Lignite has a low energy output and requires huge quantities to be mined, which has a devastating impact on landscapes and settlements. Even so, many countries are still committed to the fuel.
Burning lignite, or brown coal, produces less energy than any other fossil fuel. With a thermal value a third that of hard coal, huge quantities are needed for electrical power generation. Germany extracted 178 million tonnes of lignite by surface mining in 2014 alone, removing five times the amount of overlying soil1.This incessant earthmoving activity has been equivalent to digging the 1869 Suez Canal every four weeks, resulting in the continuing destruction of landscapes and settlements.
Certain other countries are even more committed to the fuel. Greece produces over six tonnes of lignite per inhabitant to satisfy 30 per cent of energy demand. Despite the high local potential for solar power, the Greek lignite industry requires no additional capital to continue mining – an important consideration during the current financial crisis.
Renewable energies in Germany, by contrast, already supply more electrical power than is produced from lignite. Due to unsteady generation, four times the renewable capacity is required for the same amount of electricity. While high capital investments are thus necessary, the enduring expenses of mining devastation are avoided.
The German grid once carried only about three per cent of renewable power. Increased generation has now imposed the frequent need to shed electricity to other countries, or to reduce the output of conventional power plants. For both reasons, the overall demand for coal and lignite has declined.
Due to rising supply surpluses, furthermore, earlier wholesale electricity prices of around €60 per MWh at the European Energy Exchange EEX2 have fallen to half that level3. In Germany, green energy is supplied to the transmission grid on a priority basis in whatever quantities are available, and with no consideration of contracted prices. The photovoltaic installations connected at the beginning of the century, for instance, still receive over €500 for each MWh of electricity fed into the grid under the 20-year price guarantees of the Renewable Energy Sources Act of 2000⁴.
By contrast, coal, lignite, and natural gas plants often cannot cover the costs of fuel, personnel, and maintenance in order to remain competitive. In eastern Germany, Vattenfall recently obtained a refund of commercial taxes paid in 2014 and 2015 to local communities after revenue losses had diminished profitability⁵. In the Rhineland, 17 of 20 RWE lignite power plants have been running a deficit⁶.
Vattenfall’s Lippendorf power station near Leipzig uses lignite from the MIBRAG Schleenhain mine. The community of Heuersdorf, which originally had 347 inhabitants, was destroyed in 2009 as part of mining operations. The neighbouring village of Breunsdorf had already been eliminated a decade earlier. However, the adjacent municipalities of Zwenkau, Böhlen, and Neukieritzsch have now been obliged to return millions of euros in taxes to Vattenfall, testifying to the increasing risks of lignite dependency.
The presumed 40-year profitability of the Lippendorf power station was decisive in 2004 for the parliament of Saxony to legislate the destruction of Heuersdorf.However, that assumption has since proved to be unsubstantiated.
MIBRAG is experiencing other cases of reduced lignite demand, as well. In April 2015, the company stated that its planned 660 MW power plant at Profen near Halle would not be built⁷. That project alone would have required three times the amount of lignite excavated at Heuersdorf, but now this fuel is not needed.
Furthermore, MIBRAG intends to terminate annual deliveries of 1.3 million tonnes of lignite by rail to the Czech Republic⁸ by the end of 2015⁹. This elimination of lignite exports likewise weakens market demand.
Comparable developments in the Rhineland and in Lusatia additionally confirm that it is unnecessary to destroy villages for lignite power generation. The Czech Republic already changed its mining law in 2012 to prohibit the expropriation of private property for resource extraction1⁰.
In all, more than 300 German communities have been devastated by the lignite mining industry. With renewable energies increasing on the power grid, however, fossil fuel power plants are now running fewer hours per year. Human habitats need no longer be sacrificed for producing more electrical power than needed.
Jeffrey H. Michel
2. European Energy Exchange: www.eex.com.
3. Lang, Martin and Annette Lang (August 26, 2015): “Bloomberg: German Electricity Wholesale Prices Tumbled to 12-Year Low on Monday”. German Energy Blog: www.germanenergyblog.de.
4. The Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (March 2000): Act on Granting Priority to Renewable Energy Sources. BMU: Berlin,
5. Johanssen, Frank (August 20, 2015): “Vattenfall verlangt Steuern zurück”. Leipziger Volkszeitung: Leipzig, p. 8.
6. Michel, Jeffrey (November 17, 2014): “Wishing away lignite – EU climate policy ignores elephant in the room”. Energy Post: www.energypost.eu.
7. Zentner, Birger and Steffen Höhne (April 24, 2015): “Mibrag stoppt Kraftwerksneubau Profen”. Mitteldeutsche Zeitung: Halle.
8. Michel, Jeffrey (June 30, 2015): “Lignite in Europe: fighting back renewables”. Energy Post: www.energypost.eu.
9. Schroeter, Stefan (April 28, 2015): “Mibrag verspricht ein Ende der Braunkohle-Exporte”. www.stefanschroeter.com.
10. Wikipedia: “Brown coal mining limits in North Bohemia”. www.wikipedia.org.
Table: Lignite & renewable power generation in Germany 2014
|Operational capacity GW||Generation thousand GWh|
Agentur für Erneuerbare Energien e.V.
(* An additional 1.3 GW of installed offshore wind capacity was not yet operational.)