Forget Green Rhetoric: In Europe, Brown Coal Makes A Comeback

  • Date: 28/02/14
  • Stefan Nicola and Ladka Bauerova, Bloomberg

Alarmed that energy prices in Europe are about double what they are in the U.S., governments in the Czech Republic, Poland, and Germany are green-lighting the expansion of coal mines. Worldwide demand for brown coal (lignite) is poised to rise as much as 5.4 percent by 2020, according to the International Energy Agency.

From the baroque castle where Beethoven premièred his Eroica symphony two centuries ago, Vladimír Buřt gazes down on giant excavators that eat into the ground around the clock, loading brown coal onto conveyor belts that fill waiting railroad cars. “There used to be a lake where we’d go swimming every day,” says Buřt, the deputy mayor of Horní Jiřetín, a 750-year-old village in the Czech Republic that could be destroyed if the coal mine is allowed to expand. “The Communists started this devastation, and this government wants to finish it.”

Horní Jiřetín and other small villages along Europe’s mining belt may soon succumb to the continent’s quest for cheaper electricity. Alarmed that energy prices in Europe are about double what they are in the U.S., governments in the Czech Republic, Poland, and Germany are green-lighting the expansion of mines that produce lignite, a moist, brown coal used to fuel power plants. While lignite is plentiful and cheap, it packs less energy and releases more greenhouse gases than hard coal. The dirty coal’s resurgence runs counter to European Union efforts to limit emissions and promote cleaner energy.

“It’s absurd,” says Petra Roesch, mayor of Proschim, a 700-year-old German village that could be entirely leveled if authorities in the state of Brandenburg allow the expansion of a lignite mine owned by the Vattenfall power utility. “Germany wants to transition toward renewable energy, and we’re being deprived of our land.”

Worldwide demand for lignite is poised to rise as much as 5.4 percent by 2020, according to the International Energy Agency. Use of the fuel fell 40 percent from 1990 to 2010 as governments across the former Soviet bloc closed aging industrial plants. Poland, which gets almost 90 percent of its electricity from brown coal, is stepping up its use partly to bolster employment in some of the nation’s poorest areas, where lignite is mined. Electricity produced from lignite rose 3.7 percent last year, while output from hard coal plants fell 7 percent, according to PGE, a state-owned Polish utility. CEZ, a Czech power company that also owns mines, said in November it expected to increase output of lignite by 6 percent in 2013, to 24.1 million tons.

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