On 30 May 2020, a new hard coal power plant, Datteln 4, was commissioned on the periphery of the West-German Ruhr area, a traditional coal mining area. Located on the Datteln-Ems canal, next to the old coal power station units Datteln 1-3, the power plant is less than 500 metres away from the nearest residential areas and just one kilometre from one of Germany’s largest children’s hospitals – although it had originally been planned and permitted to be built about five kilometres further away.
Because hard coal mining in the Ruhr area stopped in late 2018, Datteln 4 burns imported coal, mostly from Colombia and Siberia, which arrives via the Datteln-Ems canal after a long, CO2-intensive, journey.
Heavily criticised by environmental justice activists, scientists, and local residents ever since the start of its construction, Datteln 4 not only symbolises a relic of the fossil era, but shows how deeply coal interests and politics are intertwined on a regional and national level, and just how powerful the coal lobby is to this day.
Datteln 4 is operated by Uniper, whose biggest shareholder is Fortum, a Finnish energy supplier, majority-owned by the Finnish state. Although the Finnish government decided to phase out coal by 2029, it did not intervene in the debate on Datteln 4. While Uniper often presents itself as a ‘partner’ of the energy transition, and part of the ‘solution’, the company is in fact actively working against a meaningful transition away from fossil fuels. In the Netherlands, where Uniper operates the coal-fired power plant of Maasvlakte, the company intends to sue the government which wants to phase out coal by 2030 in order to receive compensation payments.
A contribution to protect the climate?
Datteln 4’s gross capacity is 1,050 MW. Due to its alleged efficiency and fixed contracts with German energy supplier RWE and national railway company Deutsche Bahn (DB), the efficiency of Datteln 4 is expected to reach 60-70 percent, whereas old power plants in Germany run at an average capacity of under 35 percent. Nevertheless, its annual CO2 emissions will reach up to 8.4 million tonnes. The additional emissions it will generate throughout its operating time – even taking into account Uniper’s plans to shut down older power plants in exchange – are expected to be as high as 40 million tonnes of CO2. It is evident that this is by no means a “contribution to climate protection”, as state politician Armin Laschet put it, but instead turns Datteln 4 into one of the ten most CO2-intensive German coal power plants.
The power plant’s long history is a history of struggle. Following legal actions submitted by environmental NGOs and individuals, the state’s Higher Administrative Court stopped construction works several times, and only after regional politicians adapted the state’s legislative framework could the power plant finally be built.
Up to this day, there are still three pending lawsuits which would normally impede the completion or at least the operation of a power plant, illustrating the strong support for Datteln 4 by the German state.
Who is purchasing power from Datteln 4?
The only reason the power plant is expected to be profitable is that Uniper signed contracts with RWE and DB which obliges them to each purchase 40 percent of the electricity generated by Datteln 4. Because of the increasing share of renewable energy and the low prices for gas-based power generation, coal-based power generation in Germany has become less profitable and has been continually decreasing over the past years. Datteln 4 was commissioned at a time when it was already clear that the electricity it is expected to generate would no longer be needed.
Even RWE and DB are no longer interested in power from Datteln 4 – electricity prices had been agreed at a time when market prices for electricity were significantly higher than today, and coal-fired electricity no longer fits into DB’s ‘green image’ and Corporate Social Rresponsibility strategy. RWE claims to be working towards being carbon-neutral by 2040, although it continues to be the company with the highest carbon footprint within the main German stock market index DAX. The company alleges to have cancelled their contract with Uniper, although a German Court ruled that the unilateral cancellation was not legally valid. If RWE’s appeal against this ruling is successful in the future, it is likely that DB will also take legal action to get out of their contract. The remaining 20 percent of power generated by Datteln 4 is being sold on the market for relatively cheap prices which do not reflect the damage to climate and environment that the power generation causes.
Datteln 4 and the German coal phase-out
In July 2020, the German parliament passed a law for a coal phase-out by 2038, thereby making Germany the last country in Western Europe to end coal-based electricity generation. This schedule clearly undermines the Paris Agreement, sending a disastrous message to other countries both in Europe and worldwide.
Scientists argue that the law could mean that coal-fired power plants run even longer than they normally would have, because the operators can count on compensation payments even for power plants which had already been designated to be shut down. Contrary to the already tame recommendations of the Coal Commission, a committee created in order to elaborate a framework for Germany’s exit from coal, the law does not stop the operation of Datteln 4.
The German coal phase-out thus kicks off with a brand-new coal-fired power plant – commissioned just weeks before the coal phase-out was enshrined in law, and whilst coronavirus measures made large-scale demonstrations and resistance on site impossible. Nevertheless, Datteln 4 has become a symbolic site for the protest of German climate justice movement, because it perfectly underlines the absurdity and misguidance of German climate protection policy.