Energy transition: The anti-Lützerath: The coal phase-out in East Germany

Ivy climbs the walls of the house.

Energy transition: The anti-Lützerath: The coal phase-out in East Germany

Ivy climbs the walls of the house. Loud chirping of birds and in between a dull bang. With full force, workers heave rubble from the first floor of an abandoned family home into a container in the front yard. The Saxon town of Mühlrose in Lusatia is probably the last village in Germany to give way to coal mining. All residents are to be resettled by the end of 2024. The majority already live in Neu-Mühlrose - a new housing estate just seven kilometers from the old village.

feeling of resignation

The mood on the ground is divided. While some residents in Neu-Mühlrose say the resettlement is the best thing that could have happened to them, some who stayed behind refuse to move into the new housing estate. "In Neu-Mühlrose, everything is crowded together, and there aren't any trees either," says Susann Zech, who stayed behind in Mühlrose

However, most would have come to terms with the fact that they would have to move. Unlike in Lützerath, where activists fought to save the village, there is a feeling of resignation in Mühlrose - although there is still heated discussion about a possible earlier phase-out of coal - before 2038.

For the Rhenish mining area in the west, on the other hand, the coal phase-out in 2030 has now been decided. Nevertheless, the village of Lützerath, a symbolic place for the climate protection movement and also a temporary home for some activists, had to give way. For days, images of hundreds of police and activists facing each other in the mud and cold dominated the news. The East German opencast mining areas have not attracted even remotely comparable attention.

Climate activists are calling for an early coal phase-out

Only recently was a protest in Mühlrose against a climate camp planned by climate activists with a human chain. People feared conditions like in Lützerath and made it clear that the majority had decided to resettle. Shortly thereafter, the camp was canceled by the activists. "I think that's nonsense. If so, they should have done it 20 years ago," says Zech.

Environmental organizations and climate protection initiatives will not be deterred and want to demonstrate on Sunday at the Nochten opencast mine for an early coal phase-out. "Climate protection and social justice" must come first, demand the activists of the All Villages Remain initiative. Among other things, they want to fight to preserve the village.

The traffic light coalition of SPD, Greens and FDP had agreed to “ideally” bring forward the phase-out of coal from 2038 to 2030. Federal Minister of Economics Robert Habeck (Greens) is now campaigning for an agreement for the East German opencast mining areas. According to his ministry, the talks are ongoing. One is "in continuous exchange with the entire energy industry, also with Leag and the affected federal states". The energy group Leag mines lignite in Lusatia and operates power plants. Whether results are in prospect and when, is not known.

One thing is clear: the time for coal is over

The Greens argue with climate protection. From Habeck's point of view, an exit in the east - possibly accompanied by subsidies - would also be in the economic interests of the people there. With the tightening of European emissions trading, generating electricity from coal will no longer be profitable from 2030 onwards. With emissions trading, companies have to prove their rights to emit climate-damaging greenhouse gases. The number of these certificates is to be reduced more. In addition, free allowances for industry are gradually being phased out.

Saxony's Prime Minister Michael Kretschmer is still sticking to the planned exit date. "The exit date of 2038, which was negotiated in the broad social consensus, is set," says the CDU politician. However, it could be preferred if the security of supply is otherwise ensured and this is affordable. Kretschmer argues that the vast majority see that lignite will continue to play a decisive role in the security of supply throughout the country.

However, coal workers and the general public also know that the coal era is ending. They would expect politicians to make sensible decisions and above all to keep their promises. It is short-sighted and negligent to want to shut down the coal-fired power plants prematurely without a solution.

"First expansion, then exit"

Brandenburg's Prime Minister Dietmar Woidke (SPD), on the other hand, considers an earlier exit in eastern Germany to be conceivable after a long period of rejection - but only under certain conditions. A "commission on the future of energy supply" should work out details. According to a survey, the mood on the subject is divided in Brandenburg, while there are clear reservations in Lusatia.

It is now up to the Federal Ministry of Economics "to show us what the energy supply of the future should look like in a few years' time," said Woidke. It is about Germany's energy supply and thus about the stability and economic development of the country.

The energy company Leag meanwhile insists on the legally stipulated phase-out of coal in 2038 and at the same time wants to invest more in the expansion of renewable energies. The slogan is: "First expansion, then exit. We stand by that," said Leag board member Thorsten Kramer during a visit to Habeck in Lusatia in mid-February. "We have a common goal: the conversion to renewable energies with simultaneous security of supply."

The climate scientist Niklas Höhne from the research facility New Climate Institute assumes, like Habeck, that mining and burning coal will hardly be worthwhile from 2030 onwards. It is therefore questionable whether the operators would allow their power plants to continue operating at all under these conditions. On the one hand.

Question about the overall concept

On the other hand: Without an exit plan, the state governments could ultimately advocate continued operation in order to preserve jobs, Höhne thinks. Or European emissions trading could be defused again under political pressure. "In order to really do something for the climate, the number of certificates in emissions trading would have to be reduced in addition to the earlier coal phase-out," says Höhne.

"If you really want to achieve something, you should agree on phasing out coal in the East this year," says Höhne. "But we should only do that if it also leads to greenhouse gas savings." He's missing the overall concept. "We do have climate goals, but we have to clarify specific questions: What is the expected electricity demand? How many gas-fired power plants will we still need in the next few years to fill the gap from the coal phase-out?" Habeck could provide answers to these questions with his power plant strategy planned for this summer.