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KAI RYSSDAL: Oil’s at $109-something a barrel. The planet’s getting warmer. So the search is on — has been on for a while now, actually — for new sources of clean energy. Nuclear power’s making a comeback. More than 100 new reactors are being built or planned in Europe, Asia and in the developing world.
In Germany, though, nuclear’s on its way out — Berlin’s vowed to shut down its last reactor by 2022. Thing is, it’s also promised to cut its carbon dioxide output by 40 percent by 2020.
Brett Neely reports from the Marketplace Sustainability Desk doing both’s going to be a neat trick.
Brett Neely: The western German town of Grevenbroich calls itself Germany’s “capital of energy.” Three massive brown coal power plants produce enough cheap energy to power Germany’s biggest industrial region, the nearby Ruhr Valley. The plants also release epic amounts of carbon dioxide — over 60 million tons a year. That’s earned the town another name: the CO2 capital of Europe.
And it’s getting bigger. Another huge power plant is due to come online next year. Hans-Wilhelm Schiffer is the director of energy economics for RWE, the utility that owns the plants.
Hans-Wilhelm Schiffer: Coal has become more important because of the phase-out of nuclear energy.
Brown coal is so dirty that it makes the black stuff look good by comparison. But it’s also dirt cheap. This part of Germany sits atop some of the biggest brown coal reserves in the world. By some estimates, there’s another 200 years’ worth of coal here.
Although the future of coal looks bright in Germany, the view from Monika Hermkus’ window is decidedly darker. The giant clouds of steam coming from the plants can block out the sun in front of her house for days.
Monika Hermkus: I see a windmill from my window and it doesn’t disturb me nearly as much as the power plant does. It goes whoosh-whoosh, but the power plant rumbles loudly.
Hans-Wilhelm Schiffer says his utility is spending a billion Euros a year to increase the use of solar and wind power. But he says that won’t provide enough energy to replace coal or nuclear plants. And natural gas? Too expensive. So according to Schiffer, all roads lead back to coal.
Schiffer: Lignite is the only domestic energy source that offers sufficient energy reserves on a large scale.
Or more specifically, 30 new coal power plants in the next decade — which would make it impossible for Germany to keep its promise to cut CO2 emissions by 40 percent. Across the country, German citizens are suing the utilities and have managed to stop the construction of some new plants.
Energy economist Claudia Kemfert says the government needs to decide what’s more important: cutting coal and CO2, or eliminating nuclear plants. If it can’t make it up its mind, she says the country is headed for an electricity crisis.
Claudia Kemfert: I would think that within the next five years, we might face real problems and danger of blackouts.
In which case, she says, Germany would have to import power from other countries who use coal or nuclear. Hans-Wilhelm Schiffer at RWE says the decision may not be as difficult as it seems.
Schiffer: I would say that coal is not part of the problem, but part of the solution of the CO2 reduction question.
He says this new brown coal plant will be the most efficient in the world. It will emit one-third less CO2 than an older plant. It’s also designed to work with new carbon-capture technology that pipes the gas underground. But that technology won’t be ready until at least 2020.
Economist Claudia Kemfert is skeptical about that timeline. And she says even if carbon capture works, get ready to say “auf wiedersehen” to cheap electricity.
Kemfert: There are studies showing that the electricity price might double with this technology.
Electricity prices have already doubled here since 2000. If prices go even higher, Germans may well decide that they prefer to sit in the dark.
In Grevenbroich, Germany, I’m Brett Neely for Marketplace.
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