Germany has been the largest lignite producer in the world since the beginning of its industrial exploitation. And it still obtains one-quarter of its electricity by burning this low-grade coal. But please, follow the guide…
What is lignite?
You certainly heard people saying that coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel. And well, lignite is the dirtiest coal...
Lignite, also call brown coal or soft coal, is a coal of recent formation. It can be found close to the surface which makes it simple to extract: you just have to dig a few tens of metres to reach lignite deposit. As a result, this coal is often exploited in open pit mines, causing the devastation of large areas.
In addition, the characteristics of lignite are significantly lower than those of other type of coal: a ton of lignite contains 30% less energy than a ton of bituminous coal. Its sulphur and ash contents as well as its moisture are higher than higher grades of coal.
Regarding greenhouse gases emissions, the arithmetic of lignite is fairly simple: the combustion of one ton of lignite emits one ton of carbon dioxide (and can produce one megawatt-hour of electricity).
Huge open-pit mines
The Ruhr valley, which remains the largest industrial area in Germany, is home to nearly two-thirds of the country’s reserves of lignite. Some of the most impressive mines in the world are located on the outskirts of Cologne, for example:
- Hambach: It's the world deepest open pit mine: 293 meters below the sea level! It currently covers a little less than 35 km² and is expected to reach 85 km² at the end of its operation. Zooming in, you can easily see bucket-wheel excavators. These machines used to dig the ground day and night can be up to 100 meters tall and weigh more than 10,000 tons.
- Garzweiler: This individual mine provides 6% of the German electricity. It was initially limited to an area of 66 km² but a new 48 km² area is being put into operation, requiring the dismantling of a nearby motorways. Eventually, this mine will cover an area larger than Paris.
On the map, you may easily notice other mines near Garzweiler, along the Erft River: Fortuna-Garsdorf, Bergheim, Frechen... Most are exhausted but still clearly visible. The city of Cologne to the right gives an idea of the scale.
A difficult conciliation with the environment
Other mines are located in former GDR, especially in Lusatia, south of Berlin:
- Cottbus North: Located along the Polish border, this mine is famous for the trial which opposed Vattenfall, its Swedish operator, to the inhabitants of the nearby village of Horno. The trial was lost and the village destroyed. Atterwasch, Kerkwitz and Grabko, three other villages around the mine are also doomed. More than a hundred agglomerations disappeared that way: an old Nazi law, dating back to 1937 but still in force, put mining above private property... Beyond these villages, thousands of hectares of agricultural land are also lost.
- Greifenhain: This mine, closed in 1968, is being progressively flooded. It should be completely filled with water in 2017. While water is a hazard during mining operations (it is not uncommon to divert a river to prevent it to flows into the crater), the creation of an artificial lake is a cheap solution to rehabilitate landscape once the mine is closed. Other flooded mines can be identified nearby thank to their unusual geometric shapes.
A little further to the West, Saxony offers another example of the difficult conciliation between lignite mines and their environment. The Schleenhain mine, opened in 1949, necessitated the destruction of the nearby village of Heuersdorf in 2009. Heuersdorf was home of the oldest fortified church of Saxony. In order to prevent it destruction, the 665 tonnes building was charged without disassembly on a specially designed truck and moved 10 kilometres away. The mine now threatens Röcken, the place where Friedrich Nietzsche was born and is buried.
In conclusion: no naivety on German energy policy
Lignite easily finds its place between tar sands and shale gas as a disaster for local environment. Navigate the map: you will see how German territory, especially Saxony, Rhineland and Lusatia, is eaten away by the lignite mining. Global consequences are less immediate and spectacular but they are also heavy: destruction of agricultural land, massive greenhouse gas emissions...
Germany is committed to an ambitious energy transition: phase-out from nuclear energy by 2022, rapid development of renewables... There is certainly much to learn from this experience. But one thing is clear: this policy is made possible thanks to the massive exploitation of a cheap and locally-available energy, lignite.