Issue Date: December 16, 2013
Germany’s Coal Expansion
Johannes Kapelle lives in a cozy 19th-century farmhouse, where he tends a flock of 40 chickens, three shaggy beef cows, and a woodlot that he uses to keep his house warm in the winter. Like many of today’s German households, Kapelle’s home is equipped with rooftop solar panels to provide hot water and so he can save money on electricity. At the edge of his property, a line of wind turbines spin slowly, sending power to the small village of Proschim, which lies about a two-hour drive southeast of Berlin in the German state of Brandenburg.
Kapelle, 77, has lived in his farmhouse since 1960 and says he’s content. But the entire Kapelle family—his wife, Maryann; his son, Andreas, a local physician; and his granddaughter, Darena, a college student—may soon have to leave. Their home and property are threatened by the proposed expansion of a coal mine that would force the relocation of all 800 residents of Proschim, as well as two other rural communities that lie in the path of the Swedish-owned utility Vattenfall’s coal-mining expansion. His property and the rest of the village sit between the firm’s existing Welzow-Süd II mine and a new deposit a few miles away.
Vattenfall operates several surface mines and coal-fired power plants in this part of the former East Germany. The firm’s expansion could require the relocation of between 3,000 and 4,000 people throughout the states of Brandenburg and Saxony. Kapelle says the utility has offered him only a few acres in exchange for taking his home and his 80 acres of land. He’s not willing to go without a fight.
“If you look into our constitution, the rights of where you live and where you work, it’s totally unfair,” Kapelle says. “Because you choose this place, you build up your house, you build up your living, and then somebody else is coming and deciding above your will that they want this as well. That’s unfair.”
Under a law enacted by Adolf Hitler in the 1940s, utilities in Germany can ask the state government for the right to take land containing minerals deemed “vital to national security.” It’s a law that trumps existing property rights. Vattenfall says it needs the land to continue the supply of brown coal that is burned in power plants and provides Germany with 20% of its electricity. Although earlier geological surveys did not find much coal under Proschim itself, the village lies between two deposits, and Vattenfall says its massive surface coal-mining machines are too big to disassemble and then move to the new location. As a result, the diggers would tear right through the village.
This decision to expand the production of brown coal, or lignite, and evict the residents comes at a critical time in Germany’s Energiewende, or transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy. It’s also happening at the same time that Germany is in the middle of closing its nuclear power plants, a decision made in 2000.
The new conservative coalition government of German Chancellor Angela Merkel is under pressure by German industry to scale back the transition, or at least delay it. They complain that energy prices are too high. The government says it is determined to continue its pledge to close its nuclear plants by 2022, perhaps earlier. The time frame for closing these plants was sped up after the Fukushima Daiichi accident in Japan in 2011.
And environmental groups want to see a long-term phaseout of lignite, which has a higher carbon dioxide content than other forms of coal. The groups also argue that lignite mining alters the landscape and threatens local sources of drinking water.
The World War II-era mining law was designed to ensure a stable supply of coal for the war effort, but critics say that today the law is just an excuse for big companies to avoid investing in renewable power.
An important driver for expanding mining operations, however, is economic. Lignite is too valuable an energy source to be left in the ground, says Vattenfall spokesman Thoralf Schirmer. He adds that Germany needs the coal to keep its electricity prices stable in the long run. “Lignite generation is one part of the energy mix of Germany in the future,” Schirmer says. “There is a gap of about a quarter of today’s energy generation that has to be filled.”
Like other coal utilities operating in Germany, Vattenfall scrapes the coal out of the ground with huge diggers that carve immense canyons several miles wide into the pastoral farmland near the Polish border.
“We can understand that nobody really wants to leave his home,” Schirmer says. “What we can do is to try and re-create a certain homeland which has all opportunities needed for the people who are asked to be resettled.” Vattenfall says Proschim’s 800 residents will be offered new homes within an hour’s drive.
Not everyone agrees that Germany should continue to mine coal. Christian Hey, secretary general of the German Advisory Council on the Environment, a federal agency, says the energy transition could be accomplished without continuing several more decades of coal mining.
“With coal, we cannot comply with our long-term climate objectives,” Hey says. “Germany is committed to an 85 to 90% reduction in carbon emissions, and this cannot be achieved by coal.” The emissions reduction goal should be met by 2050.
Hey explains that in addition to releasing more heat-trapping CO2, lignite emits a greater amount of other pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide, when burned. Utilities have tried to reduce the environmental impact of lignite by using carbon capture and storage technology to remove and sequester the CO2 during combustion. But those efforts have run into roadblocks, and Vattenfall announced in December 2011 that it was abandoning a 1.5 billion euro ($2.0 billion) project that would have captured the CO2 emissions from burning coal and stored them underground. At the time, Vattenfall cited uncertainties in German law as the reason behind scrapping the plan.
Beyond emissions concerns, “the impact on the landscape is tremendous,” Hey says. “Villages, even small cities, have to be shifted aside.”
Environmental groups are now complaining that the Spree River, which flows north to Berlin, is becoming polluted with iron(III) hydroxide runoff from decades-old coal-mining operations. Vattenfall says it’s doing what it can to clean up the river, but the firm argues that the responsibility lies with government officials or the companies who mined in the region before Vattenfall acquired the existing operations in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Opinion polls show that the German public strongly supports the energy transition, but the citizens also complain about household electricity prices. German families pay, on average, three times as much as U.S. families for electricity. To help lower electricity costs, some business leaders say the switch to solar and wind energy should proceed more slowly.
Jan Ijspeert is chief executive officer of BAE Batterien, a Berlin firm that makes traditional lead-acid batteries to back up power supplies for hospitals and railways and, increasingly, to store solar energy. He is excited about the firm’s growth as the use of solar power increases, but he cautions that Germans are also practical when it comes to energy.
The decision to continue the energy transition will, in the end, be mainly based on cost, Ijspeert says. “Everybody is thinking green, but if green energy is much more expensive, I don’t think private households are willing to pay.”
Just as households will have a say in whether German leaders push forward with the energy transition, so too will firms like Vattenfall, says Claudia Kemfert, a professor of energy economics at the German Institute for Economic Research.
These companies “have to make a careful calculation,” Kemfert says, to determine “whether it’s still economically efficient to explore and move villages to get the coal out of the ground instead of investing in new technology like renewable energy.”
Contributing editor Eric Niiler reported from Proschim, Cottbus, and Berlin, Germany.
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