Germany opens giant new coal plant it no longer needs

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Tomorrow, a new 800 MW hard coal plant will go into operation in Hamburg, Germany.

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Renewables International

This weekend, the Moorburg coal plant will go into operation just outside of Hamburg – finally. Though it may be misunderstood abroad as a sign that the Energiewende apparently needs coal power to back up renewables, the real story is that renewables are making coal power redundant even during the nuclear phaseout. How else to explain that Vattenfall would have preferred to back away from the project altogether?

coal-power-plant-us-150x150Tomorrow, a new 800 MW hard coal plant will go into operation in Hamburg, Germany. In fact, the plant should have gone online already. It has taken nearly 10 years to finish, whereas a more normal timeframe would have been five or six years. Last year, it briefly generated its first electricity during tests, but various setbacks lead to additional delays.

The story is much more interesting, but we don’t have the space for it here (if you read German, here is a wonderful overview). Suffice it to say that energy markets were a different planet in 2006. As I explained last fall, coal companies were flooded with liquidity at the time (windfall profits from emissions trading), and they doubted that renewables could do the job. This year alone, Germany will probably add a gigawatt of offshore wind after installing nearly 500 MW last year, and another gigawatt is in the pipeline. More than four gigawatts was added on shore last year. The PV target for 2050 was met in 2012. This coal plant is not needed.

Vattenfall and its CEO agree (report in Swedish). The company tried to back away from the plant a few years ago but realized it had already invested too much money. And in 2011, Hamburg lost three nearby nuclear plants during Chancellor Merkel’s phaseout, which should have taken some nails out of Moorburg’s coffin. But then, the country continue to roar ahead with wind, solar, and biogas.

Naturally, the wind and solar cannot be switched on like the biogas and coal plants can, but dispatchable fossil capacity is being squeezed out. While the world continues to report that Germany is adding coal plants, these facilities generate less and less coal power. Last year, electricity from hard coal was down significantly. Germany is getting less MWh from more MW of coal plants.

Thomas Gerke
Thomas Gerke

On the occasion of the opening of this plant, Lichtblick – Germany’s largest provider of 100 percent green electricity (also based in Hamburg) – published the results of a survey (press release in German) showing that 67 percent of Germans want a coal phaseout. Only 17 percent of those surveyed support the expansion of coalfields.

To its credit, Vattenfall thought it was building not only a coal plant that was needed, but also one that is highly efficient. The average coal plant in Germany has an efficiency below 40 percent, whereas Moorburg easily reaches 45 percent. But the original plan was to recover so much waste heat with a connection to a district heat network serving the city of Hamburg that overall efficiency might have exceeded 60 percent. Citizens of Hamburg, who opposed the plant altogether, rejected the connection of their district heat network to the new coal plant in the hopes that the plant would be stopped altogether.

In the end, we end up with the worst of all possible worlds: a coal plant that is a quarter less efficient than it could have been and unlikely to produce enough electricity to pay for itself anyway. The upside is that Hamburg now has a gigantic coal plant that is not only relatively efficient, but also ramps up and down quite well for a coal plant. And it will be on hand to restart the grid after a blackout – if Germany ever gets one.


Source: Renewables International. Reproduced with permission.

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  1. John McKeon 5 years ago

    A relatively efficient coal fired power station begins life just after being told it’s not needed. Wow! “The times they are a changing.” Perhaps it can take over from some nearby less efficient plant??

    This very day I have had installed a 5KW solar PV system on our home. And the new solar hot water system is working nicely, thank you.

  2. Peter 5 years ago

    So throwing good money after bad probably according to the investor is better than writing off the coal plant before operations started. Will they even get their originally invested amount back? Although it’s not as efficient as it could have been it may be that other older less efficient coal plants in Germany are forced to shut earlier than they would otherwise without the construction of this new coal plant.

    • nakedChimp 5 years ago

      no.. I just read the story in German.. in 2006 the nuclear phaseout (by labor+greens) was the order of the day.. in north Germany energy companies and local politics found that this would need coal power stations to fill in and naturally, who would built first and biggest would get most revenue (and usually politics/industry is a revolving door into both directions so lots of money).. what they didn’t account for (or didn’t want to see) was the increase of wind power, which within a couple of years removed the gap left by the nuclear phaseout.. There have been several coal power stations being built in that time. The energy company for this particular power plant wanted to scrap it at about 2010, but for different reasons – national the conservatives got back to power and wanted to reverse the nuclear phaseout which would mean financial disaster for all the new coal plants up until Fukishima..
      It also seems that at the center of all of these decisions and haggling was a lady called Herlind Gundelach – back then energy specialist of the local conservative government.

      IMHO a big fu** up and you can guess who will pay for this 😉

      • john 5 years ago

        It is a pity that all decisions for the electorate are made by politicians on a short term basis.
        Energy policy is very crucial as it is the back bone of our society.
        Even in Australia forward planning and spend has resulted in a burden.
        The electricity industry is in transition.
        Factors to consider EV, Storage both domestic and commercial, and RE.

    • Jan Veselý 5 years ago

      There are plans to shut down 10-14 GW of lignite power plants in Germany in next 10 years. This would allow Germany instantly cut their CO2 emissions by 80-100 Mt. It would also rise the wholesale cost of electricity -> lower FiT payments, no need for FiT in onshore wind. And it would make some breathable space for new very effective fast ramping power plants.

  3. Peter Thomson 5 years ago

    Stranded and assets are not new in the fossil fuel industry.

    Inverkip power station was a 2GW oil-fired power station built in the west of Scotland in the early 1970’s, capable of supplying supply more than a third of Scotland’s peak demand at the time. By the time it was commissioned in 1976, the cost of oil had risen so much that it was uneconomical to run. Apart from one brief spell during the miner’s strike of 1984-85, it was never run at full capacity – it was only ever used up to about half capacity for peak demand. All generation ceased in 1988 (twelve years after commissioning) and the plant mothballed until 2006. It has now been demolished. Coal plants today such as Moorburg are now facing the same kind of future.

    Moorburg should be getting used over the next decade or so – it should be cheaper to run than the less efficient coal plants, so it should displace these in grid service. The long delay in commissioning will have increased the capital burden however, so it may not be lower cost. The in the longer term it will phase out as renewables grow.

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