25th Sep 2022

Germany expects coal supply problems this winter

  • Low water levels have reduced domestic shipping to the point that Germany's temporary shift to coal may be disrupted (Photo: Andras Bankuti, HVG)
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The German government is worried low river levels may hamper coal supply for power plants this autumn and winter, adding to the deepening energy crisis in the country.

According to a document entitled "energy supply assessment", seen by Reuters, low water levels have reduced domestic shipping to the point that Germany's temporary shift to coal may be disrupted.

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In early August, the German government announced it would reopen previously-mothballed coal power plants to make up for lower gas supply from Russia.

The country is also preparing to restart the more polluting brown coal-fired power plants that have been shut down as part of the country's move to cleaner sources of energy.

But record drought has reduced water levels in nearly all European rivers, and coal power plants dependent on river transport for their supply of coal.

One-third of Germany's coal imports come up the River Rhine, but barge loads have been reduced by three-quarters to avoid running aground this summer.

Although recent rains have alleviated the situation temporarily, weather conditions are expected to remain drier than usual, and according to the paper, supply problems will continue into the winter.

For the second time in a matter of days, a ship transporting coal to Germany ran aground in the River Waal on Wednesday, which connects the Dutch river port Nijmegen to the German hinterland.

On Wednesday, Germany's government approved legislation to prioritise trains carrying mineral-oil products and hard coal for power generators, a move described by economy minister Robert Habeck as "necessary" to ensure security of supply this winter.

But according to the document which was drawn up by the economy ministry, "high demand and scarce transport capacity in rail freight are leading to a challenging situation in coal and oil logistics."

Added to this is a lack of skilled labour in the coal sector.

According to the German Trade Union Confederation, coal generates about a quarter of Germany's electricity, down from half at the turn of the century, and employs around 25,000 people directly.

Coal suppliers have cut back their workforce in line with Germany's phasing-out of coal by 2038.

To alleviate the situation, some, including finance minister Christian Lindner of the liberal Free Democrats, have called to extend the lifetime of the country's last three nuclear power plants, which provide 11 percent of the country's electricity needs and are set to close in December this year.

But so far, this has been ruled out by economy minister Habeck.


'Emancipatory catastrophism' — why being scared works wonders

The current energy crisis is a good example of "emancipatory catastrophism" — the idea that humanity only moves forward out of fear for a catastrophe. Sometimes one needs a looming disaster to change what should have been changed long ago.

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