Permit for Germany’s newest coal-fired power plant was invalid, court rules

Germany’s youngest coal-fired power plant, Datteln 4, was constructed based on an invalid development plan, a German court ruled on Thursday (26 August), following a case brought against the plant in the north-west of the country.

The court upheld a challenge by the town of Waltrop, local residents and a climate NGO which challenged the plant over its proximity to residential areas and a children’s hospital.

According to the court, the choice of location for Datteln 4, which came online in 2020, was subject to an invalid development plan which did not meet “the relevant legal requirements”.

The battle against the coal plant dates back to the mid-2000s when residents overturned plans for it and the German branch of Friends of the Earth, BUND, won an injunction to stop its construction.

Local authorities in the North Rhine-Westphalia region then drew up new plans and issued a permit, which is now being fought over in court.

The ruling corrects wrong political decisions, said Olaf Bandt, chair of BUND. “The North Rhine-Westphalia minister-president has repeatedly publicly advocated the commissioning of the Datteln 4 hard coal-fired power plant. The operation of the power plant is not compatible with the new targets of the stricter climate protection law,” he said.

However, the operator of the plant, Uniper, has no intention of closing the coal plant yet. In a statement sent to EURACTIV, the company said they took note of the ruling, which is not yet legally binding, but do not share the view of the court.

“Therefore, we examine the possibility of appealing. What is clear, however, is that the court did not rule today on the decommissioning of Datteln 4, but on formal aspects of planning law,” the statement reads.

“Uniper still holds the view that the permit issued for the power plant is legal. Datteln 4 will continue to operate reliably and supply our customers with electricity and heat in a highly efficient manner,” it adds.

Another case is currently ongoing over the plant’s operating permit. If Datteln loses this too, it will need to halt production.

Energy from another era

In 2019, the German coal commission recommended against opening Datteln 4, but it was waved through by the federal government. The plant then came online in 2020 even as many countries were starting to phase out coal.

“Today is a shameful day for Europe, as we open up a brand new coal power plant. We have signed up to lead the way to avoid a climate disaster – and yet this [is] the signal we send to the rest of the world?” climate activist Greta Thunberg tweeted when the plant opened.

But Uniper says that Datteln 4 is one of the most modern hard coal plants in the world, generating electricity for around 100,000 households in the region as well as environmentally friendly district heating through combined heat and power.

The design of the plant means it is able to quickly adapt to demand, making it a reliable partner for renewable energy, according to Uniper.

Environmental NGO Client Earth, however, says Datteln 4 causes air and water pollution as it emits heavy metals and toxic substances, including mercury, lead and arsenic.

Under Germany’s heavily criticised plan to keep coal until 2038, the plant is set to be one of the final closures. An earlier shutdown would alter the country’s coal exit, according to Client Earth.

“This plant has always been a disaster – based near a children’s hospital, and on the doorstep of hundreds of homes, its toxic emissions and climate burden should have prevented it ever being approved,” said Francesca Mascha Klein, a lawyer at Client Earth.

“As the elections loom, and concrete climate impacts hit home in Germany, this is a timely and unmissable message to candidates like Armin Laschet, who are, incredibly, still promoting a ‘softly softly’ approach to moving away from fossil fuels,” she added.

The conservative candidate to replace currently chancellor Angela Merkel in the September elections, Armin Laschet, happens to be minister-president of North Rhine-Westphalia and an advocate of the project, prompting environmental commentators and the media to refer to the ruling as a “slap in the face”.

The ruling is poorly timed for Laschet, whose party currently faces faltering results in the pre-election polls and criticism for its commitment to Germany’s controversial 2038 coal exit date.


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