Environment

Germans Forge ‘Socially Acceptable’ Transition From Coal

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Across the Atlantic Ocean, governments and businesses are taking big steps toward renewable energy. Their transition could provide lessons for Kentucky.

This is the second in a five-part series. Read the others here.

In Western Germany, only a 45-minute drive from the tourists milling around the iconic cathedral in Cologne, miners work in three immense lignite coal mines. Machines rumble, digging the soft, brown coal out of the ground and placing it on conveyor belts.

I’m standing on a viewing platform, watching the work in the open pit mine with Dorothea Schubert, a volunteer for a local environmental organization. It’s cliché, but the mine really does stretch as far as I can see. Together, this and energy company RWE’s two other lignite mines cover 62 square miles — nearly twice the size of Manhattan.

“You’re looking at the open cast mine Garzweiler 2,” Schubert said, pointing into the pit. “It’s long, about 3 or 4 kilometers, and we are seeing steps of mining. You see sand and gravel on one side, and on the deeper part you see black, and that’s the lignite.”

Like the United States, Germany is a coal-mining country. But now, Germany has embarked on the Energiewende, or “energy transition.” And part of that includes a shift away from coal and other fossil fuels, which still provide a large share of the country’s electricity.

The Energiewende has several goals, including to shut down German nuclear plants in the wake of the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima facility and replace that capacity with renewable energy. The goal is for 80 percent of the country’s electricity to come from renewables by 2050.

And the country is making progress. Last year, renewable energy produced more than a quarter of Germany’s electricity. But coal’s place in the German energy mix is holding steady — at least for now.

“We can’t just, what we in Germany say, swim against the river. That would be stupid.” Ralf Bartels

Germany mines and burns two types of coal: “hard coal,” which is bituminous coal comparable to what’s mined in Kentucky and throughout much of the U.S. coal mining regions; and lignite, a softer brown coal. Germany doesn’t produce very much hard coal. There are only three hard coal mines remaining in the country, and the last one will close in 2018.

“It’s not competitive,” said Ralf Bartels, an energy policy expert for the labor union that represents coal miners and energy workers.

Bartels said Germany can import coal from places such as Australia, South Africa and the U.S. cheaper than it can mine it in Germany. So the government decided to stop subsidizing its hard coal mines.

“And this is why policy in Germany and the [European Union] decided on ending those subsidies, and this is why the hard coal mines will be closed down,” Bartels said.

There are just fewer than 10,000 coal miners working in that industry — the same number as work in Kentucky. But there won’t be mass layoffs here; instead, the miners have been offered early retirements, re-training in other industries and comparable energy jobs.

This is what Bartels called a “socially acceptable” transition for those workers. His union doesn’t expect any of its coal miners to be without a job.

“Like the vast majority of society, our members are in favor of the energy reforms,” he said.

Germans Mining Dirtier Coal

But while hard coal mines will be closed soon, lignite mining is still going strong in Germany.

Three of the country’s mines are in Western Germany’s Ruhr Valley, operated by energy company RWE. The other five are in Eastern Germany and owned by the utility Vattenfall, though the company announced recently it would sell those mines.

Together, all of these lignite mines employ about 20,000 people. The fuel powered about a quarter of the country’s electricity last year. And these mines, too, have a stated shelf life: The German government says they’ll be shut down by 2045.

But for now, the country needs them.

“Our lignite mines are vast holes in the earth, like other coal mines all over the world are,” said Guido Steffen, a spokesman for RWE. “But the difference is our coal mines are located in a country that is densely populated. Our mines are not somewhere in the remote area, in the outback or so, but they are just right in the landscape.”

And they’re easy to get to, so tourists impressed by the huge mines and activists like Dorothea Schubert can get a look at the process.

Schubert and her group — Friends of the Earth Germany — oppose the lignite mines for a number of reasons, such as the loss of fertile soil and the pollution of groundwater. There’s also the fact that burning lignite releases about 5 percent more carbon dioxide than burning hard coal, making it counterproductive while Germany seeks to reduce its carbon emissions.

And here, lignite mining also has a large and visible human cost.

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''For me it’s kind of big, wild animal coming towards you,” she said. “It’s there, you can’t see it and you can’t escape because you are brought into the plan that you have to move sometimes.'' - Gisela Irving

The Garzweiler mine is expanding into nearby villages, some several centuries old. One by one, residents are relocated, and the homes are bulldozed. That’s what happened in the village of Immerath, which is eerily quiet on a warm September day. Streets are empty; the windows of homes, a church and a hospital are boarded up. At the town’s former convent, a solitary crane is slowly tearing into the building.

Immerath will be swallowed by the mine soon. But nearby, another town has just found out they’ll escape the same fate.

Schubert takes me to the village of Holzweiler, where her friend Gisela Irving lives in a small cottage surrounded by a garden. She has an enthusiastic dog and several chickens that lay green eggs.

Irving and her husband bought the house in 1977. She says for about 30 years after that, they lived thinking they would eventually have to move to make way for the expanding lignite mine.

“And for me it’s kind of big, wild animal coming towards you,” she said. “It’s there, you can’t see it and you can’t escape because you are brought into the plan that you have to move sometimes.”

Now, the wild animal is gone. Irving, 80, can stay in her house for the rest of her life, even though the Garzweiler mine will come right up to the village’s edge.

As Renewables Rise, Emissions Fall

Environmental groups want the mining stopped yesterday. Even though renewable energy eclipsed lignite’s share in Germany’s electricity mix last year, it’s still a long way from the Energiewende’s long-term goal of providing 80 percent of the country’s electricity.

In the past 15 years, renewable sources such as wind, solar photovoltaics and biofuels have grown exponentially in Germany. But they’ve mostly filled in the gaps in the country’s electricity portfolio caused by the phase-out of its nuclear plants.

In 2000, coal produced nearly six-and-a-half times the amount of electricity in Germany as all of the renewable sources put together. By 2013, renewables had grown so much that coal only produced twice the amount of electricity as those sources, according to the International Energy Agency.

But that is still a lot of coal.

“You will have to keep quite a lot of conventional power stations alive, and for economic reasons, many of them should be based on lignite,” said Guido Steffen of RWE.

Like Ralf Bartels of the energy workers’ union, Steffen said his company supports the Energiewende.

“We can’t just, what we in Germany say, swim against the river,” he said. “That would be stupid.”

From Bundestag to Bluegrass is a five-part web and radio series examining Germany’s energy transition—and its potential lessons for Kentucky.

But Steffen said it will take time — both to build up Germany’s renewable energy sector, and to make sure coal miners won’t be left unemployed.

“It’s a question of speed of those developments,” he said. “And we say, yes, let us reduce carbon also in electricity generation, let us do this as RWE, we are fine with that. But not too quickly.”

In the meantime, Germany has reduced its total greenhouse gas emissions by 27 percent since 1990. But the country isn’t on track to meet the ambitious targets it set in the Energiewende, and the emissions from the country’s coal-fired power plants are on the rise.

This story was originally published on December 8, 2015.

Photo credit: Erica Peterson

This series was supported in part by a grant from the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

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