Environment

How Energy Tourism is Powering New Futures for German Cities

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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 fourth in a five-part series. Read the others here.

In the middle of the industrial German city of Essen, there’s a wall surrounding a property bigger than 100 soccer fields. This is Zollverein: two former coal mines and a coking plant, which is used to turn coal to coke for steelmaking. I’m here to see how a former coal complex has been reinvented over the past two decades into something that’s a genuine tourist attraction.

Inside a building that used to wash coal before it was burned for electricity, tourists sit, bathed in light streaming in through massive windows, drinking coffee. Some 8,000 people worked here at Zollverein just before World War II. But like in Kentucky, coal production and employment there began declining. The Zollverein complex closed for good in 1993, just as Germany began contemplating a move away from fossil fuels.

“At first it was a lot of disappointment, of course, and as you say in Kentucky, you have a similar situation which causes fear,” said Zollverein spokeswoman Ute Durchholz.

In Kentucky, the economic decline of the coalfields has led some to speculate that tourism could be Eastern Kentucky’s second act. That’s partially what happened here, in the industrial Ruhr Valley, beginning back in the 1990s.

Almost immediately after the mines and coking plant closed, Zollverein was protected from demolition. Now, the property’s red-brick and rust-colored steel industrial buildings are an eclectic center of history, culture and design.

There’s really no way to describe Zollverein other than amazing. Inside the former mining buildings, visitors sit inside a bright café drinking coffee. There’s an international design museum and university, public green spaces, and what has to be the world’s only swimming pool/ice rink inside a former coking plant. There’s also a museum about the region’s heritage, and guided tours through the former mine shafts are offered.

Tour guide Peter Reuter takes me through the spaces where coal was carried on conveyor belts and sorted. He turns a key, and a deafening noise fills the room.

Beams of light begin traveling along the floor, tracing the path the coal cars took. The platform we’re standing on starts to vibrate, and even though I know this is a simulation, I instinctively look below me for the car that’s not there. It’s high-tech but not over-the-top.

“What you could hear was a noise around about 86 decibels, and it was turned down,” Reuter said. “Because visitors, they should not be harmed.”

Usually, the noise that filled the room was closer to 108 decibels. Or, as Reuter put it: “This is comparable to starting jet plane, and you stay close to turbine.”

Some of Zollverein’s tours are led by men who used to mine coal in the complex. Even though the area doesn’t play the same pivotal role in Germany’s economy, they don’t want people to forget the region’s industrial heritage.

By all accounts, this experiment at Zollverein seems to have worked. The site got a huge bump when the Ruhr region was named a European Capital of Culture in 2010; since then, more than 1.5 million tourists have come to Zollverein each year.

“The pit head of Zollverein, it is like a symbol of the region right now. I think 30 years ago, the cathedral of Cologne was a symbol of all this region. Now, it’s a former mine. You can see the change of mentality.” Ute Durchholz

But the evolution of Zollverein has taken years, and it’s been expensive. So far, more than $320 million in public and private money has been spent on Zollverein, spread out over 25 years, as new buildings are restored and renovated. Today, Durchholz said, the site operates at a profit. And Zollverein is once again a source of pride for the region’s people.

“The pit head of Zollverein, it is like a symbol of the region right now,” Durchholz said. “I think 30 years ago, the cathedral of Cologne was a symbol of all this region. Now, it’s a former mine. You can see the change of mentality.”

But in Germany, energy tourism isn’t limited to nostalgia about the country’s industrial heritage.

I learn that the next day, 60 miles away from Zollverein at the other end of the Ruhr region, looking at lignite mines. These are gigantic holes in the earth; combined, they cover an area nearly twice the size of Manhattan. There are only three lignite mines left in this area, and all are operated by energy company RWE.

When environmental activist Dorothea Schubert picks me up at a nearby train station, I’m not sure what to expect. In Kentucky, large-scale strip mines are hard to see, and often, a hike through the woods is necessary to find them.

So I’m surprised when Schubert pulls into a parking lot at Hambach Mine, Germany’s biggest open-cast lignite mine. We get out of the car and walk to a viewing platform that overlooks the active mine site. There’s a bike path traveling along the mine’s overlook, and interpretive signs explain the steps of the mining process. There are a few lounge chairs with umbrellas set up to overlook the mine’s edge.

“It looks as though you are at the beach,” Schubert said.

Next door, there’s also a café, with a mini-golf course and playground. There’s a steady stream of tourists, including a bus of students from a nearby university.

Realistically, neither this nor Zollverein are concepts that translate directly to Eastern Kentucky. Germany is much more densely populated, with an impressive rail network. Traveling from Louisville to visit the simulation coal mine in Benham or the Appalachian Artisan Center takes hours.

But there are still numerous possibilities, and it’s something the region is eyeing; the Shaping Our Appalachian Region, or SOAR, initiative includes a committee on tourism, heritage and the arts. They’ve held listening sessions around the state and say they are working on ways to capitalize on the region’s natural beauty and culture.

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

While Zollverein attracts tourists interested in that region’s heritage, Schubert said the crowd at the lignite mine is mixed. Some are impressed by the industry and heavy machinery, while others are upset at the environmental destruction.

But still, they come. And while they’re looking over the massive mine, they may also stop for awhile, have a beer, or play a round of mini-golf.

This story was originally published on December 10, 2015.

Photo credit: Erica Peterson

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

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