The Thierbach coal-fired power station is blown up
Photo: suedraumfoto / imago images
A lot of money can be made with hot air.
Few financial markets have had such a boost in recent months as that for EU emission rights.
Such papers, one could also call them polling licenses, have to be bought by utilities and factories if they emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
The price for this has skyrocketed by more than 150 percent in the past twelve months: to more than 52 euros per ton of CO2.
This has consequences for the real economy: for the electricity companies and for Germany's coal phase-out.
Because the CO2 price determines the pace of the energy transition to a very large extent.
There are three main reasons why it is increasing so strongly:
First, the EU is tightening its climate targets.
Member States and the European Parliament have agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 percent compared to 1990 levels by 2030;
previously minus 40 percent were targeted.
Second, the supply of certificates is automatically becoming scarcer year after year.
The aim is to get companies to gradually reduce their CO₂ emissions.
Thirdly, more and more financial investors are pushing into the CO2 market - which is an additional boost to growth.
The hedge fund Andurand Capital Management is already betting on a CO₂ price of up to 100 euros by the end of the year.
For the operators of the coal-fired power plants, which emit a particularly large amount of carbon dioxide, that would be a severe blow.
Because the more the CO2 price rises, the higher your operating costs become.
And the less the coal piles can compete with gas-fired power plants with lower CO2 emissions.
Even now, at a good 50 euros, they are increasingly being displaced.
And now Germany is also sharpening its national climate targets, driven by a historic ruling by the Federal Constitutional Court.
The Federal Republic of Germany's CO2 emissions are expected to drop by 65 percent by 2030, not just 55 percent.
The Federal Government sees the German energy sector in particular as having an obligation.
According to an amendment to the law in 2030, fossil fuel-fired power plants will only emit 108 million tonnes of CO₂ equivalent;
so far 175 million tons have been targeted.
However, so much more CO2 can only be saved if many more coal-fired power plants are disconnected from the grid much earlier.
If a higher carbon price alone does not set this dynamic in motion, the government would have to take additional measures.
That is why almost no one believes that Germany will not phase out coal completely until 2038, as previously planned by law.
Both Federal Economics Minister Peter Altmaier (CDU) and Environment Minister Svenja Schulze (SPD) expect an earlier end date.
There are already increasing signs on the market that the coal phase-out is accelerating.
Weakest April in decades
According to data from the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems (ISE), German lignite and hard coal power plants did not even contribute every fourth megawatt hour to the German electricity mix in April - as little as it has for decades.
Only in 2020, when parts of the industry stood still in lockdown, was coal power production even lower in an April.
Gas and steam power plants, however, generated more electricity than any other April in the last ten years.
"We are seeing a displacement of coal-fired power plants by gas-fired power plants," says Bruno Burger, professor at Fraunhofer ISE.
The energy company Uniper confirms this: coal-fired power plants are now being used less often, but at the end of 2020 they reactivated two modern gas-fired power plants that previously only provided reserve services for the network operator.
The reason for this so-called
is simple: the CO2 costs of a gas-fired power plant are more than 50 percent lower than those of a lignite-fired power plant. The operation of some kilns is only likely to pay off because the corporations would have stocked up on CO2 certificates when they were still cheap, says Burger.
The supply of cheap papers is limited, however.
Correspondingly, companies are already trying to get rid of their old CO2 spinners.
According to the Federal Network Agency, the first tenders in which operators shut down coal-fired power plants early in exchange for compensation were significantly oversubscribed.
Many companies were satisfied with compensation well below the maximum allowable price.
"The motivation to close coal-fired power plants is apparently very high," says the network agency.
Other suppliers are now shutting down power plants for the summer because the profits in this low-consumption season are well below the operating costs.
Six coal piles with an output of 2930 megawatts are currently seasonally mothballed.
If you can, you can already run away
All of this suggests a certain panic at the end of the day.
Anyone who can, it seems, is already running away.
But that could soon become a problem.
If the coal piles are eliminated more quickly, Germany should temporarily need more gas-fired power plants.
But who should build them when electricity production will only pay off for a few years?
An alternative solution would be to cram more and more coal-fired power plants into the so-called network reserve - and to reward the suppliers for this.
Instead of a coal exit, you would have a fossil zombie apocalypse with numerous undead piles.
The trick with the grid reserve is already the preferred way to compensate for the political failures of the energy transition: There is already a lack of power lines to always transport all of the green electricity from the windy north to the industrial-rich south.
It has only just been announced that one of the main routes from Schleswig-Holstein to southern Germany, known as the »Südlink«, will probably not be ready until 2028, two years later than planned.
more on the subject
The worst system change: 100 things that go wrong with the CO₂ turnaroundA list of deficiencies by Stefan Schultz
CO₂ reduction by 65 percent by 2030: Cabinet adopts new climate protection law
Rising heating costs: GroKo wants to relieve 23 million households of the CO₂ priceBy Stefan Schultz
In the south of the republic, numerous coal piles have therefore already migrated to the grid reserve.
They are always reactivated when the lines from the north are too busy to meet the electricity demand in the south.
The wind turbines in the north, however, have to be partially regulated during these times.
The operators receive compensation for this.
With the German energy transition, many things are already out of sync.
And the accelerated phase-out of coal exacerbates this problem.
The coming government will have to deal with it quickly.
Otherwise, in the worst case, the German power supply will soon no longer be secure.
The Federal Ministry of Economics currently considers the level of security of supply in Germany to be high.
The Federal Audit Office, however, is already calling for a stress test to find out how secure the supply is in longer periods with little wind and sun.
The ministry has not yet run through a corresponding scenario.
Electricity prices are already rising
Even if the lights don't go out in Germany straight away, consumers will still be left out.
Because a scarcer supply, combined with a high CO2 price, is likely to lead to an increase in electricity prices.
The purchase price on the electricity exchange is already skyrocketing in line with the CO2 price - since the beginning of the year it has risen from around 48 to almost 65 euros per megawatt hour.
It is foreseeable that the utilities will pass these higher costs on to their customers.
The end consumer prices for electricity are not yet rising broadly, says Lundquist Neubauer from the comparison portal Verivox.
Because most energy suppliers cover themselves with electricity in the long term - and often only pass on higher or lower wholesale prices to customers with a delay.
"If the trend continues, however, electricity prices for private households could rise in the medium to long term," says Neubauer.
Even if the EEG surcharge for green electricity falls from 6.5 to 6 cents per kilowatt hour in 2022.
With the particularly low electricity tariffs for new customers, the prices are already going up. According to Verivox, the average costs for the cheapest available tariff with recommended conditions and switching bonus have risen by around six percent since the beginning of the year.