Business & Environment


January 30, 2023

Germany’s Three Largest Lignite-fired Power Plants Are Located Here

To secure the power supply in winter, the German government is taking power plant units out of reserve. RWE and Leag are preparing for the restart – but are encountering various hurdles. Our satellite images show which units are at stake.

“Economy from above” is a collaboration between WirtschaftsWoche and LiveEO. This is a translation of the original article written in German by “Nele Höfler“. Access the original article here.

The seven cooling towers of the Neurath power plant rise almost 200 meters into the sky. Huge plumes of water rise into the sky from four of them, while the other three stand still. Power plant unit B was shut down at the end of 2021 as part of the gradual coal phase-out, unit A at the beginning of April. The 300-megawatt power plant unit C is also already off the grid, but is in cold reserve. A precautionary measure. In an emergency, reserve power plants must be able to produce electricity again within ten days.

With the Russian war of aggression on Ukraine, this emergency has occurred. Germany must make itself independent of Russian natural gas as quickly as possible. The power plant towers, frowned upon for years as polluters, have become the Germans’ hope within a very short time.

Exclusive satellite images from LiveEO show the three largest German lignite-fired power plants whose reserve units are scheduled to be restarted in October. Two operators are affected: In addition to the Neurath C power plant unit, energy company RWE also wants to bring back power plant units E and F in Niederaussem, which are also on safety standby. According to plan, the two units should actually be shut down at the end of September. In total, RWE could thus return 900 megawatts to the grid from October. The Bundestag passed a resolution to bring back the units in mid-July.

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And this also affects Jänschwalde in Brandenburg. The eastern German lignite company Leag could come onto the market there with a further 1000 megawatts in the fall. The power plant operator intends to restart the 500-megawatt units E and F of the Jänschwalde lignite-fired power plant, which are currently on safety standby, if required.

For other plants of the company, the question of reactivation does not arise at present. In Boxberg, for example, no units are on safety standby. They continue to operate as normal. Boxberg is the fourth largest lignite-fired power plant in Germany after Neurath, Niederaussem and Jänschwalde.

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Elsewhere, however, at RWE in North Rhine-Westphalia, preparations for a possible deployment from October are in full swing. Maintenance work, extensive functional tests and overhaul work are necessary to make the power plant units fit for an operation lasting several weeks or even months. This is because the demands on the units, some of which have been shut down for almost four years, go far beyond what is required for safety readiness.

In addition, the groups have to find the necessary personnel. Many employees were laid off when the company switched to safety standby. Now the workers are needed again. There are hardly any new recruits because of the planned coal phase-out. RWE wants to cover the increased personnel requirements by having some employees take early retirement later than previously planned. Additional positions are to be filled by recruiting trainees and new hires from outside the company. There is talk of several hundred jobs.

Niederaussem power plant
Niederaussem power plant, Bergheim-Niederaussem, North Rhine-Westphalia10.08.2022: Currently, only seven of the former nine power plant units are still in operation. The two units E and F were transferred to safety standby in 2018. Starting in October, the two units with a total of 600 megawatts are scheduled to return to the market.Images: LiveEO/Sentinel

Around 200 additional employees will also be needed in Jänschwalde – mainly to operate the power plant, but also partly for the additional work in the opencast mine. Leag also plans to recruit mainly former staff and employees in early retirement.

The shortage of skilled workers is a double burden, according to Leag. On the one hand, there is a demographically induced shortage of skilled workers in the Lusatia region, and on top of that there is the increased demand for skilled workers due to new industrial and commercial settlements. Despite this, the company says it has already hired half of the employees it needs.

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But there is an even greater challenge that currently seems even more difficult to overcome. This is because the power plant units in Jänschwalde, which is scheduled to be used from October, no longer comply with current immission control requirements. According to Leag, a corresponding technical retrofit is not possible in the remaining time. The operator is therefore calling for a nationwide exemption under immission control law. The minister presidents of the eastern German lignite states of Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Brandenburg also demanded such an exemption in a letter to Federal Economics Minister Robert Habeck.

But the request went unheard at the federal level. A decision on an exemption for the Jänschwalde power plant is now to be made at the state level. According to Leag, the application documents are currently being finalized. However, the lack of planning certainty on the part of the federal government is making the work more difficult. During the legislative process, the hurdles have been further tightened. The E and F power plant units, for example, will only be allowed to be used if the hard coal power plant units in the grid reserve are not sufficient. In addition, the impact on drinking water supplies would have to be taken into account before units E and F could be deployed.

Jänschwalde power plant
Jänschwalde power plant, Neuendorf, Brandenburg21.07.2017: The Jänschwalde lignite-fired power plant is the third largest in Germany.Images: LiveEO/TripleS

The issue of groundwater has already caused conflicts at the nearby Jänschwalde open pit mine. This is because no water is allowed to stand in the pits so that the giant excavators can dig their way through the over 2800 hectares of the Lusatian mining area. But the amount of water that may be pumped out, approved in 1996, is nowhere near enough to operate the open pit mine safely. This was determined by the Cottbus Administrative Court in March.

The dispute over how much water may be pumped out of an open pit mine almost led to a temporary halt to open pit mining in May. Following an urgent appeal by environmental associations, the Administrative Court ruled that open-pit mining operations had to be suspended. However, just a few days before the threatened halt to mining, the Higher Administrative Court of Berlin-Brandenburg overturned this decision. This was also because the energy supply was to remain secure due to the war in Ukraine.

Next year, the approved raw material reserves in Jänschwalde will run out. By then at the latest, the excavators in the Lusatian mining area will be at a standstill. The neighboring power plant site will then be supplied by the Leag opencast mines further south.

After decades of mining work at the Jänschwalde open pit mine, a so-called residual hole remains, from which a 400-hectare lake is to be created. Flooding began as early as 2000, as the exclusive satellite images show. According to original plans, the lake was to have reached its final water level of just over 70 meters last year, but problems arose with the water supply. It is currently unclear when the flooding can be completed.

Unlike the mining area in Jänschwalde, the Garzweiler open pit mine will be needed until the final coal phase-out to supply the power plants that continue to operate. The remaining hole in the northern Rhenish lignite mining area will then also be flooded. According to the operator RWE, the now extended operating time of individual power plant units should not delay the plans.

The federal government wants to stick to the coal phase-out until ideally 2030, despite the planned use of more coal-fired power plants. It is more important than ever that this be accomplished by then, according to a spokesperson for the Federal Ministry of Economics. By 2030, the share of electricity generated from renewable energies in total electricity consumption is to rise to at least 80 percent. Currently, it is at 50 percent. What’s missing: significantly more wind turbines and significantly more solar installations.

While Germany is trying to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible, the world’s largest lignite-fired power plant is not to be gradually shut down until 2036. Ten kilometers outside the town of Bełchatów, Europe’s biggest CO2 guzzler smokes away. Burning lignite there releases around 40 million tons of CO2 a year. The dream of a climate-neutral continent still seems a long way off.