Austrian chancellor speaks of ‘extraordinary times’ as country prepares to reopen coal-fired power plant after gas threat from Russia

At the Mellach coal-fired power station in southern Austria, cobwebs have invaded the conveyor belts, and plants and flowers have grown around the vast land that was once used to store coal.

The plant, Austria’s last coal-fired power station, was closed in spring 2020, but now the government – worried that Russia could further cut its crucial gas deliveries – has decided to rehabilitate the site in in case it is needed.

“I never imagined that we would restart the factory,” Peter Probst, a 55-year-old welder, told AFP during a tour of the factory. “It’s really sad to be so dependent on gas.”

Europe had tried to move away from coal in the fight against climate change.

However, as Russia has cut off gas supplies following Western sanctions imposed on it for the war in Ukraine, European countries are turning to coal.

Today, the white and red chimney of the Mellach factory stands out amid fields of corn and pumpkins, the city of Graz in the distance.

Inside, the walls are black and coal dust clings to doors and grilles.

Some 450,000 tonnes of coal were stored at the plant before it closed, with Austria’s conservative-Green coalition aiming for all electricity to come from renewable resources by 2030.

Site manager Christof Kurzmann-Friedl said the plant operated by supplier Verbund could be ready again in “about four months” – just in time to help deal with potential winter gas shortages.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy greets Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer outside the building.
Chancellor Karl Nehammer, seen here with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said the decision ‘shows how extraordinary our times are’.(Reuters: Ukrainian Presidential News Service)

“Emergency measure”

On Monday, Chancellor Karl Nehammer insisted the plant would only be brought online if necessary, while Austria sticks to its emissions reduction target.

“It really is an emergency measure,” the curator told foreign correspondents during a briefing.

The 230-megawatt power station would take over from the nearby gas-fired power station, also operated by Verbund, which currently provides heating to Graz’s 300,000 residents, according to Mr Kurzmann-Friedl.

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