The use of mothballed coal-fired power plants is intended to ensure that less gas is consumed. But it’s not all that easy.

Coal-fired power plants are to replace many gas-fired power plants in Germany. The Bundestag gave the green light for this on Thursday evening. But the temporary return to coal is not easy, as a survey by the German Press Agency among large power plant operators revealed.

There are a number of hurdles to be overcome both when restarting the coal-fired power plants that were previously banned to the grid reserve or on standby and when continuing to operate plants that were actually intended to be shut down. The problems range from a lack of staff and low coal reserves to legal hurdles. With the increased use of coal-fired power plants, gas is to be saved in view of the throttling of Russian supplies.

Leag: More than 200 more employees needed

The power plant operator Leag, for example, is preparing to restart the 500-megawatt blocks E and F of the Jänschwalde lignite-fired power plant in Brandenburg, which are currently still on standby. “The two power plant blocks are currently being technically checked. In order to make them fit for use lasting several weeks or even several months, maintenance work will be necessary,” the company said.

Additional staff must also be hired. “For a continuous operation of the two power plant blocks, we now expect an additional personnel requirement of more than 200 employees,” emphasized a company spokeswoman. The positions have been advertised for several weeks.

In addition, the federal government must exempt the power plant units for the duration of their planned use from the immission control requirements for lignite-fired power plants, which have been tightened since last year, emphasized Leag. Because a corresponding technical upgrade is not possible for reasons of time alone.

According to its own statements, the Essen power plant operator Steag can even bring an additional 2,300 megawatts of output back onto the market beyond October 2022. To do this, three coal-fired power plants in Bergkamen in North Rhine-Westphalia and in Völklingen in Saarland would have to continue to be operated beyond the actually planned shutdown at the end of October. The company also announced that two power plant blocks in Saarland could be retrieved from the grid reserve.

Coal supply for one week of full-load operation

However, Steag still sees challenges in the sufficient supply of these power plants with coal. “At most of the power plant sites themselves, the coal supply is currently only sufficient for about a week of full-load operation,” emphasized the company. Because nobody expected the increasing demand for coal-fired power.

Steag has access to hard coal reserves for around 30 days of full-load operation of the entire power plant fleet. However, most of the coal is stored in Rotterdam, and there is a bottleneck when transporting it to the power plant sites. Because the logistics industry has also adjusted to the phase-out of coal, which has been enshrined in law since 2020, and has reduced transport capacities for hard coal accordingly. “There is currently a lack of barges, freight cars, locomotives and train drivers,” says Steag.

The corresponding regulation is not yet available

And that’s not all. Hard coal is sufficiently available on the world market. However, there is currently a lack of planning security for the power plant operator because the ordinance on the Replacement Power Plant Availability Act (EKBG) is not yet available, on the basis of which Steag can conclude future supply contracts.

Staff is also scarce: “Of the two blocks at the Völklingen-Fenne site, only one block can be operated at the same time from November, particularly due to shortages in specialist staff,” reported a Steag spokesman.

The power giant RWE is preparing to restart three 300-megawatt power plant blocks that are currently still on standby: Blocks E and F of the Niederaussem lignite-fired power plant and Block C of the Neurath lignite-fired power plant. The group does not have to worry about a shortage of coal because of the neighboring opencast lignite mine. But there are also staff shortages here.

“RWE Power will adapt its personnel planning in power plants and opencast mines to the new operational readiness. That includes several hundred jobs, »emphasized the company. Last but not least, the higher personnel requirements are to be covered by the fact that employees are retiring later than previously planned. Further positions are to be filled by hiring trained people and new hires from outside.

Due to the war in Ukraine and the situation on the gas market, the Baden-Württemberg energy supplier EnBW wants to postpone the actually planned decommissioning of Block 7 of the Rheinhafen steam power plant in Karlsruhe until at least the end of 2023. In addition, EnBW has five coal blocks that are in the grid reserve. But the group sees limits to their use.

«Ensure security of supply at all times»

“For technical reasons, it is not possible for these to be used continuously to generate electricity, but they make an important contribution to cushioning dips in system stability and ensuring security of supply at all times,” emphasized a spokeswoman. EnBW is currently working flat out to prepare the group’s coal blocks in the grid reserve and on the market for operation in winter.

In order to save gas in view of the significantly lower Russian deliveries, less gas is to be used for electricity production – instead more coal-fired power plants are to be used again. In the future, coal-fired power plants are to be used that are currently only available to a limited extent, will soon be shut down or are in reserve. The background to this is the severe throttling of Russian gas supplies through the Nord Stream pipeline. The problems could be exacerbated if Russia does not turn on the gas tap again after an annual maintenance of Nord Stream 1, which begins on July 11 and usually lasts ten days.