They have a saying in Lausitz, a region in eastern Germany near the border with Poland: "God made Lausitz, but the devil gave us coal."
The particular variety of coal here is called lignite, or brown coal. It lies close to the surface. To mine it, you must dig a vast open pit. Lausitz is scarred by these pits, some as large as Manhattan. They appear out of lush forests of spruce and pine, vast alien landscapes of dust and dirt and high wire fences, hundreds of feet deep and stretching into the distance. Adding to the environmental destruction lignite causes, burning it is a particularly dirty affair. A lignite-fired power plant emits three times as much carbon dioxide than one that runs on natural gas.
Grabko, a tiny village in Lausitz, has one street, one restaurant, and about three dozen houses that Vattenfall, a Swedish energy company, would dearly like to bulldoze to get at some of that lignite. Vattenfall wants to expand its mining operations here, and in June the regional government in Brandenburg gave the company permission to start the planning process that will eventually wipe Grabko and two neighboring villages completely off the map.
Needless to say, the threatened villagers—roughly 1,000 people in all—don’t want to leave. Last weekend they had some help. Greenpeace mobilized 7,500 activists from as far away as London to form a human chain from one of the threatened towns across the River Niesse and into Poland, where PGE, the state-owned energy company, plans to raze a further fifteen villages.
"Burning coal is wrong in so many ways," Manuel Marinelli, a veteran Greenpeace activist, said a few hours after the protest. What makes activists like Marinelli especially livid is that there is enough lignite in the existing mines to keep the local power plants running until 2030. The new mining areas Vattenfall wants to open will be producing lignite until 2050 and perhaps longer. So by the time Germany wants as much as 80 percent of its electricity to come from renewable sources, Vattenfall’s lignite mines and lignite-fired power plants in Lausitz will still be going strong.
The thriving lignite industry in Lausitz runs counter to Germany’s image as a green paradise. Surprisingly, the dirty fuel is widely popular there. A petition circulated by a pro-coal lobby group garnered 60,000 signatures in favor of the expanding mines. “The lignite industry is still an important, indispensable economic factor in this state,” said Dietmar Woidke, the Brandenburg’s Minister President.
The conflict between the pro- and anti-lignite camps in Lausitz is one facet of a larger conflict going on in Germany. There is a growing chorus of voices saying that the Energiewende, or energy revolution, is failing.
In the beginning, the Energiewende, Chancellor Merkel’s biggest domestic policy priority, was an ambitious and wildly popular initiative. More of a set of guidelines than a policy, it aims to close all nuclear power plants by 2022, increase renewables’ share of the national electricity generation to 80 percent by 2050, and slash greenhouse gas emissions to well below 1990 levels. Germans cheered.
The Energiewende’s champions can claim some striking successes. Last year renewable energy’s share of the country’s electricity reached 25 percent, an all time high (in the US, it’s only 13 percent). Organic food, solar panels, water-saving shower heads, old-fashioned hand-cranked washing machines, and vibrators made without toxic chemicals are all in vogue. Recycling is a highly organized affair, akin to a national pastime, with color-coded containers for paper and plastic and valuable materials and compost. Windmills churn on the horizon no matter which part of Germany you’re in, and one recent study concluded that offshore wind farms encourage ocean wildlife rather than harm it. The Bavarian town of Wildpoldsried, population 2,600, went above and beyond the spirit of the Energiewende: the village produces so much electricity from wind and sunlight and biomass that it can sell the surplus back into the grid, earning €5m each year.
"No country of Germany's scale has pursued such a radical shift in its energy supply,” Merkel said in a recent speech. "I'm convinced that if any country can successfully implement the Energiewende, it's Germany."
But many of the initial hopes and successes of the Energiewende have started to turn sour. Forests are being clear cut to be burned in biomass generators (to the dismay of many environmentalists, trees count as a renewable energy). Fields of solar panels have taken over bird sanctuaries. Activists warn that the five-foot-thick cable that will transport high-voltage electricity from the coast to the industrial heartland causes harmful electromagnetic radiation. Efforts to conserve water in cities like Berlin in Hamburg resulted, in 2012, in a foul fecal stench hanging over the city streets. Not enough water was running through the sewer system to wash away the sludge. Panicking, city officials flushed most of the water they’d saved down the drain.
Electricity is now 60 percent more expensive than it was five years ago, according to the Wall Street Journal. Industry is complaining. In a recent poll, seventy-five percent of small and medium businesses, which don’t qualify for the cost-saving exemptions that benefit the big companies, said rising energy costs are a “major risk.” Even the big companies are worried. Some are threatening to decamp to countries where electricity is cheaper; BASF, which employs 50,000 people in Germany, already announced plans to downsize its domestic operations. SGL Carbon will invest an extra $100 million in its plant in Washington, where electricity costs are less than a third what they are in Germany.
Germany is occasionally held up by American pundits, journalists, and politicians as an environmental success story that the United States ought to copy. But the Energiewende is a complex affair, and certainly not an unqualified success. At best it’s a work in progress. Greenhouse gas emissions rose for the third year in a row in 2013 to the highest level in five years. Coal is enjoying a revival. In late July, the Environment Ministry admitted Germany was unlikely to reach its 2020 emissions target. And, meanwhile, centuries-old medieval villages are being destroyed to open up new areas to mine and burn one of the dirtiest fossil fuels known to man for decades to come.
Solar panels on the roofs of the homes in one of those villages produce enough power for 5,000 homes, Bloomberg reported earlier this year. The nearby lignite power plant produces enough for 2.4 million. As long as renewables remain costly and unreliable on a national scale, fracking continues to be the stuff of nightmares, and coal provides a cheaper option than natural gas, Germany’s energy revolution will be an elusive dream.
Peter Mellgard is an Arthur F. Burns fellow at Süddeutsche Zeitung in Munich.
Image: Flickr/Creative Commons License.