IMPORTANT! PLEASE READ: Ecopolitology has moved to a new host and a new domain. Please adjust your bookmarks and be sure to check out the beautiful new ecopolitology 2.0 theme by pointing your browser to, or by following this link.

October 9, 2007

Germany to Phase Out Coal Industry; U.S. to Not.

The German government is making headway on a proposal that would seek to totally phase out the country's entire coal mining industrial sector by 2018. The proposal, which is subject to approval by both houses of the German Parliament, will ensure structured

compensation payments for the country's 34,000 coal workers. The German Social Democratic Party has secured a review of the plan in 2012 before it goes into full effect. This reflexive approach is intended to safeguard the mining industry, which was largely responsible for the success of the Social Democrats in the 19th century.

How is Germany able to take such aggressive steps towards eliminating coal? For one thing, the cost of coal-mining in Germany is making the practice economically unattractive. Stringent safety measures, high labor costs and the increased expense to dig deeper to find untapped coal seams has driven the cost of German coal to about 180 euros ($250) per ton, more than three times the global market price. Second, and not completely unrelated, the German feed-in tariff which I have written about here, mandates that utilities enter into purchase agreements for any producer of renewable electricity to the grid.

The formidable presence of the Greens in the German Bundestag has had the ultimate effect of 'devolutionizing ' electricity generation and revolutionizing grid interconnectivity. Now, it looks like their aggressive push for renewable energy sources will help anchor renewable energy sources as the essential ingredient in the German energy mix.

So, with that said, what is the future of coal in the U.S.? Well, put it this way, there seems to be an inverse relationship between the amount of coal development in a country and the number of Green Party representatives in that country's legislature (Congress, Bundestag, Parliament, etc.). The preceding assertion would certainly need to be tested to find a statistically significant correlation, but the point is that there is virtually no third party presence, Green or otherwise, in the American system of interest representation and there is also no significant political efforts toward phasing out coal development.

In fact, one reporter from the Voice of America, has suggested that "like it or not, coal is here to stay." I think those types of blanket statements can be problematic, especially when we are addressing the mobilization of political action. Reporting that something cannot be changed can have the effect of suppressing thought and action. Yes, coal is currently the number one source of electricity in the U.S. And yes, the most powerful coal advocate's national political action committee CoalPAC donates tremendous sums of money to the campaign coffers of legislators in both parties in hopes of perpetuating the 'we need coal' myth. But one of the beauties of democracy is that just because it is here now, does not mean it will necessarily be here later.

Despite the fact that coal is often projected to be our primary source of electricity for some time to come (and I generally agree with this statement), asserting that it must, or accepting such assertions as a predestined certainty precludes the possibility of any discussion of other alternatives. Some will just shrug and accept their perceived reality of a coal-based future, because that is what the 'experts' are saying. Fortunately there are increasing numbers of people and organizations that are not limiting their discussion to the alternatives that provide no alternative


PlanetThoughts said...

King CONG (Harvey Wasserman's Coal/Oil/Nuclear/natural Gas) is fighting for its life... however, it needs to realize that there is a rebirth as clean, renewable sunlight, wind, and water. The numbers show that these can take over the power generation needs of the country, and with planning and vigorous effort it could be in the next fifteen years or so. The USA (my country) has been wealthy and overly comfortable for too long, we now need to re-learn true strategic thinking AS A SOCIETY, not as POLITICAL PARTIES in OPPOSITION. Come on, folks, start thinking and doing!

PlanetThoughts said...

Note - the article does not mention Germany's leading position as a developer and user of photovoltaics and other solar power forms. This should be considered at least as important as their current price of coal. After all, in the USA we are approaching the same issue of very deep coal and coal that requires destroying mountains and releasing massive heavy metal pollution, just to continue feeding our current energy needs.

Timothy B. Hurst said...

PT- thanks for your comments. You're right, this article does not really explore the tremendous growth of German solar capacity that came as a direct result of the country's aggressive energy policy (though I have written more extensively about them here ). Germany's coal is dirty, and becoming increasingly difficult to get. And though there is currently some debate about the renewable energy price supports, I would imagine they will stay put.

PlanetThoughts said...

Well, I think the article is terrific because it talks about what CAN be done if there is a will to do it. REALLY! Do you have a sense whether the same analysis would lead to a similar result in the USA if the playing field was level (less slanted toward coal)? Part of that is a comparison - how much worse, if at all, was/is the German coal situation. I read about so many nightmarish results from use of USA coal now.