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23 Jan 2019, 10:55
Benjamin Wehrmann

Industry leaders say can cope with coal exit in debate ahead of commission report

RWE lignite plant Weisweiler next to a highway in western Germany. Photo: Exduria2006/wikipedia
RWE lignite plant Weisweiler next to a highway in western Germany. Photo: Exduria2006/wikipedia

Power prices are less of a concern for some industry sectors and coal-heavyweight RWE has long been about “much more than coal” – industry representatives offered an unusual take on the German coal exit debate in a panel discussion ahead of the coal commission’s final report. Green Party co-leader Annalena Baerbock conceded that a review of the coal exit process could be warranted in the next years but insisted that the “basic framework” for phasing out the fossil power source remains untouched.

Just days before the German coal exit commission is due to publish its final report in early February, influential industry representatives and leading politicians struck an overall optimistic note about the future of a coal-free power system.

Speaking on a discussion panel at the annual energy conference of business newspaper Handelsblatt in Berlin, the head of the steel manufacturing branch of German industry heavyweight Thyssenkrupp, Andreas Goss, said a possible rise of the power price in the framework of the country’s planned coal exit would be of little concern to his company. “For us it’s important that a long-term decision on society’s desired development is made. The market will then adjust prices accordingly,” Goss said. He argued that planning security was the most important aspect for his energy-intensive company, and that this currently would be largely absent. 

On the same day, German business association warned against the risks to the country's industrial competitiveness should power prices rise thanks to a coal exit. The latest draft from commission recommended mechanisms to shield electricity consumers from any substantial price increase.

The head of energy company RWE, Rolf Martin Schmitz, said he would not hold a speech in defence of coal. “RWE has become much more than coal,” Schmitz said, adding that while RWE still is a major coal producer, it would soon also be a leading provider of renewable power once the merger with parts of competitor E.ON is finalised. However, while Schmitz said RWE was going to expand its renewable capacity by up to 3 gigawatts (GW) annually in the next years, coal power would still be highly relevant to secure steady supply to the grid. “What matters for CO2 reduction is not the date of decommissioning but reduced power production (from fossil fuels),” Schmitz said, calling for an “entry scenario” for more renewable infrastructure rather than a “coal exit scenario.” “We are headed for 100 percent renewables and back-up gas plants in 30 years’ time and I’m confident it will work,” he said.

Coal exit review after end of nuclear power

Green Party co-leader Annalena Baerbock insisted that a robust phase-out roadmap for Germany’s coal power plants was indispensable for a successful transition. “Everyone needs planning security,” Baerbock said in a nod to Thyssenkrupp manager Goss. She said about 10 GW should be taken off the grid by 2022. “It would be okay to review the phase-out plan after that,” Baerbock said, adding that the Paris Climate Agreement also stipulates that countries review their emissions reduction strategy in five-year intervals. “What’s important is that the basic framework remains untouched,” she said. 

The former state premier of Saxony and co-leader of the coal exit commission, Stanislaw Tillich, said that there was a consensus within the commission that the coal exit process should be reviewed, as proposed by energy minister Peter Altmaier. “There are several dates that require scrutiny, such as the end of nuclear power” in late 2022, Tillich said. He reminded the panel that the lion’s share of emissions reduction in Germany since 1990 took place in the eastern states right after reunification, and that lignite mining company LEAG now remained one of the very few eastern German-based industrial companies. “It is constitutive for the region and cannot be closed down by decree. People voted out political intervention in the economy in 1989.”

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