ENERGIEWENDE: WITH OR WITHOUT LIGNITE?

Energy policy As the lignite sale continues to be one of the hottest topics in the energy debate in Sweden, Vattenfall’s energy policy expert shares her viewpoint on the impact for lignite and the German energy transition.

Parliament and media in Sweden have been discussing whether to proceed with the lignite deal or to stop it. Opponents of the deal argue that selling the lignite business to Czech energy company EPH could endanger the Energiewende, Germany's move to phase out nuclear power and build a low-carbon economy based on renewable energy. News from Vattenfall has spoken to Head of Public and Regulatory Affairs & Stakeholder Relations at Vattenfall Sabine Froning.

Is there a similar discussion in Germany?
“Of course, the lignite deal between Vattenfall and EPH got a lot of attention in April also in Germany.  However, for the most part not from the perspective that it could be a threat to the energy transition, the “Energiewende”. The energy transition started years ago and is in full swing now with nuclear power being phased out and renewables quickly coming in. Now the focus is turning to coal. The question is not if it should be phased out but when that can be done in a responsible way. Jobs, environmental responsibilities, security of supply, affordability – all these need to be considered, whoever the owner is.

When it comes to Vattenfall, we are neither the best known nor the most popular utility in Germany. Not even the fact that Vattenfall is state-owned is particularly well known. We are not the friendly Swedish guys like the Ikeas or Abba. We are perceived as a more or less anonymous energy company which relies on nuclear and runs a lawsuit against Germany in Washington. No one in Germany would say that the Vattenfall deal has any significant impact to the further development of the German energy transition.”

From a Swedish perspective it must seem strange that the Germans would not discuss the opportunity to stop the lignite business in Lusatia. 
“The German discussion is much more complex than the Swedish public may be aware of. The Energiewende is not just a loose ambition but a well organised political process involving several hundreds of interest representations and institutions. NGOs and protest movements are as much part of it as academics, local politicians, industry representations, etc. The German environment ministry is currently putting together a new “Climate protection action plan” combining a bottom-up approach based on proposals from a wide range of civil society actors with academic analysis.

Depending on whom you are asking, the timeline for a complete phase-out of not only lignite but also hard coal will range between 2030 and 2050. No political party and not even the Greens or the NGOs in Germany are so far claiming that lignite can be phased out completely before 2030. The Government of the State of Brandenburg, the federal Government in Berlin and important stakeholder groups like the unions see a phase-out more on the other end of the scale. Frank Bsirske, the head of Verdi, one of the most powerful unions in Germany and member of the green party stated some days ago that a quick shut down of all German lignite mines and a ban of lignite as fuel would not help the energy transition but endanger the future of many employees in the energy business.”

This only means that Germany did not start in time to support the shift of employees to more renewable work places. 
“The Energiewende in Germany started a long while ago, quite a bit before it came into focus in the Swedish debate. Renewable energy is now Germany's most important energy source for electricity. And not only is the country increasingly relying on green energy – it is also being used more economically. Germany was a frontrunner in promoting renewables in Europe and thereby has contributed a lot to bringing costs down. The federal states in eastern Germany and especially Brandenburg produce much more renewable energy than the industries and the citizens in this area need. The focus on renewable energy production in this part of Germany started shortly after the reunification of Germany. So it would be unfair to blame these states or the federal government for not focusing on renewable energies.”

Some in the Swedish government have suggested a shutdown of the lignite in Lusatia and no one in the German government said ‘That would be a great help’. Why is that? 
“Because it would not be a great help. The success of the German Energiewende is in my opinion totally independent from whether the Swedish government authorizes the sale or not. As a G8 nation and one of the world’s biggest and strongest economies, Germany is very aware of the fact that the world is looking at them when it comes to the fulfilment of the COP 21 goals. The European Union has made a firm commitment which has been negotiated by its Member States. Policy instruments ensuring these commitments are met jointly are in place, such as – but not only – the emissions trading scheme. In addition, Germany has defined its own ambitious climate roadmap, is continuously monitoring progress and adjusts policies accordingly.  I have no doubt Germany will meet its climate targets, but in my opinion defining the roadmap is a national task.” 

Related content