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German Coal Community Pivots To Renewable Energy

RUHR VALLEY, Germany — I spent my first weekday in Germany in the Ruhr Valley: this region used to be one of the country’s main industrial and coal mining areas. But as the mines and steel plants have closed, cities like Gelsenkirchen and Essen are contemplating how to reinvent and revitalize themselves.

I caught the train early this morning from Dusseldorf, where I’m staying, and took a 40 minute ride to Gelsenkirchen. It was a cloudy, foggy day — not ideal for visiting the place that would like to be known for its work on solar panels.

Gelsenkirchen used to be a coal mining city — at one time, it had 60 coal mines within the city limits. But now, there are none. In the 1990s, the city tried to rebrand itself as “the solar city,” and launched two solar manufacturing plants.

But that didn’t work out. The plants couldn’t compete with the solar panels imported from Asia, so they shut down.

But still, Gelsenkirchen is trying again. They’re now focusing research and development not only of solar, but of all renewable energy. There’s a large Wissenschaftspark (Science Park) that’s full of tenants. The city’s economic development agency is working to redevelop the numerous brownfields sites where the city’s former coal mines were. Some are businesses, some industrial parks, some residential.

Gelsenkirchen’s story is still unfolding. The city has higher unemployment than both the regional and national average.

A few miles from Gelsenkirchen is Zollverein. What used to be the largest coal mine in the world, at least according to Zollverein’s branding, is now a museum and design complex. The former mine shafts, coal processing plant and coking plant are all preserved.

There’s the stuff you would expect: a museum about the Ruhr Valley’s industrial heritage, tours of the old facilities (and all is pretty high-tech). But there’s also beautiful event space for conferences and parties, green space and bike paths, restaurants, an international design museum.

And perhaps even more unexpected: a Ferris wheel, and a combination swimming pool/ice rink in the old coking plant.

About 1.5 million people a year have visited Zollverein since 2010, when the Ruhr region got a boost by being named one of the European Union’s “Capitals of Culture.” And when I’m there, on a Monday, it’s busy. There are school groups, kids playing on the green space outside, adults taking tours and hanging out in the café.

There are some obvious parallels between this region and Kentucky in the coal mining heritage and subsequent decline of the industry. But there are numerous differences, too. The Ruhr region’s population is about 8.5 million — twice Kentucky’s — and is much more densely populated. I could take a train from Dusseldorf to Gelsenkirchen, and then a tram right up to the front door of Zollverein. The remote nature of Eastern Kentucky’s coalfields makes it harder to reach, and presents more challenges.

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But another factor which played a major part in both Gelsenkirchen’s redevelopment and Zollverein’s success is large amounts of government investment. The federal, state and local government has spent more than 300 million Euros since 1990 redeveloping Zollverein.

The complex now turns a profit —  but that took time, said spokeswoman Ute Durchholz.

And in Gelsenkirchen, Germany’s federal policies incentivizing solar energy is what makes the solar panels on top of the Wissenschaftspark logical.

This morning, in the midst of the fog, the panels were still producing energy. But when I ask engineer Sabine Wischermann if the majority of the complex’s power comes from the solar panels, she laughs. “No,” she said. The panels are fed back to the grid, because the facility gets a premium price for producing renewable energy.

Tomorrow, I'm visiting functioning lignite mines near Cologne, then it's on to Hamburg. There, I'll tour the country's newest coal-fired power plant and learn about the city's renewable energy and energy efficiency efforts.

WFPL News' Erica Peterson is in Germany this week on a reporting trip. Follow along with her trip on Twitter here. 


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