Germany hands over last black coal, but struggles to curb its emissions

A firefighter and a miner hand over a symbolic last piece of black coal extracted in Germany to President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (R) on April 3, 2019, in Berlin.

(CNN)Today, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier will receive "the last piece of black coal" dug from a German mine, as a symbolic gesture marking the end of the country's bituminous coal production.

Hard black coal provides more heat than soft brown lignite, which also means it generates less CO2 for the heat produced. But Germany has vast reserves of lignite, which can be sourced from open-cast mines, making it cheaper.
The government announced in 2007 that it would close all the country's black coal mines, which couldn't compete with cheaper imports. But despite its image as a champion of green energy, Germany still depends on coal.
    Coal accounts for more than a third of its energy mix and Germany is by far the biggest producer of lignite (brown coal) in the EU. Despite a target to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40% of 1990 levels by 2020, the country is still Europe's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases.

    A renewable future?

    In an effort to get its "Energiewende," or energy transition to renewables, back on track, earlier this year Germany announced it will completely phase out coal power plants by 2038 at the latest, while continuing its program of shutting all its nuclear power plants by 2022, in response to the Fukushima disaster.
    But on Monday, Germany's energy industry association BDEW warned that the closure of coal and nuclear plants means the country faces a shortfall in power supply by 2023.
    Currently, Germany produces excess electricity -- enough to export to neighboring countries. But one difficulty is that the supply of renewable energy is variable.
    "The biggest issue in terms of security of supply is when the wind doesn't blow and the sun doesn't shine," said Hanns Koenig, of energy market analysis firm Aurora Energy Research.
    He says by the mid 2020s Germany may need to import electricity to meet peak demand, beyond what can be supplied by renewables.
    "But to some extent that's fine," he added. "We're building a European power market coupled between countries, so just because we're dependent on capacity from abroad to meet our own peak demand, it's not a failure of the system but in a sense its part of the design."