Germany Plans To Raze Towns For Brown Coal And Cheap Energy

  • Date: 12/02/14
  • Andrew Curry, National Geographic

Germany’s green energy revolution is in danger — and brown coal is making an unexpected return

Photo of the Vatenfall mine near Jaenschwalde, Germany.

Giant machines dig for brown coal, or lignite, at Vattenfall’s mining operation near Jänschwalde, Germany, in the Lausitz region. Its planned expansion could force relocation of towns. Foto Patrick Pleul, DPA

The German village of Atterwasch is tiny, its single street lined with sturdy brick and stone houses. The village has a single church whose bells peal out at noon each day, a small volunteer fire department, and a cemetery with a special section devoted to German soldiers who died nearby in the closing months of World War II.

Atterwasch may soon be gone.

Vattenfall, a Swedish energy company, hopes to relocate the village and its residents in order to strip-mine the ground underneath for lignite, or “brown coal.”

“They would tear everything down, dig up the cemetery, blow up the church and cut down all the trees,” said Christian Huschga, a screenwriter and father of two who has lived in Atterwasch for more than 30 years.

Billions of tons of brown coal lie buried underneath the Lausitz region, a gently rolling landscape of pine forests, farm fields, and rural villages about 100 miles (161 kilometers) south of Berlin, in what was once East Germany. In the past century, the landscape has been scarred and pitted by strip mines hundreds of feet deep that sprawl over dozens of square miles.

In all, 136 villages in the Lausitz region have been destroyed to make way for massive strip mines since 1934. Most of the destruction took place after World War II, when the communist government depended on brown coal to power its cities and factories. Pollution from the mines and from primitive, dirty, coal-fired power plants was a major issue for the democracy activists whose efforts eventually helped topple the Berlin Wall. When Germany was reunified in 1989, many of the outdated plants were shut down, and locals thought the era of forced resettlement was over.

But brown coal is making an unexpected return. The development has environmentalists worried. Germany is often seen as a model, thanks to its strong push for renewable energy. Politicians here have committed to 80 percent renewable power by 2050, and strong public support and generous subsidies have seen solar and wind power grow dramatically in the past decade. Roughly a quarter of Germany’s electricity today comes from renewable sources; in the United States, just 12 percent does. (See related interactive map: “Four Ways to Look at Global Carbon Footprints.”)

With this commitment to the “Energiewende,” or energy revolution, it’s a mystery to many why villages like Atterwasch are still at risk. “The new mine is planned for 2030 to 2070—a time when coal power plants shouldn’t even exist anymore,” said Huschga. “It’s not right to take away people’s security and future for plans that shouldn’t be.” (See related story: “As U.S. Cleans Its Energy Mix, It Ships Coal Problems Abroad.”)

A Revolution in Trouble

Unfortunately for Atterwasch and similar towns, experts say Germany’s energy revolution is in danger—and more coal could indeed be on its way. In 2012, newly opened coal-fired power plants added 2,743 megawatts to the country’s grid. (See related quiz: “What You Don’t Know About Electricity.”) Germany is the world’s largest producer of brown coal, and 2013 was the biggest year for lignite-fired energy production in the country since 1990, with 162 billion kilowatt-hours produced, or about 26 percent of Germany’s total electricity.

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