France, Italy, Austria and the Netherlands have all announced plans to reactivate old coal power plants. But nowhere are the plans as extensive as in Germany, which is allowing 21 coal plants to restart or work past planned closing dates.
In Germany last year, in part because of low winds and the already rising price of natural gas, hard coal and lignite accounted for 28% of electricity production — contributing to a rise of a 4.5% in overall emissions over the previous year.
Managers at Bexbach say their 40-year-old coal fired power plant is aiming to return to full-time service, along with its sister unit, Weiher, about 14 miles west.
Bexbach was built to burn local coal, but the area’s last hard coal mine closed in 2012. Before the war in Ukraine, Russia had been supplying much of the coal imports used at German plants. Yet with an E.U. embargo on Russian coal coming into force in August, energy companies have had to look elsewhere: to South Africa, Australia and Colombia’s Cerrejón mine, also known as “the Monster” and notorious for its poor environmental and safety record.
To get to an inland plant like Bexbach, that coal has to be hauled hundreds of miles by land or by train from the ports of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Antwerp. And contraction in the industry has resulted in bottlenecks, with coal stocks at European ports piled up to a three-year high.
Across Germany, executives have spent the last few months war gaming how to respond if Russian President Vladimir Putin cuts off gas supplies. And many, from tiny companies to global behemoths, have arrived at the same solution: switch to oil.
In Munich, the municipal utility has converted two gas-fired boilers to run on diesel. Further South, in the German Alps, the Berchtesgadener Land farming cooperative has sent two milk-truck drivers to learn how to handle an oil-delivery rig, just in case they need to buy. To the North, the Veltins beer brewery near Dusseldorf has stockpiled five weeks’ worth of diesel to prepare for an emergency shift away from gas.
In some cases, it’s about burning fuel-oil in boilers and steam generators previously fired with natural gas; in others, it’s about running diesel generators to avoid electricity blackouts.
Berlin is quietly encouraging the shift. Wiegand-Glas, which produces glass bottles, was able to get the paperwork needed to prepare its furnaces to run using heating oil rather than gas in days, for example.
Privately, oil traders say they are getting inquiries from German companies that either haven’t previously bought fuel-oil or diesel, or abandoned the practice many years, or even, decades ago.
Take Covestro AG, a chemicals company that produces the building blocks of plastics. For years, it has relied on natural gas. But earlier this week, it told investors during its second-quarter results presentation that it was “initiating various measures to reduce its gas requirements in Germany in the short term, such as by switching to oil-based steam generators.”