Power Switch: Third in a continuing series about the German energy transition.
SPREMBERG, Germany—In Lusatia, there is a saying: “God created the beautiful landscape, and the devil put the coal underneath it.”
For generations, this region in the former East Germany depended on coal for jobs and stability. Coal companies bought up villages and fields and cleared them to make way for vast surface mines, because coal was more valuable than real estate. Almost all that was left were occasional stone markers and a few relocated buildings like churches.
But now that era is ending.
Germany is in the middle of a painful and expensive process of quitting coal, with the government approving a plan this year to close the last coal-fired power plant by 2038. And Lusatia must look toward a new way of life.
The break from coal is one of the most contentious parts of Germany’s transition to clean energy, a national effort started in earnest in 2000, with policies that led to a massive expansion of solar and wind energy and helped to decentralize the energy system through the growth of citizen-owned power cooperatives.
“We have the chance to create something new in this area that is special,” said Sören Hoika, who grew up within earshot of a mine in Lusatia and is now co-owner of a tour business.
For Hoika, it is a time of opportunity, as tourism and other industries are poised to grow, some of them tied to a network of manmade lakes that the government has built by redeveloping old mine sites. For many of the miners and their families, though, it is a time of loss and struggle.
To make the coal phaseout work, Germany’s leaders need to get broad public buy-in, even in coal country, where some feel left behind by the changes, discontent that far-right politicians have not hesitated to exploit.
The politics and economics of Germany’s transition away from coal offer a wealth of lessons for the United States. Both countries have industrial economies that were built in part by plentiful and inexpensive coal.
In both countries, the coal industry is shrinking, because of competition from cleaner and less expensive energy sources. In the United States, the Trump administration has made its own appeal to the disaffected in coal-mining regions and tried to revive the dying coal industry. But the German government decided it needed a plan that would set a clear schedule for coal’s exit, and also look out for the well-being of the miners and their communities.
The German federal government set the 2038 deadline, and backed it up with 40 billion euros ($47 billion) to develop new industries and improve infrastructure in places that were losing coal jobs, plus additional money for displaced workers and coal companies.
The result has satisfied almost no one. Environmentalists say the phaseout needs to come much sooner than 2038. Members of the special commission that recommended the phaseout say the government’s plan is far too generous to coal companies. And coal workers are understandably wary of giving up their way of life.
But in one sense, the plan has been a success. It has provided a path forward that has let everyone know what’s coming, and replaced chaos with a degree of certainty absent in the United States.
“You really have to have a national commitment, which Germany does and the U.S. doesn’t,” said Jeremy Richardson, a senior energy analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Richardson grew up outside of Fairmont, West Virginia, the son of a coal miner, and in February, when he visited Germany’s coal regions, he said he encountered similar dynamics.
In both countries, he said, coal is part of the foundation of the local culture, and there is a sense of pride tied to the generations of people working in the industry.
That pride makes it difficult to sell local residents on a plan to phase out coal. But Richardson said he thinks people in coal country can—and should—play a constructive role in planning the transition.
“People can come to accept it,” Richardson said.
There are two kinds of coal in Germany, from different regions and with different economics, a fact that is key to understanding the country’s coal industry.
What we call coal in the United States is called “hard coal” or “black coal” in Germany, and it mainly comes from underground mines, primarily in the northwest of the country.
The coal in Lusatia—a region southeast of Berlin that spans parts of two German states—is lignite, a moist and brown coal that comes from surface mines.
Germany’s last hard coal mine closed in 2018 because producers could no longer compete on price against cheaper imports, and because the European Union had forced Germany to stop providing subsidies to those mines.
But the end of hard coal mining in Germany didn’t mean the end of power plants that burned the fuel, nor did it mean the end of lignite mining or lignite-fired power plants, which did not have the same kinds of subsidies.
Germany still has more than 40 plants that run on hard coal that is imported, mainly from Russia, and about 30 that run on lignite. Coal was used to produce 28 percent of the country’s electricity last year.
The phaseout of subsidies for mining hard coal turned out to be a warmup of sorts for a much more complicated process: Figuring out how to completely eliminate all coal from the economy.
Before the pandemic hit, I went to Germany to see where the country’s energy transition stood and to figure out what it might mean for the United States. My first few stops were think tank offices and renewable energy sites.
But it wasn’t until I went to Germany’s coal country that I felt as if I had a sense of what this great shift meant for the people most affected by it. Unlike other regions, where the most personal ramifications of the energy transition might be the sight of new wind turbines on familiar horizons or an increase in utility bills, Lusatia is a place where the changes hit much harder.
The region has already gone through decades of tumult, including German reunification and the up-ending of local industries that could not compete. The coal industry was one of the few pillars of the economy to survive. Now coal, too, is on its way out.
When I got to Lusatia, I hired Sören Hoika to take me on a tour around the region.
He brought me to a place where we could get the best view of the Welzow-Süd mine, which covers about 70 square miles.
We stood on a small observation deck near the edge. Machines had sliced off about a hundred feet of earth from the surface. The brown floor left behind by the machines looked otherworldly, and it extended as far as we could see in all directions.
In Lusatia, trees often obscure the view of the mines from roads and villages. Only by looking at a satellite map does it become clear how many there are, in some cases almost surrounding a village.
But Lusatia is not all coal. The region also has one of the largest solar arrays in the country, and on just about any drive between towns wind turbines are visible in the distance.
Yet there is not much talk about renewable energy jobs as the future, partly because the hundreds of local jobs in renewable energy are tiny in comparison to the roughly 13,000 jobs in the coal industry.
The transition in Lusatia is not from dirty energy to clean energy but from a coal economy to one that is diversified, and tourism is an important part of the mix.
One of our stops in Lusatia was Spremberg, a community of about 14,000 that sits next to several open-pit coal mines.
Spremberg’s mayor, Christine Herntier, works from an office near the center of a cozy downtown, with cobblestone streets and storefronts painted in vibrant shades of yellow, blue and white.
“It’s a beautiful town, but we have our problems,” Herntier said, through a translator. “Not everything that looks shiny is shiny behind the facade.”
Herntier worked for decades as an executive in the textile industry. She saw the industry go from being a major employer in East Germany to nearly nonexistent after unification.
Her company closed, and then she started her own textile business that also closed. Those experiences taught her how to manage through jarring changes. She learned to focus on the future, she said, and not get caught up in sour feelings about what happened in the past.
It was Herntier’s business experience and her knack for diplomacy that led to her selection as the region’s representative on the coal commission, formed in 2018.
Herntier supported the commission’s plan because, she said, she could see how Lusatia desperately needed to improve its roads, train stations and other infrastructure, and also needed to attract new industries. She said the commission took a thoughtful approach and listened to local people, something she thinks has been largely missing from the country’s overall energy transition up to this point.
“Most of the people are for the coal here, even the ones who lost their homes, their cities or villages to the coal,” she said, and they want the mines to remain open.
The prevalence of surface mining has helped to define the character of Spremberg and Lusatia. Old maps show the villages that are now gone because the government and mining companies insisted that the land be used to produce coal.
A museum in the region, the Archive of Disappeared Places, is devoted to preserving the memories of the villages with photos, stories and a database of all the communities that are now gone, places with names like Glichow, Gosda and Wolkenberg. The former locations of some of the villages are now in the middle of manmade lakes. Others are now plains with grassy surfaces put in place by the mining companies after they were done extracting the lignite.
Herntier views the federal aid as reasonable compensation for a region that has made sacrifices for generations to provide electricity to the rest of the country, and now is being asked to change its way of life.
She is viewed by many miners as an advocate, and she has a deep respect for them and for their histories in the mines.
Silke Butzlaff, for example, has worked in the mines since 1983 and has spent most of that time as one of the lead operators of a gigantic machine that gathers coal with what looks like a saw blade, with big metal shovels for teeth. She said that she and other miners are proud that their work helps to make electricity for the country.
“It’s a wonderful feeling when the Christmas trees light up,” she said, through a translator, in a recent Skype interview.
Butzlaff is one of the leaders of a group started about a year ago to share stories of miners and portray the mining industry in a positive way. The organizers are employees of LEAG, the largest mining company in the region, and to an outsider, this may look like an industry-funded public relations effort. But the members say they’re doing this on their own time and they aren’t being paid for it.
The mines are likely to be open long enough for Butzlaff to reach retirement age, but she worries about what will happen to her younger co-workers, like Lars Katzmarek, an engineer who works on electronics and telecommunications systems in the mines. He is one of several thousand current employees who are young enough that they will need to figure out what to do after the phaseout.
“It’s a generation problem,” Katzmarek said. “If you are young, if you are maybe under 30, like me personally, you think about, ‘Is this my future in the region? Have I a chance to live here, to find a new job, to build a family here in the region?’”
A ‘Coal Commission’
Coal means jobs in Germany, and that made politicians wary of taking actions that would upset the industry. Until, that is, the government had no other choice.
In 2017 and 2018, Germany was falling short of its goals for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. The country was nearly 20 years into its energy transition, and there was a growing sense that the government needed to take bolder actions to regain lost momentum. Environmental groups such as Greenpeace and Ende Gelände held protests at coal mines and coal-fired power plants, adding to the sense that something had to be done.
That same year, 2018, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right government convened a panel, the Commission on Growth, Structural Change and Employment, known simply as the “coal commission” because its job was primarily to figure out how the nation could best move on from coal.
The commission’s roster included representatives from coal regions, like Herntier, plus people from industry and environmental groups.
Among them was Felix Matthes, a climate researcher, who works at Öko-Institut, a leading think tank, and who had been writing about the need for a coal phaseout for more than a decade.
One way the commission members came together, Matthes said, was by focusing not just on the phaseout but also on what would come next. This, he said, holds an important lesson for other countries going through similar transitions.
“You need to have a holistic approach because at the end of the day, every phaseout is not only the story about the phaseout, it’s about the story of phase-in,” he said, adding that the leaders need to have a “phase-in story” that can attract broad public support.
The commission finished its work in 2019, when all but one of its 28 voting members endorsed the plan for a full coal phaseout by 2038, plus economic aid for coal workers, companies and regions. The lone dissenting vote came from Hannelore Wodtke, a commission member who represented small villages in Lusatia that were at risk of being demolished to make way for mining in the years before 2038.
The German Parliament used the commission’s report as a basis for a law, passed in July, that codified the 2038 phaseout timetable and funding. The legislation also calls for a review in the late 2020s that would allow leaders to move up the conclusion of the phaseout by three years, to 2035.
Rather than celebrating the law, however, many environmental advocates and researchers called the 2038 timeline a policy failure. A report from the German Institute of Economic Research summed up this perspective, arguing that the government would need to complete the phaseout by 2030 in order to be on track to meet international targets for reducing emissions, like those set by the Paris Agreement.
“The coal exit law is a targeted plan to permanently delay the coal exit, and associated with unacceptably high compensation,” said Olaf Bandt, chairman of Friends of the Earth Germany, which co-sponsored the report, in a statement. “It would become a stumbling block for the short-term climate protection and heralds a new phase of climate policy conflicts in Germany instead of solving them.”
The timetable is likely to be an issue in the 2021 federal elections. Polls show Alliance 90/The Greens may be part of the next governing coalition, and the party has said the coal phaseout should be complete by 2030.
Matthes said he sympathized with calls for an earlier phaseout, but that the commission’s recommendations needed to be viewed as a compromise that reflects the views of all sides.
That said, he had complaints about some of the ways the legislation differed from the commission’s plan. One of the biggest was that Parliament ended up approving larger payments to coal companies than the commission had recommended.
Under the law, coal companies receive 4.35 billion euros ($5.1 billion), most of which will go to the two companies, RWE and LEAG, that operate a majority of the plants. Coal workers will receive 5 billion euros ($5.9 billion) in compensation for losing their jobs. And coal regions will get 40 billion Euros ($47 billion) to improve infrastructure and invest in programs to attract new industries.
In Lusatia, the money for development is an opportunity to change course, after generations of economic strife.
The Last (Underground) Mine
Near Essen, in the northwest of the country, that change, with all its challenge and emotion, is already well underway. On Dec. 21, 2018, Holger Kenda took the cagelike elevator deep underground for his final day at the Prosper-Haniel mine, the last hard coal mine in Germany.
Kenda had been a miner for more than 30 years, but had never witnessed the kind of scene that awaited him at the end of his shift. He and his colleagues rose to the surface and saw the lights of television cameras and crowds of dignitaries from the government and the mining company.
The miners held up the last piece of coal like it was a sports trophy. Kenda stood alongside his co-workers, with coal dust on his hard hat and coveralls.
“When I look at these pictures I think of the time and of the colleagues and of our work and of course the fun we had together,” said Kenda in an email interview last month.
He said he still gets tears in his eyes when he remembers how, at that moment, the workers and executives sang along with the coal miners’ choir to the Steigerlied, the German folk song that has long been the miners’ anthem.
These days Kenda, 51, is retired and living on a generous pension that all the displaced miners received. He works part-time at a small company just to keep himself busy.
Government pensions for miners are non-existent in the United States, where a plan to help miners is likely to be controversial because of the cost and concerns about other hard-hit industries that don’t receive such assistance.
But Germany has a strong social safety net of government-funded healthcare and retirement. In this environment, giving some extra compensation to the miners is within the realm of normal.
“I and most of my colleagues think that we are treated really fairly,” Kenda said.
Government aid provides some leeway for workers to figure out what they want to do, without the financial pressure to immediately find new careers.
The transition isn’t easy, but it’s not nearly as hard as it would be with an abrupt loss of pay.
Even after taking into account the needs of coal workers, there remain a host of issues that governments must address if communities are to thrive after the industry closes down permanently.
In Lusatia, one of the most glaring needs is stronger infrastructure connections with major cities nearby, especially Berlin. On a map, Lusatia looks like it is almost on Berlin’s doorstep, but the two might as well be in separate worlds because the links between the two have long been neglected.
The rail line between the cities is small and old, with trains that do not run often enough and are too slow to accommodate reasonable commute times. They pass through a series of tiny and often dilapidated stations that lack the charm of many of the region’s villages. It’s a terrible first impression for a would-be tourist spot.
“When I started to commute on all these train stations, I was shocked to see that they were run down, closed, no services,” said Evelyn Bodenmeier, who worked for the think tank Lusatian Perspectives from 2018 until earlier this year.
Improving the train stations is not easy, because it is unclear who would pay and be responsible for them.
Bodenmeier said the lack of adequate train service illustrates the federal government’s failure to show concern for the region and to ask local leaders for input about major decisions. And, she said, it also shows that local leadership has often not been effective at recognizing the obstacles to making necessary changes.
Part of the problem is that the coal companies have been so dominant in coal regions that they have hindered the development of a society separate from the industry, Bodenmeier said.
“You have a weak civil society, a very weak, very dependent, very underdeveloped civil society to deal with the challenges of a transformation,” she said. “We have a brain drain and we have a lack of engaged people who are saying, ‘This is not running very well, let’s try it another way.’”
Her description of Lusatia’s problems with infrastructure and leadership could describe many coal regions in the United States.
The antidote is an influx of new leaders and entrepreneurs. Bodenmeier said. New leaders, like Herntier, first elected in 2014, are trying to make their mark. But there is a political void in some parts of the region that a far-right party has sought to fill.
The far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, was founded in 2013 and did well enough in the 2017 federal election to become the third-largest party in the national parliament, drawing some of its most ardent support from the former East Germany, including Lusatia.
The party came into prominence by opposing Merkel’s policy of welcoming refugees. But it also opposes government actions to rein in climate change, arguing that there is not enough evidence that human activity is contributing to warming—a message that resonates with many of the people who are unhappy with the move away from coal.
Lusatia is split between two German states, Saxony and Brandenburg. On Sept. 1, 2019, both states had elections for state parliaments.
The AfD did well, more than doubling its share of the vote from previous elections and finishing second in both states. The party did not do well enough to gain control of the two state parliaments, but it could claim that its momentum was continuing to grow.
Bodenmeier views the rise of the AfD as a symptom of a larger problem: Many people in the former East Germany, she said, feel left behind and disrespected by the rest of the country.
“It is a development of failed politics over 30 years,” she said. “This is like a boomerang coming back.”
From Mines to Lakes
Hoika, my tour guide, told me he believes that tourism can help mitigate that discontent and that the region has a bright future. The tour business he co-owns was started by his father, a former miner. The most common tour package lasts one day, with an itinerary that moves from pristine lakes to the vast brown and grey of surface mines.
Hoika was born and raised here, but he left for about 10 years to study sociology and work in other parts of Germany before coming back, hoping to be part of revitalizing the region.
The ring tone on his phone is the sound of a Star Trek communicator. Driving between towns, he told me how he grew up watching Star Trek dubbed into German. He became such a fan that he didn’t want to wait years for the dubbed versions, so he and a friend found a place where they could buy video tapes of newer episodes in English. Watching and rewatching those episodes helped him become fluent, an essential skill for his job.
Hoika told me that the lakes in Lusatia began as an answer to the question of what to do with the mining pits once the coal was gone. Decades of mining have left behind vast depressions in the ground.
In the 1970s, the East German government built a shoreline around one of the pits and then pumped in water to accelerate the natural process of rivers and streams flowing to fill the space. The result was Senftenberg Lake, which opened its beach in 1973, the first of what are now about 20 man-made lakes in the region.
The village of Senftenberg, with a population of about 24,000, has been taking steps since the 1990s to become a national and international tourist destination. It is a centuries-old community near Senftenberg Lake, but not right along the shore.
“In the ‘90s, the first guest came and then said, ‘Where’s the lake? We can’t find it,’” Hoika said.
Regional leaders realized that they needed to build a park and roads to clearly connect the village to the lake, and to provide spaces for restaurants, hotels and other hospitality businesses. The federal government paid for this, part of the ongoing support following the reunification.
I could see the results from my seat at an outdoor cafe by the lake, looking down at a wide concrete path by the water where people biked, walked and took selfies, and a marina filled with boats.
Hoika doesn’t expect tourism jobs to replace coal mining jobs, either in number or in pay. I was unable to find any reliable statistics about how many tourism jobs there are in the region or how their pay compares to other industries. The goal, he said, is to make Lusatia attractive, based on the idea that jobs will follow.
The way that Lusatia is trying to build a new economy by highlighting natural beauty could serve as an example for coal regions in the United States, such as West Virginia, where mountains, forests and waterways are already part of a tourism economy that could become more of a focal point.
“What we found out over the years was that if you have a region where you like to make vacation, then you like to live there, so that brings people here, especially people with money who can afford something next to the lake,” Hoika said. “They very often are self-employed and they bring new jobs.”
A Difficult Job
The formula in Lusatia seems simple: Use the power of government investment to attract the jobs that will allow the region to survive and even prosper after the coal industry is gone.
But coal regions in the United States can’t simply copy this formula, even if the federal government were willing to pay for it, and even if a coal phaseout were politically possible.
Jeremy Richardson, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ analyst, came away from his visit to Germany’s coal regions, including Lusatia, with a sense of optimism because of the ways Germany shows that a transition from coal is possible. But he also was struck by the differences between the two countries that can complicate any comparisons.
One of those is that the United States is far more spread out than Germany, with coal regions that are much farther from major metro areas.
“Lusatia is an hour and a half train ride from Berlin,” Richardson said. “It’s literally, like, you hop on the train and you’re in Berlin. That’s a different set of opportunities to diversify the economy than if you’re in southern West Virginia and Kentucky, that quite literally take seven hours to get to from D.C. by car, through winding roads.”
Despite the differences, Richardson thinks that three of the basic ingredients for success in Germany could be applicable in the United States:
First, a national commitment from the federal government and leading national institutions that clearly doesn’t exist under the Trump administration.
Second, a transition plan that allows enough time for the hard work that would need to be done on infrastructure and on attracting new industries. Inevitably, this timetable would be longer than environmental advocates would like.
And third, buy-in from local leaders in coal communities.
Richardson can point to examples of strong local leaders in U.S. coal regions, but he said there aren’t nearly enough of them. Local leaders are essential for making sure that a national plan addresses the needs of their communities, and for selling a plan to local constituents.
Herntier, for example, has credibility in her community and has avoided seeking the short-term political benefits of sowing doubt about climate change and claiming that coal jobs can be preserved.
Her approach is difficult to export because it is tied up in her history and that of the region. She has lived with constant change for her entire adult life.
She has a difficult job, and she knows it. On that day in her office, I asked her how this makes her feel.
“I’m always optimistic,” she said. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t do the job.”
Top Photo Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images