National Geographic : 2015 Nov
62 national geographic • november 2015 be replanted. In one recultivated area there’s a small experimental vineyard. On the same rebuilt hill stands a memorial to Wolkenberg, a village consumed by the mine in the 1990s. Boulders mark the spots where the church and other buildings once stood. It was a gorgeous spring day; from Wolken- berg, the only cloud we could see was the lazily billowing steam plume from the 1.6-gigawatt power plant at Schwarze Pumpe, which burns most of the lignite mined at Welzow- Süd. In a conference room, Olaf Adermann, asset manag- er for Vattenfall’s lignite operations, explained that Vattenfall and other utilities had never ex- pected renewables to take off so fast. Even with the looming shutdown of more nuclear reactors, Germany has too much generating capacity. “ We have to face some kind of a market clean- ing,” Adermann said. But lignite shouldn’t be the one to go, he insisted: It’s the “reliable and flexible partner” when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. Adermann, who’s from the region and worked for its lignite mines be- fore they belonged to Vattenfall, sees them con- tinuing to 2050—and maybe beyond. Vattenfall, however, plans to sell its lignite business, if it can find a buyer, so it can focus on renewables. It’s investing billions of euros in two new offshore wind parks in the North Sea—because there’s more wind offshore than on and because a large corporation needs a large project to pay its overhead. “ We can’t do on- shore in Germany,” Wiese said. “It’s too small.” Vattenfall isn’t alone: The renewables boom has moved into the North and Baltic Seas and, increasingly, into the hands of the utilities. Merkel’s government has encouraged the shift, capping construction of solar and onshore wind and changing the rules in ways that shut out cit- izens associations. Last year the amount of new solar fell to around 1.9 gigawatts, a quarter of the 2012 peak. Critics say the government is helping big utilities at the expense of the citizens’ move- ment that launched the energiewende. At the end of April, Vattenfall formally inau- gurated its first German North Sea wind park, an 80-turbine project called DanTysk that lies some 50 miles offshore. The ceremony in a Hamburg ballroom was a happy occasion for the city of Munich too. Its municipal utility, Stadtwerke München, owns 49 percent of the project. As a result Munich now produces enough renewable electricity to supply its households, subway, and tram lines. By 2025 it plans to meet all of its de- mand with renewables. In part because it has retained a lot of heavy industry, Germany has some of the highest per capita carbon emissions in western Europe. (They’re a bit more than half of U.S. emissions.) Its goal for 2020 is to cut them by 40 percent from 1990 levels. As of last year, it had achieved 27 percent. The European carbon-trading sys- tem, in which governments issue tradable emis- sions permits to polluters, hasn’t been much help so far. There are too many permits in cir- culation, and they’re so cheap that industry has little incentive to cut emissions. Though Germany isn’t on track to meet its own goal for 2020, it’s ahead of the European Union’s schedule. It could have left things there—and many in Merkel’s CDU wanted her to do just that. Instead, she and Economics Minister Sigmar Gabriel, head of the SPD, reaffirmed their 40 percent commitment last fall. They haven’t proved they can meet it, howev- er. Last spring Gabriel proposed a special emis- sions levy on old, inefficient coal plants; he soon had 15,000 miners and power plant workers, encouraged by their employers, demonstrating outside his ministry. In July the government backed down. Instead of taxing the utilities, it The euphoria hasn’t lasted. Economic interests are clashing now. Some Germans say it might take another catastrophe like Fukushima to catalyze progress.