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Coal energy in green Germany

A little material about the obstacles to the transition to green energy. How did it happen that since 2009, emissions to the atmosphere have decreased only by a few units, despite all the statements of the Merkel government.

Lippendorf coal power plant near Leipzig
The climate is nearing a turning point. The changes have already begun to manifest themselves and there is the potential for explosive changes, the consequences of which will be irreversible if the world does not quickly slow down fossil fuel emissions over the next few decades. As the Arctic sea ice melts, the ocean absorbs more and more sunlight and accelerates its melting. As tundra melts, methane is released – a strong greenhouse gas that causes even more warming. Due to the change of climatic zones, the ecosystems of nature can be destroyed, destroying more and more species of flora and fauna.

The EU has long claimed leadership in the fight against climate change. Despite the rapid expansion in the use of renewable energy, CO2 emissions from EU coal power plants have recently increased. Due to the relatively low price of coal (compared to gas), many EU coal-fired power plants operate at full or almost full capacity, while conventional gas-fired power plants operate below their design capacity or are completely closed.

Intensive use of coal by key EU members, such as the United Kingdom and Germany, shows that the climate position of the union is in serious danger since coal emissions will not be reduced quickly enough, as was originally supposed. Germany uses more coal to produce electricity than any other EU country, while the UK is the third largest country in absolute terms, coal consumption for electricity after Poland.

Map of coal power plants in Germany

In 2010, Germany made a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2020, and to increase the share of renewable energy in the energy sector to 35% by 2020.

In June 2018, the German government acknowledged that it would not reach the carbon reduction target set by 2020.


In 2015, in the list of the most dangerous (for climate) power plants, six German enterprises were in the top-10 at once. In 2016 and 2018, due to a general oversupply of generated electricity from renewable sources, companies paid consumers for using excess energy. Such rapid growth is explained very simply: renewable energy sources enjoy privileges and benefits in the framework of the law on renewable energy of 2009. Also in these years, conditions were observed that significantly influenced the stocks of electricity (more strong winds or the sun). But due to the inconstancy of indicators of such sources of electricity as the sun and wind, it has already made it clear to the German authorities that the practice that was abandoned half a century back because of unprofitability – the construction of coal-fired power plants, has become topical again.

After the accident at the Japanese nuclear power plant Fukushima, Angela Merkel’s cabinet decided to take a rather risky step – to close all nuclear power plants. By that time, the share of nuclear energy was 30% in total electricity production in Germany. It was supposed that ecologically clean sources would serve as a substitute for a dangerous atom. To set an example to the population, the German chancellor even ordered solar panels to be installed on the roof of his department in Berlin.

Germany is trying to reduce CO2 emissions by 95 percent by 2050, when it can fully rely on renewable energy

Coal attacks German homes

In the spring of 2015, the German authorities announced a plan to introduce a special climate tax, which should act as a kind of fine for coal-fired power plants. The tax was not approved due to the effective resistance of the coal lobby. Moreover, some companies began to intensively develop new fields. One of these places is the New Horn. Previously, this village was simply called Horn, but after the arrival of the coal mining companies, the village was demolished and a new one was built near the field. The territories of the Horns are inhabited by ethnic minorities, the Sorbs. Sorbs are an ethnic minority in Germany, descendants of a West European Slavic tribe.

Reporter Euronews met with the owner of the largest agro-enterprise in the district.

Coal mines have already swallowed up vast areas of land. Both the business and the fate of 800 employees are under threat. Over the past year, our company has lost a huge piece of land, and all because of coal mining. We had to cut two hundred jobs. Today in Germany, almost 30% of energy comes from renewable sources. We don’t need coal. Germany now produces abundant electricity, electricity prices are very low. Why, then, coal and all of these environmental destructions.

Rosh Hagen

Despite the fact that the regions of settlement of sorbs are protected by the constitution of Germany, more than 100 settlements have been destroyed in the country, most of which are sorb villages. Destruction of villages means violation of the basic law by local authorities. But the coal lobby is too strong.

Protests against coal mining at the Hambach mine. Spread over 85 square kilometers and a depth of about 370 meters, an open coal mine near the Hambach Forest is one of the largest deposits in Europe. 2017 year. Photo: German Environmental Protection Agency.

About 1.3 billion tons of brown coal were discovered long ago under the village of Immerath and the adjacent lands in North Rhine-Westphalia. Few of the locals took the threat seriously at that time, so life continued until the development of the mine became a reality and the villages were not brought to destruction. Immerath is one of the last to give way to the expanding mines of the Harzweiler open-pit mine, which is controlled by the giant German energy producer RWE, which supplies one third of Germany’s total capacity. When the quarry is completely ready, about 20 villages will be destroyed. Families that lived in the areas where mining was planned were relocated to other places or received monetary compensation. What is left of Immerata? Empty streets and abandoned houses. It is symbolic that the first building,

Approximately 6 km from Immerath there is Berferat: a small farming village, sandwiched between green fields and apple trees. It must be destroyed in 2023 and the local agronomist Eleonor Kreuis fights for the survival of his farm.

During the first meeting with RWE, the representative told us that our emotions are inappropriate here. Immediately after that, we decided to get legal assistance. We are expropriated, and our way of life must change. In the Berferat it is allowed to keep animals, but in the new Berferat it will be impossible, therefore, farmers will have to rethink their work. These rules mean that my animals cannot figure in the new life.

Eleanor croiss
resident bepherfet

Brown coal production should start in the village by 2028 and will continue until about 2045. Upon completion, the area will be flooded with Rhine water and turned into a lake.

According to the report of Oil Change International , the absence of a significant reduction in CO2 emissions is due to the fact that the increasing use of wind and solar power has basically filled the void created by the decommissioning of nuclear reactors, while brown coal mined in the field remains energy sources for industrial areas along the Rhine. Every year, Hambach and the neighboring mines produce 30 million tons of this brown coal. In addition, Germany continues to finance “emissions” abroad, incompatible with the safe climate of the future.

The most serious problem for Germany will be the gradual elimination of brown coal mines. This will be especially difficult for workers and communities that depend on the work of these mines. Any decision to stop coal mining should take into account these people. In Germany, coal miners account for 0.03 percent of the labor force, and, for example, in China, 0.6 percent of the labor force.

Source: Oil Change International Shift the Subsidies Database

The new study showed that the Paris targets (we are talking about the agreements that were adopted at the International Conference on Climate in Paris in 2015) will become unattainable if Germany does not stop mining brown coal for 10 years. But Germany cannot serve as an example for other countries; according to the report, the country invests 35% more in fossil fuel exploration abroad than in renewable energy. Between 2014 and 2016, Germany contributed about $ 13 billion to the budget for financing the extraction and processing of fossil fuels abroad, 99 percent of which went to the infrastructure for oil and gas. This is up from US $ 8 billion to finance clean energy.

Coal mine and power station in Jenschwald, Brandenburg, Germany. Photo: Hanno Beck for Oil Change International.
Coal mine and power station in Jenschwald, Brandenburg, Germany. Photo: Hanno Beck for Oil Change International.

Germany is the eighth largest coal producer in the world and the main producer of brown coal, the dirtiest of its form. Brown coal is a low-grade form of coal with a much lower energy density than hard coal.

Germany has established itself as a pioneer in renewable energy: it became the first country in Europe to create
preferential tariffs for renewable energy in the 1990s. Germany adopted a renewable energy law (Erneuerbare Energien-Gesetz in 2000, which regulated the support of renewable energy resources. “Energiewende ‘was first taken seriously
by the Merkel government after the Fukushima nuclear disaster.


What are green industry representatives doing?

The first protests against the expansion of coal mining took place in 2015, when 1,500 people entered the Harzweiler mine of RWE. In 2016, more than 3,000 activists in white paper suits and bags of straw, as protection from police batons, took another pit and a power station in Velzov-Süde. In 2017, more than 2,500 anti-coal demonstrators protested in the West German city of Kerpen and at the nearby coal mining site before the start of the global climate conference in Bonn.

Anti-coal demonstrators protest near the surface of the Hambach mine, near Kerpen, Germany, Sunday, November. 5, 2017, the day before the opening of the UN Climate Summit in Bonn, Germany. Photo: Henning Kaiser

In addition to these and other smaller protests, which usually last less than a day, a group of several dozen climate activists have been living in the nearby Hambach Forest for several years trying to slow down the clearing of trees, which marks each expansion of the mine.

Most lived in houses built high among the branches. They barricaded themselves on the roads, dug trenches, handcuffed themselves to their trunks and hid in the tunnels, trying to protect the forest, which is inhabited by several rare species, but which is constantly being cleared so that the quarry can expand.

At first we were only a dozen or so, so sometimes I sat alone in a camp. Now there are from 50 to 80 forest dwellers from around the world – Spain, Italy, Great Britain, the USA and Canada and so on. Nice to see people become more knowledgeable and ready for action. More and more people are finding out that lignite is something that we should stop mining. Climate change is what we must do, but this is not being done by our so-called leaders.

One of the forest dwellers.

Forest advocates drew inspiration from the publications of Naomi Klein ( Canadian journalist, writer and sociologist, one of the leaders of alternative globalization ) and similar campaigns in other countries. Each tree has a name, and the houses are grouped into communities with names such as Oak Town and Robin Wood.

In Bonn, activists from other countries expressed solidarity. Tom Goldtut, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, said RWE’s mines are a symbol of a global system that rewards companies that destroy the environment and criminalizes local people and activists who try to resist them.

In September 2018, the long-standing confrontation between forest activists and the German government came to an end when plans were published to cut down half of the forest (now it is 200 hectares) from mid-October

An environmental activist sits in a tree when police arrive to clear the Hambach Forest in Kerpen, near Cologne, in western Germany. Photo: Patrik Stollarz / AFP / Getty Images
Protesters built a camp with tents and tree houses to stop clearing the Khambach forest for open-pit mining. Photo: Reuters

Armin Lachey, head of the North Rhine-Westphalia district, told WDR television that the forest was “illegally occupied” and accused the protesters of violence. Despite the fact that the defenders of the forest were at a great height, the police gradually cut down branches and trees, placing a large air cushion at the bottom. Also, the police broke up a sit-in strike of a group of demonstrators blocking the way to the tree houses, and removed improvised barriers.

RWE owns the forest and has the legal right to cut down trees to access brown coal or brown coal in the ground during the annual harvesting season. They need clearing to ensure power supply, including nearby power plants. Activists oppose the use of cheap but polluting fuels and say the forest is home to protected species such as the Bechstein bat, as well as the age-old beech and oak.

The regional government has already agreed to clearing and stated that Germany needs a mine to maintain its energy supply in the short term. For a reliable supply of coal, we still need brown coal.
The majority of the German public do not like brown coal that is very polluting. In general, brown coal is unpopular. People think it’s too messy.

Tomash Barais
State Secretary of the Federal Ministry of Economics and Energy of Germany

Greenpeace was unhappy with the actions of the government, which are at odds with what was stated earlier.

Germany is engaged in the massive export of electricity. We do not need to mine even more coal. Moreover, in a quarry on the site of the Hambach forest there is still a lot of coal. They must leave us the remaining 200 hectares of Hambach forest.

Visitor to the observation deck overlooking the coal mine

On Tuesday, October 2, the forest was completely cleaned of defenders and their houses. The forest began to be prepared for felling.

Some former careers have found a use.

When the sun sets on a small vineyard near the murmuring waters of Lake Senftenbergsee, tourists will not see any signs of a vast wound lying below. Meuro, the brown-black mine that once dominated the landscape, giving jobs to thousands of people who worked in the clouds of brown coal dust, disappeared. It took decades to rebuild this corner of eastern Germany. This is part of a large-scale environmental cleanup in Lusatia, a region that provided most of the coal and heated German houses, and also participated in the industrial expansion of the country.

June 6, 2018. A man walks along an artificial beach on the Senftenbergsee lake to see, a former coal mine, in Germany

The idea would have seemed outlandish to anyone who saw a lifeless landscape in these places. But over the past two decades, artificial craters have been slowly reconstructed to create 26 lakes connected by 13 channels and hundreds of miles of cycle paths. Instead of coal-fired power plants, horizons are now dotted with wind turbines and fields filled with solar panels.

Lake Sedlitzer, a former brown coal mine, flooded with water in the area of ​​Lusatia. (Photo by AP / Volkmar Kinoel).

At the peak of the coal industry, three decades ago, Lusatia provided over 90,000 jobs. Currently, only a few thousand people work in the region in four mines operated by a private company. Most of the tasks of transforming abandoned sites into “flowering landscapes” promised shortly before reunification with East Germans by the late West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, now fell to the state company LMBV . To date, the company has spent 10.6 billion euros ($ 12.5 billion) to eliminate the legacy of the industry and create 25,000 hectares of lakes.

At that time, countries such as the United States are also demanding that mines be restored, and the largest lake in Spain is currently being built in a former quarry. attracting attention from remote areas such as the United States, China and South Africa.

Uwe steinbucher
Representative of LMBV

One of the problems is to ensure that the lakes are safe for animals and people. This is done by flooding the quarry with river water or by pouring limestone to raise the pH.

Creating a number of new lakes has the added advantage of allowing the authorities to plan for the potential impact of climate change on the water level in this part of Germany. Cities like Berlin depend on the water that flows through Lusatia, and the lakes are designed to act as a buffer for water in times of plenty and release it when there is a drought.

The authorities are hoping to increase the flow of tourists to the region, which will increase the level of employment in Lusatia. Young people, in particular, are already benefiting: the region has the lowest youth unemployment rate in all of Germany.

Not only the landscape is changing, but big, big changes have occurred in people’s heads. We are moving from a former industrial region to a region that is part of the service economy. Some local residents have not yet accepted the hospitality and openness observed, for example, in Bavaria, where tourism has long been an important part of the economy. And there is little chance that it will replace all the jobs lost in the mining industry. It will be one important foundation, but not the only one. However, for a region that had areas resembling the moon and a stretch of barren sand, Lusatia has come a long way. The good news is that the pride of the people for this region is back.

Susan Winkler
The head of the tourist service Lusatia

Success in change will depend on the countries that determine our transition from fossil fuels to zero carbon emissions. Germany has demonstrated bold leadership, their Energiewende conceptnot perfect, but played an important role. However, despite this leadership, Germany lags far behind its climatic goals. There must be proportionate actions to curb the growing need for fossil fuels. The question to be asked is how this reduction will be managed. Will it be fast enough to avoid unnecessary problems? Will workers and communities be protected during the transition period? Is Germany ready to show how a former fossil fuel producer can succeed in a clean energy industry? In any case, we see that Germany has already taken the first steps.

The material is not fully copyright. For the preparation of the publication information was used from various media, as well as sites of organizations.

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