The new dependence on one of the dirtiest fuels shows just how challenging it is to maintain the momentum needed to go green, analysts and officials say, and demonstrates the far-reaching effects of America’s natural gas boom.
In the United States, natural gas is now frequently less expensive than coal for power, so demand for the hard, black fuel has plummeted. Ships are steaming the coal around the world instead. U.S. coal exports to Europe were up 26 percent in the first nine months of 2012 over the same period in 2011. Exports to China have increased, too.
“It’s been very welcome that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have been going down because of the switch to gas,” said David Baldock, executive director of the Institute for European Environmental Policy in London. “But if we’re simply diverting the coal somewhere else, particularly to Europe, a lot of those benefits are draining away.”
In Germany, which by some measures is pursuing the most wide-ranging green goals of any major industrialized country, a 2011 decision to shutter nuclear power plants means that domestically produced lignite, also known as brown coal, is filling the gap
. Power plants that burn the sticky, sulfurous, high-emissions fuel are running at full throttle, with many tallying 2012 as their highest-demand year since the early 1990s. Several new coal power plants have been unveiled in recent months — even though solar panel installations more than doubled last year.
Here in Jaenschwalde, a stone’s throw from the Polish border, the forested countryside quickly drops away into a 300-foot-deep pit stretching for miles. Enormous machines slowly eat away at the earth and shower soft lignite onto a conveyor belt that feeds directly into a nearby power plant. From the precipice of the mine, the 20-foot-tall trucks at the bottom look like Tonka toys.
Last year, the power plant consumed 88,000 tons of lignite a day and generated more electricity than it had since 1981, according to Vattenfall, the Swedish company that runs it. That record is even more impressive given that in 1981, Communist East German officials didn’t have to contend with labor laws or environmental regulations and could run the mines almost every day of the year.
The expansion of lignite mining has stunned some people who live in its path. One community under threat is the tiny hamlet of Atterwasch, a cluster of 250 people on the edge of a proposed expansion of the Jaenschwalde mine. They might have to leave their homes, as well as their church, whose chapel was built in 1294.
“This church survived the Thirty Years’ War [in the 1600s], two world wars and socialism,” said Mathias Berndt, the senior pastor at the church, which is festooned with anti-coal-mining protest banners. “Now a free country is coming and saying, ‘Good for you, but now you have to move.’ ”