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Why Is Germany's Greenest City Building a Coal-Fired Power Plant?

Is the massive plant a misstep that will derail Germany’s clean energy shift—or a bridge that will let Hamburg thrive until enough renewables come on line?

Jul 24, 2013

HAMBURG—If you stand on top of a protective dyke in the village of Moorburg and look west or north, you can almost forget that you're standing in the midst of Germany's second-largest city. Behind a tree-shaded 16th-century church, green fields stretch into misty distances and old brick houses line a winding road whose narrow lanes bespeak a time preceding motorized vehicles.

If you look east or south, however, Moorburg becomes something else entirely. Just a stone's throw from the church, towering smokestacks and boxy buildings mark the site of a new power plant that next year will begin converting enormous amounts of coal, one of the world's dirtiest fuels, into electricity. Some of that coal may come from the United States.

Depending on whom you talk to, the Moorburg plant is either a misstep that will derail Germany's goal of getting 80 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2050—or a bridge that will allow Hamburg's industrial economy to thrive until enough renewables come on line. There's one perspective on which virtually all agree, though: The plant is evidence of the tough decisions and clashing interests at play as Germany tries to wean itself from nuclear energy and fossil fuels.

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Moorburg isn't the only new coal power plant in Germany, but it is the only one being built in Hamburg, a city known for its parks, waterways, efficient public transportation and, this year, a summer-long international building exhibition focused largely on green construction and energy. In 2011 the European Union declared Hamburg "Europe's Environmental Capital."

Why here, then? Why are utilities betting on coal in a country that aspires to lead the world in renewable energy use, and where coal's main waste product, carbon dioxide, is routinely referred to as the "Klimakiller?"

The Moorburg coal plant in Germany, visible in the foggy distance/Credit: Peter FriedericiThe Moorburg coal plant in Germany, visible in the foggy distance/Credit: Peter FriedericiSome observers have linked the construction of Moorburg and other new coal plants to Germany's decision, made after the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan, to close all its nuclear plants by 2022. But the new plants were on drawing boards almost a decade before that, even as Germany was passing a string of federal laws that give clean energy priority over fossil fuels on the transmission grid.

Back then, utility companies assumed that it would be many years before the Energiewende or "energy transition" kicked in and that new, cleaner-burning coal plants would be needed through the transition. Wind and solar energy are inherently intermittent, and engineers haven't yet developed cost-efficient technologies to store electricity generated by renewables. Further, Germany's most reliable source of wind power is offshore, on the North Sea, and transmission lines and other infrastructure must be built to move the electricity to industrial and population centers in the country's south.

"At least until 2030, or 2050, Germany will have to have some fossil-fuel energy," said Jutta Blankau, Hamburg's environment minister and director of the city's Office for Development and Environment, in an interview at her office. "Hamburg is one of the industrial centers of Germany. For now we can’t support that through renewable energy alone. We need coal and gas plants to complement power from renewables."

But energy experts say Germany's electricity market has changed fundamentally since the Moorburg plant was conceived.

Wholesale prices for electricity have dropped, and the percentage of electricity produced from renewable sources has grown faster than anyone expected—from 6.8 percent in 2000 to more than 20 percent in 2012. The federal goal calls for renewables' share of electricity generation to rise to at least 35 percent by 2020. The goals of Germany's 16 states, added up, call for even quicker growth.

The speed with which renewables have taken hold has posed a challenge to utilities that rely on fossil fuels, because federal laws require the grid to use all the available renewable energy before turning to coal or other fossil fuels.

As a result of the changing economic playing field, more than two dozen proposed coal power plants that would have generated almost 25 gigawatts have been mothballed, said Rainer Baake, director of Agora Energiewende, a nonprofit think tank focused on Germany's energy policies. Utilities that didn't scrap their plans may be experiencing buyer’s remorse.

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