions by cutting red tape and accelerating construction procedures.
  • Closely monitor local labour markets to find or train skilled personnel and set up research and training facilities.
  • Establish special financial support regulations for the regions with the EU as coal exit is political rather than economic decision.
  • Set up more federal or regional agencies, especially in eastern German coal regions.
  • Establish economic development agencies to improve local conditions and attract new business.
  • Contact German industry representatives and actively encourage them to open businesses there.

19 July

Working group on structural change and employment wants more money for lignite regions

Members of coal commission’s working group on development and jobs have agreed that the sum of 1.5 billion euros over three years that the federal government has allocated to help the economic transformation in the country’s lignite mining regions is by far too little, and that federal support should also be extended to cover the process over 15 to 20 years. The working group has also found that different, tailor-made solutions would have to be developed for the three remaining mining regions, and that Lusatia in eastern Germany was facing a more difficult task than the other areas, Tagesspiegel Background reported.

To inform their further decision making, the group has asked the federal government to identify federal administration or research facilities that could be moved to the mining areas to ensure future employment.

 

16 July

Working group on climate and energy split on CO2 reduction target

In their first (non-public) session, members of coal commission’s working group on climate and energy held opposing views about the CO2 reduction target that should be used as a benchmark for the commission’s work – and about the timeframe of a coal exit. While the environment lobby in the working group wants to see at least seven gigawatts of coal capacity retired by 2020 and the exit completed by 2030, the coal mining states would like to set the end date in accordance with current mining permissions, which would be around 2045. Representatives from utilities and trade unions support a coal phase-out by the late 2030s or early 2040s, according to a report by Tagesspiegel Background.

The climate group within the working group would like to see Germany’s carbon budget as calculated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and in accordance with the Paris Agreement used as a benchmark for the negotiations, but others argue that only Germany’s current climate target for 2030 in the energy sector (61-62% CO2 reduction compared to 1990) can serve as a goal for the commission. The members agreed to ask the government to clarify its emissions targets.

In its next session, the group plans to discuss whether a coal exit would endanger power supply security in Germany.

 

13 July

Coal commission members “create joint knowledge base”

Germany’s coal exit commission met on 13 July to “start to create a joint knowledge base about the tasks, framework conditions and structural policy challenges”, according to a press statement. To this end, the commission invited the following external experts to hold presentations:

  • Jochen Dehio and Torsten Schmidt (Rhineland-Westphalia Institute for Economic Research, RWI) on “structural policy framework data in the lignite regions”
  • Rüdiger Siebers (former central workers’ council of Vattenfall Europe Mining AG) on the “socio-economic significance of the structural economic change in lignite mining regions”
  • Ottmar Edenhofer (Designated Director and Chief Economist of Potsdam Institute for Climate Research, PIK) on “international, European and national climate policy framework conditions”
  • Michael Ritzau (consultancy Büro für Energiewirtschaft und Technische Planung, BET) on “facts and numbers about the coal industry”
  • Frank Sensfuß (Fraunhofer ISI) and Christoph Maurer (Consentec GmbH) on “introduction to the power market and supply security”

In a separate statement released after his presentation, Edenhofer said that Germany is no longer a climate pioneer and that countries such as the UK, France, Sweden and Austria are much more successful at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. “Germany has by far the highest CO₂ emissions from coal in the European Union – they are twice as high as in Poland,” he said. If CO₂ is not saved in “particularly emissions-intensive coal-fired power generation”, it would need to happen in other sectors, said Edenhofer. “Then industry, for example, would have to quickly deliver the necessary reductions, which would be significantly more difficult and expensive.” Edenhofer called for a floor price in the European Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) to avoid other countries emitting more when Germany exits coal.

12 July

In its first meeting, the commission agrees on a tight schedule for the rest of the year. Energy news outlet Energate Messenger publishes the commission's leaked timetable (find the article behind a paywall here), saying that the commission has decided to split itself up into two seperate working groups, one focussing on "energy economy and climate targets" and the other one on "economic development and jobs in the region." The groups are open to all members of the coal commission. The commission's plenary meetings are scheduled for 13 July, 23 August, 18 September, 11-12 October, 15-16 November and finally for 11 December, during the COP24 in Poland. The two subgroups will hold additional meetings between the plenary sessions, Energate says. See the CLEW Calendar for all dates.

9 July

Germany’s Federal Council of State Governments (Bundesrat) urges the government to fully consider the financial side of a coal phase-out in the coal commission’s talks. The council made up Germany’s 16 federal states, 6 of which are represented in the commission, says a separate accounting group should work on a plan to manage the coal regions’ assets.

The German government confirms that it expects the commission to deliver results in line with its schedule, which stipulates that an end date to coal-fired power production in Germany and short-term measures to reduce carbon emissions substantially be found by the end of the year. In an answer to a parliamentary inquiry by the Left Party, the government adds that it plans to implement policies that follow from the commission’s decision in 2019.

 

26 June

The coal commission convenes for the first time in Germany's economy and energy ministry (BMWi), with commission leaders afterwards saying the first talks were held in a positive and constructive atmosphere. Co-leader Matthias Platzeck says Germany's Energiewende project as a whole depends on the coal commission's success and that the country could prove to coal regions around the world how to manage a phase-out. Platzeck says the group would work throughout the summer months to ensure the ambitious timetable is upheld, adding that the next meeting is scheduled for 13 July.

Ahead of the inaugural meeting, politicians from coal states seek to ensure that the economic interests of the affected regions are adequately considered by the group. Michael Kretschmer and Armin Laschet, CDU premiers of the states of Saxony and North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), respectively, say their planning for coal mining runs well into the 2040s, but stress that solutions by the commission that provide for supply security, low power prices, and economic prospects for the affected workers and regions could “find broad acceptance.”

Meanwhile, climate economist and coal commission co-leader Barbara Praetorius says that the group’s work would be guided by Germany’s 2030 climate targets. “The 2030 climate targets are set, they provide a starting point and a framework for the commission’s work.”

At a public appearance ahead of the commission’s first meeting, federal economy and energy minister Peter Altmaier says that Germany has a responsibility to demonstrate that economic prosperity and successful decarbonisation can be reconciled. The coal commission would help ensure that Germany “goes ahead in this field.”

 

25 June

One day before the commission’s first meeting, the economy ministers from Germany's most important coal states weigh in and warn against "hasty exit plans." The trio from Brandenburg, Saxony and North Rhine-Westphalia say a grid agency (BNetzA) plan that contains an exit scenario before 2030 was politically motivated” and could “influence the debate within the commission at our expense” by making “unrealistic assumptions” about the power grid.

The CEO of Germany’s largest power producer and also its largest carbon emitter RWE, Rolf Martin Schmitz, says Germany will not be able to completely phase out coal by 2030. “Political gestures don’t produce electricity,” Schmitz says, arguing that ending the technology “prematurely” will come at a high cost.

Dieter Kempf, head of influential industry association BDI, says a “quick and symbolic” exit from coal-fired power production could hurt the economy. He advocates for making the commission “the entry into a sustainable agenda of modernisation.”

A study by Green Budget Germany (FÖS) commissioned by green power provider Greenpeace Energy says burning coal costs Germany 28 billion per year. Apart from the fossil power source’s electricity generation costs, the bulk of this price tag comes from costs to the environment and to public health, the study says.

18 June

At the opening of the Petersberg Climate Dialogue in Berlin, environment minister Svenja Schulze tells more than 30 international ministers that modern climate policy should be guided by a socially just transition for all economic sectors. Samantha Smith from the International Trade Union Confederation contends that the coal-exit commission could serve as a model for other countries seeking to both mitigate carbon pollution and limit economic consequences in affected regions.

14 June

In an address to utility association BDEW’s annual conference, environment minister Svenja Schulze says that the recently-formed coal-exit commission should help close the gap to Germany’s 2020 emissions reduction goal. She adds that a failure to determine a clear phase-out of coal-fired power generation would put the country’s climate goals even further out of reach.

7 June

Green Party co-leader Annalena Baerbock criticises the narrow mandate of the coal commission, saying in an emailed statement that “the commission must not become an excuse for the government to no longer decide anything on climate protection.”

On the contrary, Federal German Association for Brown Coal (DEBRIV) Director Thorsten Diercks says that the newly formed commission “must not become a coal exit commission” and that continued domestic brown coal use is compatible with the EU 2030 climate target.   

6 June

The government officially launches the coal commission, officially titled the “Commission on Growth, Structural Economic Change and Employment”.

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