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Mining and Burning Coal Draws Tourists in Germany

HAMBURG, Germany—On my second and third days in Germany, I traveled from the Ruhr Valley to the port city of Hamburg and saw coal being both mined and burned.

Yesterday, I visited two of the large open cast lignite mines outside of Cologne. Lignite is a type of coal, but it’s soft and less energy rich than the bituminous (or “hard”) coal that we mine in Kentucky. Dorothea Schubert, a volunteer with a national environmental organization—Friends of the Earth Germany—drove me around in her Peugeot.

The open cast mines are enormous, but look very similar to Appalachia’s strip mines absent the mountains. There’s large machinery, stair-stepped sides, and coal. These mines power lignite power plants right next door; the lignite doesn’t have a very high Btu, so shipping it elsewhere to burn wouldn’t be economical.

While Germany’s Energiewende, or transition to a renewable energy approach, will result in the near-term closure of its hard coal mines, the lignite mines will keep operating for a few more decades. This is a sore spot for environmentalists like Schubert, a former chemistry teacher, who points to the loss of forests and degradation of rich soil and water resources.

The lignite mines are also forcing people to move as the mines creep closer—and eventually engulf—the area’s villages. One of the villages next on the chopping block is the tiny town of Immerath. The people have already re-located a few miles away. But the town is still there—mostly abandoned and creepy. Yesterday, some large pieces of machinery were beginning to tear down the town’s convent.

The weirdest thing about the lignite mines is that they seem to be legitimate tourist attractions. At Garzweiler II, there’s a spot to pull off the road and park, and a boardwalk with signs explaining the mining process. For the 30 minutes we were there, at least a dozen people were present. At the Hambach mine, there were even more. Lounge chairs with beach umbrellas lined the edge of the viewing platform into the mine. There’s a nice restaurant, mini golf, bike paths. It’s hard to imagine anything similar in Kentucky.

Apparently energy tourism isn’t unique to the mines. Today I’m in Hamburg, and visited the brand new Moorburg power plant which opened earlier this year. My guide was Gudrun Bode, who’s full-time job is leading power plant tours.

Moorburg is a huge plant, and can produce about 1600 megawatts of electricity—that’s bigger than LG&E’s biggest power plant (Mill Creek, in Louisville). It burns hard coal—some of it from the United States, and some from Russia. The fact that it exists is a sore spot for environmental advocates, who fought its construction. But power company Vattenfall says its power is needed.

Even though Germany’s energy policies give priority to renewable energy, Bode, my guide, says Moorburg is almost always running. The plant is flexible enough to adjust to the needs of the grid; on very sunny or windy days, Moorburg produces less power.

Moorburg is also very efficient. But company representatives say they’ve hit some bureaucratic stumbling blocks to becoming even cleaner and more efficient. For one, the plans for Moorburg included a carbon capture and sequestration pilot project. But Germany doesn’t have any regulations governing carbon capture and sequestration, so Vattenfall couldn’t put the apparatus on Moorburg. Instead, company representatives say the company sold the system “to Canada.”

Tomorrow I’m visiting some energy efficiency projects in Hamburg, and then on Friday I’m heading to Berlin.

WFPL News’ Erica Peterson is in Germany this week on a reporting trip funded by the Heinrich Böll Foundation. Follow along with her trip on Twitter here. 

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