Slowly, Germany bids farewell to coal

Slowly, Germany bids farewell to coal

The reconversion of the Zollverein coal mine in Essen (western Germany) is now a tourist attraction (as a World Heritage Site), as well as being host to some 50 enterprises from the creative and digital sectors, a design university and a business incubator, among others. Photo taken in 2010.

(AP/Jens Meyer)

“No miner gets left out in the cold until the last mine is closed” is the mantra that has been repeated in the North Rhine Westphalia region, the heart of Germany’s mining industry, for decades. Now that time has come. The place where 3.5 million tons of coal a year used to be burned will see its last two coal mines close in December, marking the end of an era.

To date, over 100 mines have been closed in the region, resulting in 350,000 jobs lost in the sector over 50 years. Citizens have seen how the chimneys have gradually been replaced by turbines, as part of the Energiewende, the German government’s transition policy, which aims to produce 35 per cent of electrical energy from renewable sources by 2020 and 50 per cent by 2030. This change of paradigm creates new opportunities, but is not without its challenges.

One example is the Prosper-Haniel mine in Bochum, one of the two sites still in operation. Here, a team of 50 researchers are working on a giant water battery powered by solar, wind and hydraulic energy.

“The depth of the pit provides the perfect infrastructure, and at maxim storage the turbines could run for four hours, providing 800 megawatt-hours of reserve energy, that will power 200,000 homes,” explains André Newman, project coordinator at the University of Essen-Duisber, to Equal Times. He is used to talking to the press; ever since the project was announced last year, dozens of journalists and politicians have visited the mine.

“We’ve had a delegation from Virginia, from Poland and we have just returned from South Africa,” he says. The project has also attracted attention from China, the world’s leading producer and consumer of coal. This enthusiasm is not coupled with investment unfortunately: “The problem is that everyone likes the idea, but there isn’t a market yet for pumped storage.”

The initial cost is €600 million. “Investors daren’t take the risk; at the moment, it is a gamble, but if our dependence on renewable energies increases, in 10 to 15 years it will be really necessary,” and, he warns: “Now is the time to move on from theory to practice, if not, this opportunity will pass us by”.

If this proposal were to be carried out successfully, it could be the solution to one of the biggest obstacles facing renewable energy: storing energy so as to be able to use it when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining. It would also reduce unemployment. The energy storage sector already employs some 11,130 workers, more than half the number of people in the lignite industry, another form of highly contaminating mineral coal, according to figures from the German Energy Storage Association.

Maintaining the mine’s essential nature, while looking to the future

The former mining basin also promises to be a leader in technology. There are 200 disused mines and various projects are coming to light. A few kilometres from Bochum is the Zollverein industrial coal mining complex, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. Despite appearances, it is not all about industrial tourism. Around 50 enterprises from the creative and digital sectors have moved into the mining complex. A design university has also been set up there and a business incubator, amongst other things. In 1986, 3,000 miners worked there. In 2016, the number of employees is almost equal: 2,780.

“Most visitors touring an abandoned coalmine cannot imagine it being home to a new enterprise. When mines are reconverted, many factors come into play, both environmental and economic. Municipalities, citizens, investors: everyone has to be behind the project before any approval procedures start,” says Hans-Peter Noll, director of the Zollverein Foundation.

One of the challenges of transformation is maintaining the essence of the place. Former miner, Heinz Spahn, 78, knows this well. He used to separate coal from the rocks and impurities at the complex. Now he works as a tour guide. “I began by attending the tours and just listening to them, but I always had something to add, because I know this place like the back of my hand,” he said, pointing to what he calls the “Eiffel Tower of the Ruhr basin” – the mine’s well, which has a 55-metre tower, Zollverein’s landmark. Spahn interweaves detailed information with his own memories. You don’t have to dig deep to realise that individual and collective memories will forever be associated with the project created by the transformation.

Keeping its identity alive is essential, but it is not the only thing that has to be preserved. In Germany, the stage after extraction is called Ewigkeitslasten. The literal translation of ‘Ewigkeit’ is “eternity”. From 2019, Germany’s only remaining mining company, RAG, will have to spend about €220 million a year to meet its obligations post-closure.

“Most of it will be spent on pumping out water to prevent the mines from flooding,” says Hubert Hüls, head of operations at the mine. There are currently 6,000 miners employed at the last two mines – Prosper and Ibbenbühren. Workers over 49 years old are eligible for early retirement, but some of them have already started training to join other sectors, or to help bring a second life to the mine.

One door closes and another one opens. In their master’s course on post-modernism, students at the Technische Hochschule Georg Agricola (THGA) university are grappling with subsidence, water contamination and methane gas explosions in the mines, as well as looking in their turn for new uses for the abandoned mines. Most of the students are from the region, but some are from other parts of the globe, such as Luis Hormaza, an engineer from Bogota, Colombia. “Germany has the technology and experience to set an example for the world in this field; there is a lot that can be applied in Colombia,” he tells Equal Times.

The cost of protecting coal

Not everything about the transition is rosy, however. Coal has left its mark. Germany will continue to import hard coal, because it is cheaper than mining it inside the country. And, most significantly, it will continue burning large quantities of lignite to produce energy, which is why Angela Merkel’s government has been accused of double standards.

Germany has installed more wind turbines than any other European country, but it is also the country with the highest dependency on coal for generating electricity in the whole of the European Union. This casts doubt over whether it can meet its environmental commitments. “It is unlikely that Germany will be able to achieve its 2030 climate goals,” says Claudia Kemfert, head of energy, transport and environment at the German Institute of Economic Research. The fossil fuel that once laid the foundations of the common market is now dividing the old continent.

“Politicians are reluctant to phase-out coal definitively as they fear the coal mining unions and the potential job losses; the unions have a historically strong connection to the Social Democrats (SPD) – although, curiously enough, there are five times more people working in the renewable energy sector,” she adds.

There are others, however, who are calling for more time. “One of the lessons learnt in eliminating hard coal is that there has to be consensus amongst the parties involved: the politicians, the local communities, the trade unions and the private sector. For lignite to be phased out in an orderly fashion, it will have to be a long-term process, and will probably take another decade,” adds Jürgen Kretschmann, who runs the master’s programme at THGA.

Last June, the long-awaited coal commission was set up, composed of 31 members including politicians, industry representatives, trade union leaders, environmentalists and scientists. Its task is to find the difficult balance between giving up coal and promoting just transition (for the workers in the industry). It is hoped that the commission will come up with a “phase-out” date for coal in time for the COP24 climate conference, to be held in December this year in Katowice, Poland.

For Heinz, our guide in Zollverein, the politics aren’t important. He speaks with respect for the future, and a certain pride. “I have taken part in all the protests; I have lived my life, my children and grandchildren do not work in the industry and that is a good thing, but my principal concern [now] is whether all this technology becomes obsolete [in the end]. Don’t forget that everything is made from black gold, including the pen you are writing your notes with.”

This article has been translated from Spanish.