German Union Seeks Reprieve for Lignite Until Middle of Century

  • Coal needed to fill supply gap once reactors shut, union says
  • Government is debating ways to cut emissions by 2030

Germany’s energy and mining union said it’s ready to negotiate with the government on the future of the most-polluting coal-fired power plants, an effort to prevent them from closing until near the middle of the century.

IG BCE, representing about 650,000 workers in mining, power and chemicals, is ready to take up an offer to join “roundtable” talks on the coal plants, said Michael Vassiliadis. The Hanover-based union is confident that Germany will need the coal-fired generation for “at least 25 years” after the last nuclear power plant closes in 2022, he said. 

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government is considering phasing out lignite from 2030 and hard coal from 2040, according to discussion documents on the Environment Ministry’s website.

Talking to reporters on Friday in Haltern, a former mining town near the Dutch border, Vassiliadis said coal will play an essential role in filling a 15 percent gap in supply once the nuclear power stations close. Coal-burning plants will “stay indispensable for at least 25 years as a bridging technology,” said Vassiliadis.

The cabinet this year is drawing up a climate program for 2050. Ministers have sought talks with the union while hinting that a phase-out of coal-fired generation is part of their program.

IG BCE won’t support a “unilateral exit” from lignite generation, Vassiliadis said, noting that the group needs to establish a consensus that “really is” a consensus. Germany’s lignite-fired power stations generated about 24 percent of all electricity last year. A little more than 50 percent of capacity is owned by RWE AG, and Vattenfall AB has about 37 percent.

The government in Berlin plans to wrap up its 2050 climate program by the third quarter. It will consult the union, utilities, lobby groups and researchers on the program, which may seek to reduce greenhouse gas by as much as 95 percent from 1990 levels.

Achieving the goal means means “all relevant sectors will have to contribute to this objective, including coal-based electricity generation,” Deputy Economy Minister Rainer Baake said in a Feb. 22 interview.

Lignite emits three times more carbon pollution than modern gas-fired plants, according to the Federal Environment Office. Open-cast mines each day churn up the equivalent of three soccer pitches -- 2.2 hectares of land. At the same time, the industry supports 20,400 jobs, according to the Debriv mining lobby.

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