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By Emilio Godoy
The fate of the small town, which had about 70 inhabitants in 2015, is a portrait of the advances, setbacks and contradictions of the German energy transition, so praised in the world.
Germany has had a comprehensive energy transition policy since 2011, backed by a broad political consensus, aimed at moving towards a low-carbon economy, which promoted the generation and consumption of alternative energy.
But the transition has not, so far, made it easier for the country to free itself from the coal industry and lignite or soft coal, a highly polluting fossil.
"The initial phases of the energy transition have so far been successful, with strong growth in renewables, broad social support for the idea of the transition, and important medium and long-term goals from the government," analyst Sascha told IPS. Samadi, from the non-governmental Wuppertal Institute, dedicated to studies on energy transformation.
Renewable generation contributed 30 percent of all German electricity in 2015, while lignite accounted for 24 percent, coal 18 percent, nuclear 14 percent, gas 8.8 percent, and other sources the remainder.
This European nation is the third world power in renewable energies –excluding hydroelectricity–, with the third position in wind energy (wind) and biodiesel and the fifth in geothermal energy.
In addition, it has become famous for having the highest capacity per inhabitant in photovoltaic (solar) energy, despite the fact that its climate is not the most conducive to it.
But the persistence of fossil sources overshadows that green energy matrix.
“The fossil fuel retirement has to be very well planned and organized. If we don't promote renewables, we'll have to import energy at some point, ”Johannes Remmel, Minister for Climate Protection and Environment of North Rhine-Westphalia, told IPS.
Germany has nine lignite mines operating in three regions and employing some 16,000 people. The mines generate 170 million tons per year and their reserves exceed 3,000 million. China, Greece and Poland are other major world producers of the mineral.
Garzweiler, owned by the private company RWE, produces 35 million tonnes per year of lignite. In the distance you can see the sliced walls and a sooty floor, waiting for a huge steel jaw to devour it to start separating the lignite.
This installation feeds the electricity generators of the nearby plants of Frimmersdorf, Neurath, Niederaussen and Weisweiller, among the most polluting in the country.
RWE is one of the big four German power generators, together with E.ON, EnBW and Vattenfall, the latter based in Sweden.
Coal has an expiration date
The fate of coal is different. The government has already defined that the year of his death will be 2018, when the only two mines still active will cease to operate.
The Rhine river basin, where North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatine are situated among other states, has been the traditional engine of Germany's industry. Mining and its consumers are the remnants of that world, whose death throes stand in the way of the emergence of a decarbonized economy.
A tour of the Ibberbüren mine and adjacent power generator in North Rhine-Westphalia gives an insight into the bidding between two models that still coexist.
In the complex, the underground mouths spit out the coal that feeds the plant's voracity, at the rate of 157 kilowatt hours per ton.
6.2 million tonnes of coal were extracted from it in 2015, which will fall to 3.6 million tonnes this year and next, to drop to 2.9 million in 2018.
The mine, which employs 1,600 people, has an inventory of 300,000 tonnes that it must sell by 2018.
“I am a miner, I am very attached to my job. I speak on behalf of my colleagues. It is difficult to close it. There is a feeling of sadness, we attended our own funeral, ”Hubert Hüls, director of the mine operator, told IPS.
Before the energy transition policy was established, laws had already been approved in 1991 and 2000 that promote renewable sources, with measures such as a special canon in the electricity rate paid to generators that use them.
The renewable sector invests about 20,000 million dollars each year and employs about 370,000 people.
Another measure, adopted by the Berlin government in 2015, establishes an auction scheme for photovoltaic solar energy, although in this case it is criticized that whoever offers the cheapest price wins, which favors large generators over small ones.
Transition and climate change
The transition also seeks to fulfill Germany's commitments to mitigate global warming.
This European power set a goal to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2020 and 95 percent by 2015. In addition, it assumed as a goal that renewable sources in final energy consumption rise from the current 12 percent to represent 60 percent in 2050.
In this second semester, the government will analyze the development of the 2050 Climate Action Plan, which in energy matters considers the reduction by half of emissions from the sector and a program for the withdrawal of fossil fuels.
In 2014, Germany reduced its emissions by 346 million tons of carbon dioxide, equivalent to 27.7 percent compared to 1990. But the country's Federal Environment Agency warned in March that emissions had had a rebound in 2015 of six million tons, equivalent to 0.7 percent, to stand at 908 million tons.
Pollutant gases mainly come from the generation and use of energy, transportation and agriculture.
In 2019 the government will review the current incentives for the renewable sector and decide on adjustments to boost it.
Meanwhile, in 2022 the operation of the last three nuclear plants in Germany will cease. But instead, the Garzweiler mine will work until 2045.
“There are technological, infrastructure, investment, political, social and innovation challenges. Recent government decisions indicate that there is not enough political will to take the tough decisions required for deep decarbonization, ”Samadi said.
Companies “now try to mitigate the damage and pass the search for solutions to the (central) State. There will be a fierce debate on how to expand renewables. This process can be slowed down, but not stopped, ”anticipated academic Heinz-J Bontrup, from the state University of Applied Sciences in the city of Gelsenkirchen.
Meanwhile, the regional government chose to cut the Garzweiler expansion, which will leave 400 million tons of lignite in the subsoil.
Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez