Greenpeace Is Shopping for Dirty Coal Power Plants

The environmental group wants to buy Germany’s brown coal mines and power stations—and then shut them down.

A protest at Vattenfall's coal power plant in Jänschwalde, Germany, on Aug. 8. (Photo: Greenpeace)

Oct 14, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Greenpeace, whose activists recently suspended themselves over bridges to block Arctic-bound oil drilling rigs, is now in the market for coal-fired power plants.

Don’t worry: Greenpeace doesn’t want to fire them up; it wants to shut them down.

In a letter sent to U.S. bank Citigroup, Greenpeace Sweden expressed interest in purchasing Swedish state-owned energy giant Vattenfall’s five mines and three power plants in Lausitz, Germany, home to the world’s largest reserves of heavily polluting lignite coal.

Also known as brown coal, lignite is a cheap energy source that comes with a high cost to the environment. When burned, lignite emits one-third more carbon dioxide per ton than black coal and three times more than natural gas.

“These power plants produce approximately 65 million tons of CO2 emission per year, which is more than Sweden’s total annual CO2 emissions,” said Greenpeace Sweden director Annika Jacobson.

RELATED: Germany Breaks a Renewable Energy Record

Brown coal has historically provided Germany with cheap energy, but the country’s aggressive embrace of renewable energy has hurt the fossil fuel industry. Germany has set a target of reducing carbon emissions 40 percent by 2020 and eliminating fossil fuels entirely by 2100.

That’s left companies such as Vattenfall with increasingly unprofitable and unpopular mines.

Under pressure from the government, Vattenfall in September hired Citigroup to sell its German power plants and mines. The power plants have a capacity of more than 8,000 megawatts and, along with the mines, are estimated to be worth $2.2 to $3.3 billion.

So how does a grassroots nonprofit expect to raise such an enormous amount of cash? Greenpeace is exploring its options and is expected to give Vattenfall a more detailed proposal by Oct. 20.

Greenpeace spokesperson Juha Aromaa told Deutsche Welle that the organization could finance the mines from donor money, crowdfunding, and other sources of funding.

“Mostly, we would believe it would be our supporters who would be interested in such an acquisition to save the climate,” he said.

Whether or not Greenpeace is serious about purchasing the plants, the ultimate goal may be to force the German government to set a deadline to shutter them, Guido Hoymann, an analyst at B. Metzler Seel Sohn & Co. KGaA, told Bloomberg News.

“Only when that’s clear can a value be seriously determined, and then there will possibly be a buyer willing to pay this value,” he said.

Financial analysts estimate the sale price will more likely be closer to $1 billion, given the dim future for fossil fuel power in Germany.

“I don’t wish to use the word nightmare, but it can’t be a great deal of fun to be the salesman in this situation,” Ingvar Mattsson, an energy analyst at Swedbank, told Svenska Dagbladet, a Stockholm newspaper. “It is like selling a used car, but with a clause in the contract that says it cannot be used.”

If Vattenfall’s German operations are sold to another buyer, Jacobson said Greenpeace believes it could lead to the opening of five new lignite mines that would result in potential carbon dioxide emissions of 1.2 billion tons over their operating life.

“Greenpeace is taking concrete action on behalf of the climate by showing its interest in Vattenfall’s lignite activities,” Jacobson said. “The Swedish government cannot contribute to an acquisition by a buyer that would continue to burn enormous amounts of coal. This is a signal Sweden cannot give before the Paris Climate Conference.”