Why does a rich country like Germany need such a dirty source of energy?

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Germany’s energy paradox

Germany is cutting its use of coal power, but it’s coming down from a high starting point.

A decade ago, nearly half of the country’s electricity came from coal; now that figure stands at about 24%.

Germany says it will phase coal out completely by 2038, but that leaves another 17 years of use.

Nearly half of Germany’s power consumption came from clean energy sources in 2020

Nearly half of Germany’s power consumption came from clean energy sources in 2020

It is a country blessed, if that’s the right word, with vast coal deposits, particularly in the far east and west of the country.

Among those deposits are huge amounts of lignite, which is both dirty and difficult to transport.

So the power stations are very often near the mines, as they are in Garzweiler.

Germany uses more electricity than any other country in Europe – hardly surprising bearing in mind its big population and its concentration of heavy industry.

And there has long been pressure from those manufacturing companies to ensure that the energy supply is wholly reliable.

The nation’s industrial base, reliant on vast amounts of electricity, has argued that a rapid move to renewable sources heightens the risk of energy shortages, or at least of nervousness over whether the electricity network could cope with all circumstances.

And so, while Germany talks about taking coal out of its life, it’s happening slowly.

Wind turbines can be seen in the distance all around the mine

Wind turbines can be seen in the distance all around the mine

The UK, by contrast, uses next to no coal. It’s a miniscule piece of the jigsaw.

But, then again, the UK does use a lot of nuclear power, which Germany decided to phase out – in a hurry – after the Fukushima disaster in 2011. 

So what it comes down to is this: you can phase out coal, or nuclear, in a relative hurry – but you probably can’t do both if you want to guarantee to keep the lights on, and the car factories rolling.

Which brings us back to Bagger 288, ripping up the land, slowly rolling its way towards the next condemned village.

Wander through the streets of these condemned, or threatened, towns, and it’s hard to find anyone to say a good word about RWE, the company that owns the ever-growing mine.

Protesters call them predatory, residents say they’ve been intimidated and that the company is unresponsive. So we call RWE to ask for a chat.

Frankly, I’m expecting them to brush us off, but instead we’re offered an interview by Zoom the next morning with a spokesperson called Guido Steffen.

Guido Steffen is a spokesperson for energy company RWE

Guido Steffen is a spokesperson for energy company RWE

Guido, it turns out, is friendly and happy to chat.

So does he feel bad for people whose lives are being disrupted in pursuit of an increasingly obsolete fossil fuel?

“I know that there are some people who object to lignite mining and also who object to being at risk, of course. But you can talk to many others and they will tell you that they realise that coal mining in Germany is in a big transition.

“Two of our three lignite mines are being stopped at the end of 2029. There’s only one mine which will last a little longer and that will be the mine you have seen – that is Garzweiler mine.”

A sign in Lutzerath reads ‘RWE ENTEIGN!’ – expropriate RWE!

A sign in Lutzerath reads ‘RWE ENTEIGN!’ – expropriate RWE!

His contention is that a sudden stop to coal power would not be possible for the company or the country, and would also devastate the regional economy, where thousands of jobs revolve around the industry. 

“You cannot dig lignite underground due to the loose material and this means that everything that is ahead of the excavators has to be removed.

“And sometimes it is also villages that have to be removed. We have found agreement with 85 per cent of the homeowners involved. We have built hundreds of new homes.”

He says Britain, in which RWE has invested heavily, has the advantage of being windy; Austria, Sweden and Norway have easy access to enough lakes and mountains to sustain hydro power plants; France has a lot of nuclear power.

A slogan of the protest movement: “Lutzerath Lebt” – Lutzerath lives

A slogan of the protest movement: “Lutzerath Lebt” – Lutzerath lives

“We can see that every European country has to come up with its own specific plan. The German government has come up with a plan, and we follow it.”

Before we part, I tell him about meeting protesters in Immerath, about their hopes for a delay or a change in heart. So is this plan, to demolish these villages, really set in stone?

Guido nods gently.

“Yes, I should say it is.”

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