“The faster phaseout [of nuclear energy] has led to an increased fallback on lignite,” said Thomas Bareiss, a member of Germany’s parliament and the energy policy coordinator for the ruling Christian Democratic Union party. “Lignite will surely play an important role for our energy mix over the next two or three decades.”
But the rise of coal has posed a challenge to Germany’s tough environmental goals. By 2050, the country aims to generate 80 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, allowing steep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Green advocates worry that if Germany’s extensive — and pricey — support for renewable energy such as wind and solar power diminishes, coal might further fill in the gap.
Energy companies say that the two forms of power generation can live together for now. Lignite plants, they say, are an economical way to meet demand at times when the wind isn’t turning windmills and the sun isn’t warming solar panels. But officials acknowledge that with the ambitious energy goals, coal’s future might be limited.
Germany “has to change completely,” said Hartmut Zeiss, head of mining for Vattenfall Europe. “The question now is how long it will take and what we can afford.”
In other European countries, the quick rise of coal has surprised people who thought it was a waning industry. In Britain, domestic coal production nearly died in 1984 during a bitter, year-long miners’ strike that pitted Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher against the once-powerful unions. Domestic production is still moribund, but in the first nine months of 2012, imports of U.S. coal were up 73 percent from the same period in 2011.
The few remaining domestic coal mines say they can’t compete, and newspaper headlines have harped on the irony.
“The future looks a bit gloomy,” said David Brewer, director general of the Confederation of U.K. Coal Producers.
Consumption of coal also has leapt in Spain and Italy, with much of it supplied by the United States. That comes despite extensive efforts to harness Spain’s sun and Italy’s wind in the name of power production. Consumers, slammed by sky-high unemployment, have been particularly sensitive to energy prices.
U.S. shift to natural gas
The abundance of American coal on international markets has been an unintentional side effect of the rapid rise of new drilling techniques for natural gas in the United States. Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” has opened up new reserves so vast that the United States will soon become a net natural gas exporter, slashing the country’s reliance on costly oil imports. U.S. manufacturers are looking with glee at cheaper natural gas prices. And because natural gas is cleaner than coal, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation have dropped to their lowest levels since 1992.