September 6, 2017 Read More →

The German Transition Model

Scientific American:

Zollverein is a symbol of Germany’s transition away from fossil fuels toward renewable energy—a program called the Energiewende that aims to have 80 percent of the country’s energy generated from renewables by 2050. That program has transformed Germany into a global poster child for green energy. But what does the transition mean for residents of Essen and the rest of the Ruhr region—the former industrial coal belt—whose lives and livelihoods have been dramatically altered by the reduced demand for coal? The answer to that could hold some useful lessons for those undergoing similar transitions elsewhere.

Spanning roughly 1,700 square miles (2,700 kilometers), the Ruhr Valley lies in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia, made up of 53 cities that came to depend on coal mining when it reached an industrial scale in the 1800s. At their height in the 1950s, the mines employed about 600,000 workers, entwining the region’s identity with coal.

“Coal runs through my whole life,” says Spahn, whose grandfather, father and two sons were miners, too. But in the 1970s, as cheaper coal imports from other countries began to outcompete German production and drive down the price of domestic coal, it became unsustainable for the government to keep subsidizing the mines. At the same time, an appetite for green energy began in the 1970s, driven forward by a wave of anti-nuclear sentiment in Germany that gathered force after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. And so, the phaseout of coal began.

Today, only two hard coal mines remain, and in 2018 they’ll both be shut down. Germany continues to import hard coal from other countries for a substantial portion of its energy production—another habit it’s trying to kick, in line with its 2050 renewable energy target. The country also still extracts soft brown coal called lignite from hundreds of open-pit mines across the country. However, with the federal elections coming up in September, the phaseout of lignite is on the political agenda. Such a move would cost another several thousand jobs in the Ruhr alone—forcing the government to consider how to achieve a fair and final phaseout, and the role of renewable energy in that.

The move away from hard coal has left a lingering legacy in some cities, where unemployment can exceed 10 percent. Still, overall it “was really a soft and just transition,” says Stefanie Groll, head of Environmental Policy and Sustainability at the Heinrich Boll Foundation in Berlin. “In the Ruhr area, union representatives and local politicians worked out a plan to compensate and requalify people who worked in the coal industry,” she says. For families like Spahn’s, it was a success: under pressure from the labor unions, the mines where his sons worked launched a proactive campaign in 1994 to train employees for different careers. “My one son is now a professional security guard and the other is a landscaper,” he says.

The mines themselves have even become a cultural stage. A museum and gallery at Zollverein attracts over 250,000 visitors a year, and several other mines host music concerts, food and cultural festivals. In the nearby city of Bochum, an old industrial plant—now the site of the German Mining Museum—is surrounded with stately homes flanked by lush gardens. The change hasn’t gone unnoticed; the Ruhr was officially named Europe’s cultural capital in 2010.

The Ruhr also has become attractive for businesses to invest. Zollverein, like many former mines, is now also home to several businesses. Artists, jewelry designers, choreographers, design firms and tourism companies are just a sampling of those who have made the trendy industrial space their home.

In Gelsenkirchen, locals experience some of the highest unemployment rates, hovering around 15 percent. The city’s quiet streets betray signs of economic struggle, with many businesses boarded up. But since the 1990s, it has been trying to revisit its former industrial prosperity with the Science Park, a hub for regional business, which lies on the site of a former coal-powered steel plant. The building’s glass facade looks over a manmade lake flanked by rolling lawns, and its roof is outfitted with 900 solar panels that generate roughly one-third of the building’s electricity.

“Gelsenkirchen was called the city of a thousand fires. It became the city of a thousand suns,”—a nod to the solar roof, and green energy technologies being developed at the park, says Hildegard Boisserée-Frühbuss, project manager at the park’s EnergyLab, a experimental laboratory that educates local students about renewable energies. The building now houses 51 businesses—mostly focused on science, technology and renewable energy development. Boisserée-Frühbuss spends her time working with local colleges and schools to give the youth exposure to these fields, in the hopes that they’ll be inspired to find employment there. “Once it was a steel foundry. Now the Science Park is a thinking factory,” she says.

With the move toward renewables, how much the Ruhr will benefit—having sacrificed so much toward this clean energy goal—has become a primary focus. Some 330,000 people work in the renewable sector in Germany; 45,000 of those are in North-Rhine Westphalia—and that will grow, predicts Jan Dobertin from the National Association of Renewable Energies in North-Rhine Westphalia, known as LEE NRW. “The Ruhr region is now one of the biggest providers of green economy products and services, such as efficiency technologies, recycling or renewable energy,” Dobertin says. LEE NRW works with regional energy companies to build better political frameworks for integrating renewables in the Ruhr. “Our argument is that the renewable energy sector is much more employee intensive than [fossil fuels],” he says. A recent poll of Ruhr residents carried out by LEE NRW suggests that they have the public on their side: 64 percent of those polled want renewables to be a priority for the state government of North-Rhine Westphalia.

In keeping with this trend, just outside the small city of Bottrop a plant called Prosper-Haniel—one of the two last hard coal mines in Germany—has become the frontline of a renewables experiment. Ahead of its closure in 2018, a consortium of local universities, consultants and mining operators are exploring the chance to turn the plant’s deep mine shaft into a hydroelectric storage facility. The plan is at a preliminary, exploratory stage, cautions André Niemann from the University of Essen-Duisburg, who is coordinating the research team. But if it works, it could store and provide power for over 400,000 local homes. He’s motivated by the chance to revive the industrial landscape he grew up in. “The question will be, what did we do to give the region back to the people?” he says.

More: Germany’s Transition from Coal to Renewables Offers Lessons for the World

Comments are closed.