Brown coal: Germany’s big dirty secret

To generate electricity, power company Vattenfall burns the dirtiest coal on earth. So far, thousands of people’s homes have been destroyed by mining, and more will follow. Will the company’s new ‘carbon capture’ technology make a difference? Exberliner's Seymour Gris reports.

Brown coal: Germany's big dirty secret
Photo: DPA

On September 13 thousands of people gathered outside of the Janschwälde power plant an hour outside Berlin near Cottbus to protest power company Vattenfall’s plans to continue and expand its Braunkohle, or “brown coal,” lignite mining operations.

Vattenfall’s opencast mines – home to sinister half-kilometre long iron machines that slowly strip away the earth to reach the layer of coal – form shocking scars on the landscape of the Lausitz region near the Polish border. The lignite extracted here – the dirtiest combustible on the planet in terms of emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) – helps fuel our laptops, chandeliers and iPods in Berlin.

For environmentalists, mining and burning lignite to produce electricity is an ecological disaster. “This practice is ecologically unsustainable,” says René Schuster of the environmental group Grüne Liga. He lives in the Lausitz and has been keeping track of lignite mining for years.

A human and ecological disaster

First, the open-face mining technique requires that groundwater to be drained from huge swathes of land, since the lignite has to be dried before it can be extracted. The result is a 100-metre reduction in groundwater in the Lausitz region, with drastic consequences for local agriculture and ecosystems.

But there are more immediate consequences affecting people’s lives. Thousands of Brandenburg residents have lost their homes since mining began in 1924. A total of 136 villages have been destroyed to make way for the mines, displacing at least 30,000 people. The last community to go was the hamlet of Horno – a few kilometres from the Polish border – whose residents put up a bitter legal fight till the bulldozers cleared away the last homes in 2005. Now, despite past promises by Brandenburg politicians that the resettlement would end with Horno, five more villages have been slated for demotion to make way for lignite mines over the next two decades.

Then comes the ecological disaster: burning lignite releases more CO2 than any other method of power generation: at least 1,100 grammes of CO2 per kilowatt hour compared to 750 grammes CO2 per kilowatt hour for a normal coal power plant, or just 360 grammes of CO2 per kilowatt hour for a natural gas-fired power station. Germany, considered to be an environmentally friendly country, burns more lignite than any nation in the world.

Vatenfall’s clean coal answer

Vattenfall, the Swedish company that controls the lion’s share of the electricity market in Berlin and eastern Germany, is fully aware of lignite’s climate-crashing qualities. Vattenfall’s solution to keeping lignite (and other types of coal) ecologically viable is call Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). The company invested €70 million into the world’s first ‘clean coal’ power station. The small CCS pilot plant – located in Schwarze Pumpe, 20 kilometres south of Cottbus – was opened to much fanfare in September. In the CCS process, about 90 percent of the CO2 created by burning coal and lignite is ‘captured’ before it can be released into the atmosphere. The CO2 must then be transported and stored underground – for example, in old gas fields, where the CO2 actually aids in the extraction of remaining gas deposits.

Rene Schuster is highly sceptical about the viability of CCS, even on a small scale. “Transport and storage of the CO2 is a big unsolved problem. Vattenfall has not yet received authorisation to store the CO2 in underground geological formations in Saxony, and the gas would have to be brought there in trucks,” Schuster says.

CCS is simply unfeasible at a scale that would have a positive impact, he says. The pilot plant produces just 30 megawatts of electricity, compared to the 3,000 megawatts of the massive Jänschwalde plant – an amount that alone is responsible for 25 million tonnes of CO2 per year, or two percent of Germany’s annual emissions.

Moreover, underground (or even undersea) storage is risky, as leaks are possible. Plus capture and transport of CO2 on a large scale would be so expensive that is makes more sense to invest in proven renewable resources such as wind, biomass and solar.

Still, Vattenfall plans to push on with CCS and says “CO2 lean electricity generated with lignite can be delivered to the grid starting in 2015” by converting a part of the Jänschwalde plant into a 250 megawatt CCS project. The company aims to have a commercial CCS technology ready by 2015-2020. Till then, Vattenfall will dig new mines and keep burning the dirtiest fuel on earth. And thousands of more people will lose their homes.

Click here for more from Berlin’s leading monthly magazine in English.