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Green Europe's energy future is black

Old-world coal is making a comeback, especially in Germany, despite far-reaching standards on emissions.

May 25, 2008|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

HOLZ, GERMANY — Much of Europe may be moving toward renewable energy, but here in the Rhine Valley, where coal has always been king, this little town has become more roadkill on the fossil fuels autobahn.

Three power plants fueled by lignite coal, the granddaddy of the greenhouse gas emitters, belch more than 64 million tons of carbon dioxide a year into the atmosphere, the highest concentration in Europe. But they will be dwarfed by a massive power plant under construction that will be one of the biggest in the world burning lignite.

To fuel it, an open-pit mine that has scarred the fields outside town with a 31-square-mile hole will be moved west, swallowing up this village and nearby Pesch. Already, their neat cottages sit empty and boarded.

"It's a crime against us, and with the climate, it's a crime against mankind," said Arnold Pachbier, a 74-year-old retired farmer.

The European Union has adopted some of the most far-reaching carbon emissions standards in the world, and Germany has led the charge on renewable energy. But as oil and gas prices rise and Europe becomes increasingly nervous about Russia's domination of natural gas supplies, old-world coal is making a comeback.

Plans are on the books to build 40 major coal-fired power stations across Europe in the next five years. Germany, which, like Spain, Italy and others, is swearing off nuclear power, plans to build 27 coal-fired stations by 2020. Many of them will be fueled by lignite, the soft "brown" coal that can emit a ton of carbon dioxide for every ton of fuel burned.

Over the next decade, new, mainly coal power plants in Europe could add 700 million tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every year, according to the U.S.-based Center for Global Development -- a 39% increase.

"We look to the Europeans, in a sense, to be taking the lead. And when we get a sense of the potential magnitude of the increases that will come, it's nothing short of stunning," said David Wheeler, a senior fellow at the CGD who helped prepare an international database of current and projected new carbon-emission points. "Because, the question is, what are the implications for the world if the Europeans don't succeed?"

Power companies say the new high-efficiency plants under construction ultimately could reduce overall emissions by burning less coal than their predecessors. That depends, however, on shutting down old, dirty plants as new ones come on line, and given today's energy demands, that has been happening at a snail's pace.

The town of Grevenbroich, near Holz, tends to brush aside its reputation as the carbon emissions capital of Europe by reminding visitors, with signs posted all over town, that it is also Germany's energy capital.

That would be hard to forget given the clouds of steam and gas that billow toward the stratosphere from the three big lignite plants ringing the town.

Germany's vast lignite deposits were discovered here in 1858, and because lignite's heavy water content makes it impractical to transport far, the power plants and electricity-hungry aluminum industry grew up naturally over the years to take advantage of it.

Unlike the days when coal towns were bathed in layers of black dust, filters remove nearly all of the dirty particulates, along with most of the dangerous sulfur dioxide.

Carbon dioxide, though, has always been an unavoidable byproduct of power production using coal, and especially lignite. It is particularly a factor here in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous, where 13 of the proposed coal plants are to be built.

Already, the state contributes 300 million tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every year, a figure that has been reduced very little since people started paying attention to it seriously in 1990. More than half that amount comes from coal-burning power plants.

"There is a general contradiction between the political announcements and the speeches of, for example, Chancellor [Angela] Merkel and the actual policy at the places where the power plants are planned," said Dirk Jansen, an activist on lignite mining issues for the German environmental group BUND.

Officials with RWE Power say their massive ultramodern lignite plant scheduled to open in Grevenbroich in 2010 represents an important stride forward environmentally because it eventually will replace older plants like the ones nearby that emit far larger quantities of carbon dioxide.

The plant, with features such as pre-drying of coal and processing of steam at extremely high temperatures and pressure, will be able to produce electricity for 10 million people using much less lignite, meaning emissions of 16 million tons a year -- high, to be sure, but as much as 30% less than what a standard lignite plant would generate.

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