Germany's green dreams meet harsh reality

 

David Shukman takes a look at the massive scale of Germany's coal-mining operation

A vision for a greener future for the world seems very distant if you descend into the heart of one of Germany's largest coal mines.

While researchers and officials are in Berlin preparing the next report from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the country's fossil fuel industry is as busy as ever.

The report is expected to set out options to switch from sources of energy that give off the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide to cleaner types like wind and solar.

This mirrors Germany's own ambitions with a plan known as the Energiewende, best translated as "energy transition", which calls for at least 80% of power to come from renewable sources by 2050.

But south of Berlin in the region of Lausitz, down at the coal face in a mine called Welszow-South, machines the size of office blocks gouge out chunks of lignite and low-carbon dreams hardly seem plausible.

The lignite, also known as brown coal, is one of the dirtiest, most polluting kinds of fuel, but it helps generate no less than 26% of Germany's electricity.

Add in the country's harder black coal as well and you find that nearly half of the country's electricity comes from the one source which climate scientists argue most needs to be phased out.

The challenge is that, for the moment, coal offers a relatively cheap and easy solution, there is plenty of it and thousands of jobs are involved so the mining enjoys robust support from unions and local politicians.

Protest sign This protest sign is one example of the opposition to new mines

For a country that prides itself on showing green leadership, and hosting the IPCC meeting, the reliance on coal illustrates the sheer difficulty of turning visions into reality.

Germany is in the bizarre position of being the world's largest producer of solar power - and of lignite.

The dark cliffs of brown coal stretch for miles, exposed to the air for the first time since they formed from a swampy forest that lay along the shores of the North Sea 17 million years ago.

Ancient twists of branches, compacted and dusty, lie inside the coal, a reminder of a process that once sucked huge amounts of carbon dioxide out of the air, only for it now to be released back into the atmosphere.

The mine is one of several operated by the Swedish state-owned company Vattenfall and its managers are bullish about the prospects.

In addition to the lignite already earmarked for extraction, they say there are another 1.6 billion tonnes approved for future mining in this area alone and demand remains high.

The head of operations, Uwe Grosser, is polite about the "energy transition" and the advent of renewables but dismisses the idea of a future without coal.

"We're the only ones who deliver constant power. Our power is always there.

Solar panels Germany is the world's largest producer of solar power

"When solar, wind and the renewables are fed into the grid we're the only ones able to adjust our output, that's the only way it's possible to prioritise renewables.

"If they can't provide power. We can. 24 hours a day. 365 days a year."

The last time I encountered Vattenfall was in very different circumstances: we were reporting on the construction of its huge wind farm off the coast of Cumbria.

Here the process of extracting coal has been fine-tuned over the past century. First, one of the largest moveable machines on the planet - a staggering 500m long - eats away at the layers of sand and silt to reveal the lignite.

The drivers are just visible perched in cabs high above the ground as they rearrange the geology.

Then comes the extraction of the lignite itself, a giant wheel grinding through the seam, sharpened scoops each carrying the weight of a small car in coal.

On the horizon stands a power station fed by the lignite, a mix of water vapour and exhaust rising from its towers. This is a region whose history is intertwined with that of coal and unpicking that will be no easy feat.

Patrick Graichen of the think-tank Agora-Energiewende, which seeks to build consensus on energy, concedes that the future of coal has so far been side-stepped.

"It is a tough challenge because politicians have so far only been focused on the phasing out of nuclear and the phasing in of renewables.

"We didn't look at coal but that's what we need to do and that will be tough because a lot of regions depend on coal."

Abandoned houses Many properties in the village of Haidemuehl have been bought up by Vattenfall

And, for the time being, the demand for the coal as a power source gives the operators a massive incentive for expansion.

The little village of Proschim stands in the path of one plan to open up a new mine.

Dozens of villages have been bulldozed in recent decades to make way for lignite mining but Proschim offers something special.

About 40 of its 120 houses are fitted with solar panels, wind turbines spin in the fields nearby and a farm enterprise has started turning agricultural waste into biogas.

A large poster proclaims the "Energiewende" and this is indeed a model of what the transition is meant to be about.

For Hagen Rosch, whose family have lived in the village for more than a century, the impending destruction of a model green village is the opposite of what the national government is seeking.

"This huge coal mine will destroy the nature, the village, the houses, the life of the people," he told me.

"And we produce green energy - we have solar panels and biogas. Coal is the old kind of engineering and the past will destroy the future in Proschim - this is terrible, this is crazy."

So while the UN climate panel maps out greener options, and Germany tries to put that vision into practice, Proschim could become a test-case, its demolition or survival a pointer to the future.

 
David Shukman Article written by David Shukman David Shukman Science editor

Five steps to landing on a comet

How do you land on a comet? That's problem facing the people running Esa's Rosetta mission after the successful rendezvous with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Read full article

Comments

This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
 
  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 192.

    If we all use snuff and sneeze....green power....bless you...

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 191.

    I tried being green...by wearing ten pairs of socks to conserve heat...works great...can't wear shoes though...neighbours complain of smell...

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 190.

    185.whowrotethis
    Out of interest does your tariff reflect the true cost of energy without allowing for any subsidies your supplier receives and will you still opt for the same supplier in a few years time after the EU directive to end subsidies takes effect? If so then I salute you for your principals but I would still prefer coal.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 189.

    We should be opening coal mines,why should our old people freeze to death when theres hundreds of years of coal reserves just off the coast,besides the reserves on land,and while we are talking about energy,build nuclear as well.You do not let people freeze to death.just to satisfy the tree hugging,I want save everything headbangers,who's lives are so boring,they will try and upset everybody else.

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 188.

    @185. whowrotethis
    Any takers for subscribing to 100% nuclear or is the cost putting you off ?
    _
    sure if you wanna be equally as bound to someone selling you a commodity you could go with the current nuclear model of uranium mining and enrichment. Swap your Russian pay master for an Australian one and watch the outback get plundered for Uranium for our needs...

 

Comments 5 of 192

 

Features

  • Nigel Farage (left) and Douglas CarswellWho's next?

    The Tory MPs being tipped to follow Carswell to UKIP


  • A painting of the White House on fire by Tom FreemanFinders keepers

    The odd objects looted by the British from Washington in 1814


  • President Barack Obama pauses during a press conference on 28 August.'No strategy'

    Obama's gaffe on Islamic State reveals political truth


  • Chris and Regina Catrambone with their daughter Maria LuisaSOS

    The millionaires who rescue people at sea


  • Plane7 days quiz

    What unusual offence got a Frenchman thrown off a plane?


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.