Germany’s Coal Mines Could Have a Second Life in Clean Energy


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This story initially appeared on Grist and is a part of the Local weather Desk collaboration.

It’s a sunny October day on the outskirts of the west German city of Bottrop. A quiet, two-lane street leads me by means of farm pasture to a cluster of nameless, low-lying buildings set among the many timber. The freeway hums within the distance. Looming above the whole lot else is a inexperienced A-frame construction with 4 nice pulley wheels to hold males and tools right into a mine shaft. It’s the one seen signal that, nearly three quarters of a mile under, Germany’s final exhausting coal lies beneath this spot.

Bottrop sits within the Ruhr Valley, a dense stretch of cities and suburbs house to five.5 million folks. Some 500,000 miners as soon as labored within the area’s almost 200 mines, producing as a lot as 124 million tons of coal yearly.

Subsequent yr, that period will come to an finish when this mine closes. The Ruhr Valley is within the midst of a outstanding transformation. Coal and metal crops have fallen quiet, one after the other, over the course of the final half-century. Wind generators have sprung up amongst outdated shaft towers and coking crops as Germany strives to hit its renewable vitality targets.

However the path from soiled coal to scrub vitality isn’t a straightforward one. Bottrop’s Prosper-Haniel coal mine is a logo of the challenges and alternatives dealing with Germany—and coal-producing states in all places.

World wide, as governments shift away from the coal that fueled two ages of commercial revolution, an increasing number of mines are falling silent. If there’s an afterlife for retired coal mines, one that would put them to work for the following revolution in vitality, it must come quickly.

The elevator that carries Germany’s final coal miners on their every day commute down the mine shaft travels at about 40 ft a second, almost 30 miles an hour. “Like a motorbike in a metropolis,” says Christof Beicke, the general public affairs officer for the Ruhr mining consortium, because the door rattles shut. It’s not a comforting analogy.

The brakes launch and, for a second, we bob gently on the tip of the mile-and-a-half lengthy cable, like a ship in dock. Then we drop. After an preliminary flutter in my abdomen, the lengthy minutes of the trip are marked solely by a robust breeze by means of the elevator grilles and the loud rush of the shaft going by.

When the elevator lastly stops, on the seventh and deepest stage of the mine, we file right into a high-ceilinged room that appears like a subway platform. One of many males who constructed this tunnel, Hamazan Atli, leads our small group of tourists by means of the corridor. Standing within the fluorescent mild and crisp, engineered breeze, I’ve the uncanny sense of strolling into an surroundings that people have designed right down to the final element, like an area station or a submarine.

A row of hydraulic presses displayed on the Mining Museum in Bochum, Germany.

Amelia Urry

A monorail practice takes us the remainder of the way in which to the coal seam. After about half an hour, we clamber out of the vehicles and clip our headlamps into the brackets on our exhausting hats. It’s noticeably hotter right here. There’s a sulfurous scent that grows stronger as we stroll down the slight incline towards the deepest level of our day, greater than four,000 ft under the floor, and duck below the primary of the hydraulic presses that preserve the ceiling from collapsing on us.

As a result of this seam is simply about 5 ft excessive, we have now to hunch as we transfer by means of the tunnel of presses, stepping by means of deep swimming pools of water that swallow our boots. The coal-cutting machine is stalled in the present day, in any other case it might be chewing its approach alongside the 310-yard-long seam, mouthparts clamped to the coal like a snail to aquarium glass. The coal could be sluiced away on a conveyor belt to the floor, and the hydraulic presses would inch ahead, sustaining house for the miners to work.

As an alternative, the mine is eerily quiet. Two miners, their faces black, squeeze previous us. As we sit, sweating and cramped below the hydraulic presses, the naked ceiling above the coal seam provides up an occasional gasp of rock, showering down mud and particles.

Later, in a brightly lit room again on the floor, Beicke from the mining consortium asks me what I considered the mine. I inform him that it looks as if an excessive surroundings for people. “Sure,” he nods, “it’s like an outdated world.”

An outdated mine automotive sits as an exhibit within the former Zollverein Mine Complicated.

Amelia Urry

Just a few days earlier, Beicke and I had trekked to the highest of a hill outdoors the long-shuttered Ewald Mine in Herten, a half-hour drive from Bottrop. We climbed a set of stairs to a platform with a view over the entire area, the fenced-off or leased-out buildings of the outdated mine sitting under us.

The Ruhr Valley encompasses 53 cities of Germany’s once-formidable industrial heartland, together with Essen, Bochum, and Oberhausen. The entire area was as soon as low-lying riverland, however as of late giant hills rear above the panorama. These are the heaps of rock faraway from the mines, tons of slag excavated with the coal and piled up. It’s a stark visible reminder of what’s been emptied out from beneath.

Because the mines have closed down, most of those heaps have been lined with grass, and plenty of have been topped with a statue or different landmark. On one hill outdoors Essen, there’s a 50-foot metal slab by the sculptor Richard Serra; on one other, atop different heaps, wind generators stand like big mechanical daisies.

Germany has been hailed as a pacesetter within the international shift to scrub vitality, placing apart its industrial previous for a renewable future sooner than a lot of the industrialized world. The nation has spent greater than $200 billion on renewable vitality subsidies since 2000 (examine that to the USA, which spends an estimated $20 billion to subsidize fossil gas manufacturing yearly).

In 2011, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s authorities introduced the start of a coverage of “energiewende” to wean Germany off fossil fuels and nuclear energy. Final yr, wind, photo voltaic, and different renewables provided almost 30 p.c of the nation’s electrical energy. The purpose now’s to hit 40 p.c within the subsequent 10 years, whereas slashing carbon emissions 40 p.c under 1990 ranges by 2020.

Amelia Urry

That transition has occurred alongside makes an attempt to revive the Ruhr Valley’s panorama. For each hill raised above floor stage, there’s an accompanying despair the place the land subsided as coal seams have been emptied out. The land right here sank because the coal seams closest to the floor have been emptied out. General, the area has sunk about 80 ft.

Streams that enter the Ruhr Valley are not capable of move out the opposite facet, Beicke explains, and now water swimming pools in locations it by no means used to. The mining firm is accountable for pumping that water away, in addition to pumping groundwater throughout the area, to maintain the water desk under the extent of the present mines. Any contaminated water within the outdated mines have to be eliminated and handled to maintain it from polluting the groundwater.

These are just some of the mining firm’s “ewigkeitsaufgaben”—actually, eternity duties.

“So long as 5 or 6 million folks wish to reside on this space, we must try this,” Beicke tells me, of the costly water administration. “Possibly 2,000 years sooner or later that may change, however till that occurs, properly.” He shrugs.

The federal government provides the mining consortium 220 million euros a yr in subsidies to cope with all the results of coal mining. Not like in the USA, the place growing old coal corporations typically dump their property or declare chapter to dodge clear up payments, right here the mining firm might be pumping and treating water lengthy after it has stopped being a mining firm in any respect.

Regardless of a nationwide dedication to a broad vitality transition, many now assume that Germany will fall in need of its renewable vitality targets, due to numerous confounding financial and social elements, together with the continued use of a coal different known as lignite, often known as “brown coal.” Germans have the very best electrical energy prices in Europe, and the rise of the nation’s excessive right-wing celebration within the final election has been pinned, partially, on these excessive payments.

If Germany does proceed to progress towards its local weather targets, a lot of the brand new vitality is bound to return from wind energy. Germany has extra wind generators than every other nation in Europe, lots of them put in within the final six or seven years. However wind doesn’t blow constantly, so this shift has been a problem for grid. Even slight disruptions within the energy provide can have wide-ranging penalties.

As extra wind generators are turned on, and extra coal crops are retired, this downside will solely get larger, and the problem of storing all that intermittent vitality might be much more necessary. Right here’s the place the nation’s retired coal mines would possibly show helpful once more — as big batteries for clear vitality.

To show a coal mine right into a battery, all you want is gravity.

OK, you additionally want some huge cash (extra about that later), however the fundamental precept is gravitational. If you carry a heavy object, it shops the ability used to carry it as potential vitality till it’s launched and falls to the bottom.

Let’s say the heavy object you’re lifting is water. If you wish to retailer vitality, you simply need to pump the water uphill, right into a reservoir. If you wish to use that vitality, you let the water move again down by means of a collection of generators that flip the gravitational rush into electrical energy.

A shaft tower above the Prosper-Haniel coal mine.

Amelia Urry

That is the fundamental plan André Niemann and Ulrich Schreiber conceived once they have been dreaming up new methods to make use of outdated mines. It appeared intuitive to the 2 professors on the College of Essen-Duisburg: The larger the space between your higher and decrease reservoirs, the extra vitality you possibly can retailer, and what’s deeper than a coal mine?

Schreiber, a geologist, realized it was theoretically doable to suit a pumped storage reservoir right into a mine, however it had by no means been executed earlier than. Niemann, a hydraulic engineer, thought the proposal was value pursuing. He drummed up some analysis cash, then spent a number of years conducting feasibility research, in search of a possible website within the Ruhr Valley and operating the numbers on prices and advantages.

After finding out the area’s net of fault strains and stratigraphic layers, Niemann’s group settled on the closing Prosper-Haniel mine. Their underground reservoir could be constructed like a large freeway tunnel, a strengthened concrete ring 9 miles round and almost 100 ft excessive, with a number of ft distinction in top from one facet of the ring to the opposite to permit the water to move, Niemann explains.

At max storage, the generators may run for 4 hours, offering 800 megawatt-hours of reserve vitality, sufficient to energy 200,000 houses.

The attraction of pumped storage is clear for Germany. Wind and solar are fickle vitality sources—“intermittent” by business lingo—and vitality storage can assist clean out the dramatic spikes. When the wind gusts, you possibly can stash that additional energy in a battery. When a cloud strikes over the solar, you possibly can pull energy again out. It’s easy and, because the grid handles an increasing number of renewable vitality, more and more wanted.

The one downside: It’s costly.

As wind turbine and photo voltaic applied sciences have turn out to be cheaper, vitality storage prices have stayed excessive. Pumped hydro, particularly, requires a giant funding up entrance. Niemann estimates it might price between 10,000 and 25,000 euros per meter of tunnel simply to construct the reservoir, and round 500 million euros for the entire thing. Proper now, neither the federal government nor the vitality corporations within the Ruhr Valley are keen to make that sort of funding.

“It’s not a enterprise, it’s a wager, to be trustworthy,” Niemann says with a shrug.

Despite the growing unlikelihood of the proposal changing into actuality, delegations from the USA, China, Poland, France, South Africa, and Slovakia, amongst others, have visited Niemann and Schreiber in Essen to find out about mine pumped-storage. Virginia’s Dominion Vitality has been finding out the thought with the help of a Republican state senator, and a bunch from Virginia Tech paid a go to the week after I did.

Right here’s the place any try to attract comparisons throughout the Atlantic will get difficult. In the USA, the federal authorities has been comparatively hands-off in serving to coal-dependent areas transfer on from the industries that fueled their lifestyle. In Germany, in contrast, there’s a broad settlement about the necessity to shift to renewable sources of vitality. And but, even with all that social, political, and financial foresight, necessary and mandatory improvements stay stalled for lack of funding.

The Ruhr Valley is just not Appalachia. And but the 2 areas share key similarities that provide some necessary classes concerning the a path to a cleaner, extra sustainable future.

The view over the Ruhr Valley in the present day.

Amelia Urry

Dying industries take greater than jobs with them. Cities constructed round a single business, like coal mining, develop a shared identification. For a lot of staff and their households, it’s not so simple as selecting up and discovering a brand new line of labor when the mine closes. Mining is seen as a calling, an inheritance, and other people need their lifestyle again.

That’s how residents of the Ruhr responded when coal jobs began to say no.

“For a very long time, folks thought the outdated occasions would come again, the outdated days would return,” says Kai van de Bathroom, an vitality and economics skilled for a German coal affiliation in Essen. “However they will by no means come again.”

In the USA, in fact, calls to carry again the outdated days typically works wonders as a political gross sales pitch. Donald Trump campaigned for president on guarantees to cease the “struggle on coal” and revive the dying business, and mining cities throughout the Rust Belt supported him.

In Pennsylvania’s Mon River Valley, house to a once-thriving underground mining advanced larger than Manhattan, mining continues to exert an outsized affect. Some eight,000 folks work in coal within the state, a portion of the 50,000 coal jobs left in the USA. That’s a far cry from the 180,000 individuals who labored within the business 30 years in the past. labored in or round coal mines solely 30 years in the past.

And the legacy of coal mining on the panorama is difficult to overlook. Naked slag heaps rise above the timber, dwarfing the cities beside them. Maryann Kubacki, supervisor of East Bethlehem in Washington County, says that in wet spells the township has to shovel the gritty, black runoff from their storm sewers.

However with out the federal authorities main the way in which with monetary help because it has in Germany, getting these former coal cities on a brand new observe is a frightening job. Veronica Coptis, director of the Heart for Coalfield Justice in Pennsylvania, says that organizing folks to place strain on mining corporations is a fragile matter. Individuals don’t wish to hear that coal is dangerous, or that its legacy is poisoned. “We wish an finish to mining,” she says, “however we all know it may possibly’t occur abruptly.”

Again in Germany, the mayor of Bottrop, Bernd Tischler, has been excited about tips on how to kick coal since at the least the early 2000s, lengthy earlier than the federal authorities put an finish date on the nation’s mining. An city planner by coaching, Tischler has a knack for long-range technique. After he took workplace in 2009, Tischler thought Bottrop may reinvent itself as a hub of renewable vitality and vitality effectivity. He devised heating crops that run off methane collected from the coal mine, and made Bottrop the primary city within the Ruhr with a deliberate zone for wind vitality.

In 2010, Bottrop gained the title of “Innovation Metropolis,” a mannequin for what the Ruhr Valley cities may turn out to be. Bottrop now will get 40 p.c of its vitality from renewables, Tischler mentioned, 10 proportion factors above the nationwide common.

Describing this transformation, Tischler makes it nearly sound straightforward. I clarify that the difficulty of coal appears to trace bigger divisions in the USA, and so discussions inevitably flip heated, emotional.

“In Bottrop, the folks in fact feared for the method of the tip of the coal mining,” he mentioned. However Tischler believes mining cities have a bonus that may assist them adapt to vary: They’re extra cohesive. Within the mines, individuals are used to working collectively and looking for one another. Mistrust is harmful, even lethal.

The Ruhr cities absorbed waves of Polish, Italian, and Turkish laborers over time. They usually’ve managed to get alongside properly, knitting a robust social cloth, Tischler mentioned. Up to now few years, Bottrop, a city of 117,000 folks, has resettled hundreds of Syrian refugees in new housing.

A robust social cloth isn’t sufficient to outlive the lack of a significant business, in fact. Some promising business—know-how and renewables in Bottrop’s case—must be discovered to switch it.

“I believe the accountability of the mayors and the politicians is to vary the worry into a brand new imaginative and prescient, a brand new approach,” he says. “You may’t do it in opposition to your folks; it’s a must to persuade your folks. It’s a must to work along with establishments and stakeholders that don’t usually work collectively, [so that] we’re sitting in the identical boat and we’re rowing in the identical route.”

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