How harmful is coal energy for our environment?

2038 – by which time at the latest Germany wants to phase out coal power. Climate activists say: much too late. The greenhouse gas emissions they cause are too environmentally damaging. But the coal industry thinks it’s not all that bad. Coal is a great energy source: it’s cheap and reliable. But what’s really behind the excitement for and against coal power?

1. How coal-fired power plants work

When you plug your cell phone charger into the wall, the equivalent of 30% of the electricity that goes into your cell phone comes from a coal-fired power plant. By comparison, wind power accounts for 24% and natural gas for ten percent of the electricity generated in Germany.[1] In order to understand the debate about coal-fired power, let’s first take a look at the path from pure coal to the power socket. Whether lignite or hard coal – we’ll explain the differences in a moment.

Huge power plants, thick clouds of smoke, holes in the landscape. There are 111 active coal-fired power plants in Germany.[2] Depending on the type of coal, it is mined in different places. Hard coal is mined underground, i.e. under the earth. The last German hard coal mines went out of operation in 2018.[3] Since then, Germany has been importing its hard coal in large quantities, which amounted to more than 55 million tons in 2015.[4] Hard coal-fired power plants exist mainly in the old German states.[5]

Exhaust gases Climate change

Mining of lignite and hard coal

Lignite, on the other hand, is mined above ground over a wide area. In Germany, the Rhineland, Lusatia and Central Germany are the three major lignite mining areas. Enormous amounts of coal are extracted there and transported to the power plants

Once in the coal-fired power plant, the coal is crushed into dust and then burned. Heat produces steam, which in turn drives a turbine. This is connected to a generator, which then produces the electricity. Transformers then increase the electrical voltage of this current. This is how they make it fit for long-distance transmission over high-voltage lines. Because that’s the only way it will end up with enough voltage in our sockets.[6] So much for the simplified short version.

2. The problems of coal power

But the production of electricity from coal has long been the subject of criticism. Starting with the process of how electrical energy is generated from coal. Not only does this sound very costly, but it also is. Coal-fired power plants are huge facilities with coal mills, water pumps and cooling towers. And they consume a lot of energy – almost 10% of the electricity generated by the power plants is needed to keep them running.[7] And after that, quite a lot of energy is lost. In all coal-fired power plants, less than 50% of the energy remains in the end.[8] Lignite-fired power plants operate particularly inefficiently. Because before the lignite can be processed there, it has to be dried, and that consumes a lot of heat.[9] In addition, lignite-fired power plants are often older hard-coal-fired power plants. And the older the coal plants are, the more energy is lost in electricity production.[10]

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Coal energy causes enormous environmental and climate damage

The biggest disadvantages of coal power, however, are the enormous environmental and climate damage that this form of energy causes. And the environmental costs of coal-fired power are a major factor in Germany’s carbon footprint. All coal-fired power plants together emitted 208 million tons of CO2 in 2018.[11] Almost a quarter of the total amount of CO2 emitted in Germany is due to coal-fired power plants alone. The emissions of the particularly inefficient lignite-fired power plants are more than twice as high as those of hard coal-fired power plants in this context.[12] In Germany, lignite-fired power plants alone emit three times as much CO2 annually as the entire transport sector.[13] One can already see that this does not fit well with the German climate goals in the long run.

If you want to know more about it, here on the top of the i you can find a video about what the 1.5 degree target is. But I will come to the coal phase-out in a moment. Because the list of environmental damage goes on. ..

Converting coal energy into electricity causes huge amounts of pollutants

When a huge coal-fired power plant converts lignite or hard coal into electricity, a lot of other pollutants are released into the air or wastewater. In addition to CO2, lead, mercury, arsenic, nitrogen oxide, sulfur oxide and particulate matter will also be eliminated.[14] Doesn’t sound great and it isn’t. And particulate matter is particularly harmful to humans.

Coal mining harms ecosystems

Coal mining climate

But relying on coal power can also cause some damage to nature. The construction of mines for hard coal has lowered the ground at many former mining sites. Thereby the danger of floods exists now.[15] Large-scale surface mining of lignite causes groundwater levels to drop significantly. Water supplies are so compromised and wetlands can dry up.[16] The pollutants from coal-fired power plants also acidify water bodies. The ecosystems there are suffering.[17] If you look only at energy production, coal-fired power is actually quite cheap. But if you take the environmental aspects into account, things look quite different.

Because it is quite difficult to reverse the consequences of coal mining: Water bodies need to be cleaned up and water supplies need to be adjusted. The areas where lignite was previously mined must be extensively renaturalized. The exact cost of this cannot be quantified, but one thing is certain: coal energy will cost money in the long run. Switching to renewable energy may cost a lot of money, too. But an unchecked climate change will be much more expensive.

By the way, what doesn’t cost you any money and provides you with lots of information about climate protection is to subscribe to this channel. And if you also press the bell, you won’t miss anything anymore.

3. Solution: The Coal Commission?

As you can see, the environmental balance of coal energy is not very good. The German government has therefore been aiming to phase out coal for some time now. But opinions differ as to exactly when this should happen. Environmentalists are calling for a coal phase-out as soon as possible. In contrast, the energy companies and the people who work for them are. In order to nevertheless find a compromise on the coal phase-out, the German government has commissioned a committee: the Commission for Growth, Structural Change, and Employment – also known as the Coal Commission. This commission consisted of representatives from politics, science, the coal industry and the trade unions. From June 2018 to January 2019, they worked together to negotiate a recommendation for the German government on how Germany can phase out coal. And how the interests of all parties involved could be taken into account as far as possible. In a nutshell, the commission came to the following conclusions:

  • No more new coal-fired power plants are to be built.
  • More and more coal-fired power plants to be gradually shut down by 2030. Reduce their output to less than half.
  • Germany should stop using coal by 2038 at the latest. If possible, as early as 2035.
  • Renewable energies should account for 65% of electricity production by 2030.[18]

4. Classification in Germany’s climate targets

So much for the proposals that coal commission members were able to agree on. Then, at the end of January this year, the federal and state governments sat down to discuss how they would implement the commission’s proposal. The result was the "coal phase-out law". This aligns with the coal commission’s proposed end year of 2038. It also regulates how those who are affected by the coal phase-out, i.e. the energy companies and their employees, will be compensated. Because it is clear that many people will lose their jobs when coal is phased out, and a fair and social solution must be found for this. There are also plans to protect consumers from excessively high electricity prices.[19]

So far so good in theory. So Germany is getting out of the dirty coal business. Is all well and good with that? Are we on course to achieve our climate targets?? Okay, my rhetorical question may already tell you: It’s not that simple, of course. So let us come to a classification.

The coal phase-out law?

So far so good in theory. So Germany is getting out of dirty coal. Is all good with it? Are we on track to meet our climate targets?? Okay, my rhetorical question may already give you away: Of course, it’s not that simple. So let us come to a classification.

Shortly after the federal government passed the law, there was already a lot of criticism. 2038 as the phase-out year is far too late for Germany to still meet its climate targets. This is what many environmental associations and climate activists think. As a reminder, Germany aims to cut its CO2 emissions by more than half by 2030, and by as much as 61% in the energy sector.Germany is to become climate-neutral by 20 2050.21 By the way, you can find out what the word is all about and why many people often have the wrong idea about it in this video.

In a study, the German Institute for Economic Research found that Germany’s emissions would actually increase with these plans. This is mainly due to the fact that most lignite-fired power plants, i.e. particularly harmful power plants, are shut down very late. In addition, a new hard-coal-fired power plant is to go into operation in Hamburg. In mathematical terms, Germany would burn up two-thirds of its national emissions budget by 2040 – literally. And that only with coal. However, Germany would have to meet its emissions budget of 6.6 billion metric tons of CO2.[22] This is the only way Germany can contribute to limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees – if this can be achieved at all. Many are therefore calling for 2030 as the end year for coal, so that Germany can save enough CO2.[23]

Compensation for operators of coal-fired power plants is criticized

The compensation for operators of lignite-fired power plants has also been criticized. Because not only the employees in the coal industry get money, but also the energy companies. For example, the energy company RWE is to receive compensation of 2.6 billion euros.[24] The federal government wants to pay such high sums, although many lignite-fired power plants are no longer profitable and would have to be shut down anyway. Representatives from some environmental associations have been very critical of this.[25] The industry counters that the power plants are important to ensure a reliable supply. They fear that renewable energies are too uncertain if, for example, the wind does not blow. What this is all about, we will soon explain in another video.

Conclusion: Too late – The exit from the coal industry by 2038

So, that was quite a lot of information, so here it is again in summary: The adopted coal phase-out law is important. It provides a binding path for the end of coal power in Germany. However, the way the law currently envisages it, it will be almost impossible to meet the German government’s climate targets. The main criticism: 2038 is simply too late.

And if you are wondering what all this has to do with you: a lot, to be honest. Because the consequences of climate change affect us all. You can’t shut down a power plant yourself, but you can still do something: You could, for example, choose electricity from a supplier that uses only renewable energy sources. This is done quickly. And something else very simple but effective can do each and everyone: namely save electricity.

But what do you think about the coal phase out as decided by the federal government? Is 2038 too late? And do you actually pay attention to where your electricity comes from?? Feel free to write it in the comments. Here is another video on … and … Stay clean and see you then.

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