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German coal turns up pollution to save money for ‘penny-pinching’ firms

Germany’s fleet of hard coal-fired power plants could cut emissions of a toxic air pollutant in half tomorrow, if they used already-fitted pollution reduction equipment at full capacity.

A report published last week reveals that the owners of the country’s fleet of hard coal power stations, including energy firm RWE, choose not to operate their nitrogen oxide (NOx) polluting-cutting ‘abatement’ equipment at full capacity, resulting in a doubling of harmful emissions.

The German government has missed its own deadline to adopt new EU rules that could help cut pollution from all coal and lignite plants.

Christian Schaible, EEB Industrial Policy Manager and expert on the EU rules said:

“It’s a scandal that while it’s been technically possible for German coal plants to cut their emissions for many years, these penny-pinching firms have been allowed to save money by continuing to pollute the air we breathe.”

Nitrogen oxides are a harmful form of air pollution that cause a host of health problems including short-term breathing difficulties and long-term conditions like bronchitis. In Germany 25% of the country’s NOx pollution comes from the energy sector.

Germany’s hard coal power stations, unlike the country’s hugely polluting lignite plants, are all fitted with catalytic equipment to cut NOx pollution. The amount of NOx the equipment removes from the plant’s emissions depends on the intensity at which it is operated. Removing more toxic pollution costs more money, so firms limit the use of their equipment.

Hard coal, also known as ‘anthracite’ is a type of coal that is often mined deep underground and shipped between continents. Lignite, also known as ‘brown coal’ in some languages, is a poorer quality fuel that is often mined by stripping vast stretches of the landscape near to the place it is burnt.

RWE’s Bergkamen power plant could cut its NOx emissions by 60% according to the Öxoburo study

Last week’s report (in German), commissioned by BUND and KlimaAllianz and prepared by independent environmental consultants Ökoburo, showed that by meeting a stricter annual NOx limit of 85 mg/NM3, Germany’s hard coal plants could cut their emissions by 26,700 tonnes, or 47%.

Ökoburo’s report confirms the findings of an earlier EEB study into mercury and NOx emissions from German coal published in September 2017.

All of RWE’s three hard coal plants are among the most polluting, with potential emission reductions of at least 50% if abatement equipment were effectively operated.

RWE has been heavily criticised recently for its failed attempt to clear cut an ancient woodland and its successful destruction of a ‘cathedral’ to expand a giant lignite coal mine.

Both the Ökoburo and EEB reports were intended to strengthen the case for an accelerated coal exit in Germany, which is Europe’s biggest user of coal power.

Members of Germany’s ‘Coal Exit Commission’ (officially: ‘The Commission on Growth, Structural Change and Employment’), are involved in a series of meetings to discuss the speed at which Germany will phase out its most polluting source of energy.

Tina Löffelsend, Energy Expert at German Friends of the Earth (BUND) said that tighter limits on harmful pollution were an important building block for Germany’s coal exit plan.

Löffelsend said the Coal Exit Commission needed concrete information from the government about how ambitiously the new EU pollution limits will be adopted in Germany but that:

“The Government is leaving the Commission groping in the dark”

The coal exit commission is co-chaired by Stanislaw Tillich, a German CDU politician who wrote to the German government after the adoption of the updated EU rules to urge them to use “all political and legal options” to obstruct the new protections.

The 2017 EEB study found that German hard coal plants could cut their NOx pollution even more significantly. It concluded that the associated costs of coal power – based on the impact of air pollution from coal on our health – could be cut by €753 million per year if a stricter NOx limit of 60mg/Nm³ were enforced.

The potential savings of installing and operating the same technology on the country’s enormously polluting lignite coal plants would be even more significant.