Since fossil fuels have no future, operators are looking for new uses for their electricity plants. One idea: hydrogen factories.
Before commissioning: the Hamburg-Moorburg power plant in 2013 Photo: Joerg Boethling/imago
The coal phase-out has begun: At the end of last year, coal companies fought bitterly to place their power plants on the first shutdown list, for which the German government has provided large sums of compensation. Now, eleven coal-fired units are scheduled to go offline this year, with a combined rated capacity of nearly 4.8 gigawatts. Nine of these are hard coal-fired power plants, while two smaller plants are mainly fired by lignite.
But what will actually happen to the retired power plants and their sites? The plants do not have to end up as industrial ruins. The owners are considering very different options for the buildings and sites.
For example, there is the Hamburg-Moorburg coal-fired power plant, which was the big surprise among the bids for this year’s closures. After all, energy company Vattenfall didn’t build the two-unit plant until 2007 – sparking massive protests from Germany’s increasingly forming climate movement. The 3-billion-euro project went into operation in 2015, and now it will be shut down after less than six years as the largest power plant in the Elfer Group. After-use concepts at Moorburg range from conversion to other fuels to demolition.
Last Friday it became known that Vattenfall, Shell, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries as well as Hamburg’s municipal heat supplier Hamburg Warme have signed a declaration of intent according to which an electrolyzer with a capacity of 100 megawatts is to be built at the Moorburg site. In this way, the companies intend to take "a leading position in the European green hydrogen economy." However, a concrete investment decision has yet to be made.
Even before the closure was announced, the burning of bush wood from Namibia as an alternative to coal had been discussed in Hamburg. Environmental associations such as Robin Wood are strictly opposed to this. Because of the long transport route and the environmental damage associated with deforestation on site, this form of energy generation is not climate-friendly, they say. In addition, energy is scarce in Namibia itself.
Commercial sites in Hamm
The ideas are already more concrete than in Moorburg in Hamm, North Rhine-Westphalia, where the energy company RWE is decommissioning the Westfalen power plant. Areas that are no longer needed are to be developed into commercial sites in cooperation with the city’s economic development department. A phase shifter in the service of the transmission system operator Amprion could be built on part of the site.
Such components are important for technical reasons in the power grid. They compensate for so-called reactive current. This is caused by physical effects in the alternating current network that lead to temporal shifts between the courses of current and voltage. This then leads to current oscillating in the network without being able to provide power. Reactive current thus places a burden on the networks and must always be compensated by bringing current and voltage back into line – hence the name: both variables are shifted back into the same phase. Conventional power plants and pumped storage plants have always done this. With the energy transition, new phase shifters are therefore needed.
Meanwhile, at the Ibbenburen site, the energy company RWE is considering offering its coal-fired power plant as a capacity reserve. This is the term used for plants that are held outside the electricity market. They can be called up by the transmission system operators if electricity demand cannot be met by the capacities available on the market.
The Uniper energy group is also considering the large-scale location of industry, such as "companies in the circular economy," at the Heyden coal-fired power plant site. However, power generation on the basis of natural gas or hydrogen and facilities for stabilizing the power grid are also being examined.
Steag, for its part, sees its Duisburg-Walsum site "as a hub for sector coupling. However, fossil energy will continue to play a role here as well: A "fuel switch to natural gas" is being considered for unit Walsum 9, which has been accepted for decommissioning. In addition, Steag is also examining "the construction of a hydrogen and oxygen hub". Steag is also investigating options for storing electricity at the site, now that a 15-megawatt battery storage facility is already located there.
But perhaps in some places, entirely new options will be found that no one is thinking of today. Two failed nuclear power plant projects could serve as models: A leisure park was built on the site of the "Fast Breeder" in Kalkar on the Lower Rhine, which never got off the ground. And in Zwentendorf, Austria, the nuclear power plant that was completed but never put into operation was temporarily used as a teaching building.