Germany's move to scrap coal is said to boost cost for taxpayers

(Bloomberg) — Chancellor Angela Merkel’s plan to close Germany’s remaining coal-fired power stations will drive up subsidies for regions that mine the commodity, according to a document from the economy and energy ministry seen by Bloomberg.

Taxpayers are already slated to send 35 billion euros ($41 billion) of aid to four coal regions from 2013 to 2028 and will have to increase that amount as efforts to scale back pollution eliminates jobs at mines and power plants, the economy ministry estimated in a report drawn up last month. German gvt seeks to balance environmental goals against the need to protect jobs and keep a lid on electricity prices now at their highest level in years.

The findings were submitted to the commission that Merkel asked to study when Germany could finally close its remaining 120 coal stations, which supplied more than a third of the nation’s electricity last year. After spending 500 billion euros to switch off the most polluting power plants, Merkel is now seeking to balance environmental goals against the need to protect jobs and keep a lid on electricity prices now at their highest level in years.

“The faster Germany pulls out of coal, the more expensive it’s going to be and we’re not talking about negligible costs,” said IGBCE miners, chemical and electrical workers’ union spokesman Lars Ruzic on the phone from Hanover Tuesday. “The phase-out is an immense disruption for utilities, the coal regions, jobs and the broader economy.”

Merkel’s coal commission has kept quiet about its private deliberations. It’s due to publish its main recommendations by the end of October. Philipp Jornitz, a spokesman for the Economy and Energy Ministry in Berlin, declined to comment on the report.

The documents dated Aug. 14 give a glimpse into the advice that’s feeding into Merkel’s coal commission. The panel, including lawmakers from the main political parties, environmental groups, analysts and unions, is drawing up a proposal for how quickly Germany should make the switch from fossil fuels in favor of cleaner forms of energy.

It said that the aid currently scheduled to go to coal regions is a “definite underestimate” of the actual amount of funding supporting those areas, since it excludes additional European Union payments to regional economies in transition.

Power in Germany is already the most expensive in Europe, according to the BDEW utilities federation. Closing the nation’s 120-odd coal plants by 2040 would push up power bills by 20 percent or by 29 billion euros, consultancy Frontier Economics said in an August report financed by RWE AG.

Germany’s remaining coal plants currently have a capacity of 46.7 gigawatts, about 23 percent of the nation’s total electric generation, which can produce 205 gigawatts in total. Wind turbines surpassed coal as the largest contributor to the grid last year.

The mandate of Merkel’s coal commission is to suggest a way government can “actively support structural change” in the coal regions, calibrating an exit from the most polluting fossil fuel while kick-starting new businesses to preserve jobs.

The four regions support tens of thousands of mining, power industry and service jobs, according to the IGBCE union. The companies that are most likely to be affected include RWE AG, which owns mining and power plants in the western state of North-Rhine Westphalia, and LEAG, which is the main lignite operator in eastern Germany.

Power prices have been rising this year across Europe along with the cost of coal, natural gas and carbon-emissions credits.

RWE and LEAG have said the cost of Germany’s energy transition can be limited if the government allows market forces to determine the timing of when the last coal plant should shut. The two have lignite mining licenses stretching into the middle of the century and want to preserve those assets.

Allowing the carbon market to guide Germany’s shift away from coal might allow them to keep operating for years or even decades.

(By Brian Parkin and William Wilkes)