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Coal comfort?

TedNield024.jpgTwo reactions emerged from the editorial Coal is Dust (Geoscientist 27.5, June).  One was that, elsewhere in the world, geologists are still helping to find and dig it (Letters, Geoscientist 27.8 September).   The other was that, if we can only get our act together on Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), we might be able to go on using it (Soapbox, this issue).  Meanwhile, the geopolitical climate has just become more heated.

In the United States, the Trump administration has indicated its intention to support the domestic coal industry – a major plank in the President’s campaign, not only rolling back progressive environmental measures, but possibly putting the US on a collision course with the United Nations Minimata Convention on mercury pollution, at its first Conference of Parties (COP1) in Geneva this September.  But - we have already grown used to the USA resiling from environmental agreements.  We hear rather less about the failures of our European partner, Germany.

But - Germany is terribly ‘green’, isn’t it? 

Well, no.  Coal still provides 43% of its electricity.  Coal is cheap, because its huge environmental costs are never factored in.  And since Germany is committed to phasing out nuclear power by 2022 – for arguably entirely spurious environmental reasons in the face of the much greater threat posed by CO2 – it is likely to stay that way. 

Germany has pioneered wind turbines, and has many - mostly in the windy, industrial north.  The power they generate is often wasted because coal plants burn on, regardless.  Wind power works best when decentralised; but old power grids rely on distribution from point-sources.  Germany has inadequate grid capacity for getting the north’s green surplus to the south.  Meanwhile German emissions are not falling, but rising.

More surprising still, perhaps, Germany’s spending on energy R&D has stagnated for a decade and - according to the OECD - is exceeded in its niggardliness only by the UK (although Germany is investing in Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) research, as well it might, given its power mix).  CCS works best for point-sources like power stations.  Meanwhile Germany is behind on other ‘green’ targets too, including phasing in electric cars, and even insulating its buildings. 

Germany’s much-vaunted legislative package, introduced in 2010 to support conversion to a low-carbon economy (Energiewende) has stalled.  As Federal elections approach (I am writing in September) one must hope that the newly assembled Bundestag will have sufficient will to give Energiewende fresh life. 

But even if it does, ‘coming off coal’ is not realistic in the short term.  CCS, however, could give Germany breathing space.


[email protected], @TedNield  @geoscientistmag