R1H8GB EON power plant Datteln 4, Dortmund-Ems Canal, Datteln, Ruhr area, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany
The plant at Datteln has been billed as the most modern and efficient coal-fired power station in Europe © Alamy

Stepping inside the Datteln power plant in western Germany feels like entering a cathedral: the eye is drawn relentlessly upwards, towards a platform where workers are busy welding a 120m-tall furnace capable of burning 400 tonnes of coal an hour.

Billed as the most modern and efficient coal-fired power station in Europe, the €1.5bn plant is scheduled to enter into operation next summer. That goal, however, has now been thrown into serious doubt.

Germany plans to close all its coal-fired power stations by 2038, in an effort to cut carbon emissions and meet the country’s climate targets. Crucially for Datteln, the proposal would also bar operators from bringing new plants on to the market.

Unless the government reverses the plan, which was presented by a high-profile commission last month, there is a strong chance the station will never produce a single watt of electricity.

For the plant’s owner, the utility Uniper, the proposal has come as a shock. “I was left really confused by the news. And that is putting it mildly,” said Thomas Preussler, head of the power station. “They say they want to protect the climate, but then they decide not to allow the cleanest and most modern power station we have to connect to the grid.”

Critics of the phase-out plan see the fate of the plant north of the city of Dortmund as symptomatic of broader flaws in the German government’s approach. One issue is the exorbitant cost of the proposal, which calls for compensation payments worth €40bn to affected coal regions during the next 20 years, and another €2bn a year to shield households and industry from rising energy prices. In addition, Berlin will have to compensate utilities such as RWE and Uniper for forcing the early closure of their plants.

In Datteln’s case, the high upfront cost and projected lost earnings stretching four decades into the future mean the state could face compensation claims of several billion euros for the one station alone.

A separate critique of the proposal is that it takes aim at coal-fired plants that are — in the wider European context — comparatively clean. “In terms of climate change policy it makes little sense to shut down relatively efficient coal-fired plants in Germany and keep more polluting power stations in countries such as Poland in operation,” said Joachim Ragnitz, an economics professor affiliated with the Ifo Institute in Dresden. 

That mismatch, he added, was mirrored inside Germany: “Why should the most modern plant [in the country] be kept off the grid while older power stations keep on running?”

That argument cuts little ice with green campaigners, who say it will be hard enough to implement the phase-out plan with the existing network of coal-fired plants. Adding further capacity, they argue, will make it even tougher to win political backing for the inevitable job losses and economic transition costs elsewhere. 

“Germany has said that it wants to exit coal. So it would send completely the wrong signal if we now allowed a new coal-fired power station to connect to the grid,” said Martin Kaiser, director of Greenpeace in Germany, and a member of the government-appointed commission that drafted the phase-out proposal.

The proposal tells the government to seek a deal with operators to ensure that “coal-fired power stations that have already been built but are not yet operational do not enter into operation”. Only one plant in Germany fits that description: Datteln. 

For some local politicians, the plan to keep the plant off the grid smacks of political favouritism: they highlight that coal plants in economically challenged eastern Germany will probably be kept open for longer than stations in the west.

André Dora, Datteln’s mayor, pointed out that cities in the surrounding Ruhr region were among the most heavily indebted in Germany — and needed the corporate tax revenues just as badly as eastern towns. “Solidarity should not just flow in one compass direction,” he said.

Uniper officials said they hoped the government would ultimately see the merit of allowing Datteln to enter into operation. Ingo Telöken, the site manager, argued that the plant’s ability to ramp up electricity production quickly and at short notice meant it was well-suited to support Germany’s Energiewende, the much-vaunted shift from nuclear power and fossil fuels to renewable energy.

“We can be very quick to respond if there is a lack of wind and solar power. We can provide stability to the grid and balance out these shifts in the natural environment,” he said.

There is no obligation for the government to follow the phase-out proposal. But picking away at individual elements of it risks unravelling a hard-fought compromise that won the backing of 27 of the 28 members of the coal commission, from green campaigners to the German industry lobby. “We hope this will be decided in a rational manner. And that this will ultimately not be about political symbols,” a Uniper spokesman said.

Greenpeace’s Mr Kaiser said there was little chance of a reversal. “The mandate of the coal commission was to find a way to phase out coal, not build up coal.”

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