Photograph by Patrick Pleul, dpa/Corbis

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Giant machines dig for brown coal, or lignite, at Vattenfall's mining operation near Jänschwalde, Germany, in the Lausitz region. Its planned expansion could force relocation of towns.

Photograph by Patrick Pleul, dpa/Corbis

Germany Plans to Raze Towns for Brown Coal and Cheap Energy

Villages face the bulldozer as one of Europe’s renewable energy leaders leans more heavily on an old habit.

The German village of Atterwasch is tiny, its single street lined with sturdy brick and stone houses. The village has a single church whose bells peal out at noon each day, a small volunteer fire department, and a cemetery with a special section devoted to German soldiers who died nearby in the closing months of World War II.

Atterwasch may soon be gone.

Vattenfall, a Swedish energy company, hopes to relocate the village and its residents in order to strip-mine the ground underneath for lignite, or "brown coal."

"They would tear everything down, dig up the cemetery, blow up the church and cut down all the trees," said Christian Huschga, a screenwriter and father of two who has lived in Atterwasch for more than 30 years.

Billions of tons of brown coal lie buried underneath the Lausitz region, a gently rolling landscape of pine forests, farm fields, and rural villages about 100 miles (161 kilometers) south of Berlin, in what was once East Germany. In the past century, the landscape has been scarred and pitted by strip mines hundreds of feet deep that sprawl over dozens of square miles.

In all, 136 villages in the Lausitz region have been destroyed to make way for massive strip mines since 1934. Most of the destruction took place after World War II, when the communist government depended on brown coal to power its cities and factories. Pollution from the mines and from primitive, dirty, coal-fired power plants was a major issue for the democracy activists whose efforts eventually helped topple the Berlin Wall. When Germany was reunified in 1989, many of the outdated plants were shut down, and locals thought the era of forced resettlement was over.

But brown coal is making an unexpected return. The development has environmentalists worried. Germany is often seen as a model, thanks to its strong push for renewable energy. Politicians here have committed to 80 percent renewable power by 2050, and strong public support and generous subsidies have seen solar and wind power grow dramatically in the past decade. Roughly a quarter of Germany's electricity today comes from renewable sources; in the United States, just 12 percent does. (See related interactive map: "Four Ways to Look at Global Carbon Footprints.")

With this commitment to the "Energiewende," or energy revolution, it's a mystery to many why villages like Atterwasch are still at risk. "The new mine is planned for 2030 to 2070—a time when coal power plants shouldn't even exist anymore," said Huschga. "It's not right to take away people's security and future for plans that shouldn't be." (See related story: "As U.S. Cleans Its Energy Mix, It Ships Coal Problems Abroad.")

A Revolution in Trouble

Unfortunately for Atterwasch and similar towns, experts say Germany's energy revolution is in danger—and more coal could indeed be on its way. In 2012, newly opened coal-fired power plants added 2,743 megawatts to the country's grid. (See related quiz: "What You Don't Know About Electricity.") Germany is the world's largest producer of brown coal, and 2013 was the biggest year for lignite-fired energy production in the country since 1990, with 162 billion kilowatt-hours produced, or about 26 percent of Germany's total electricity.

The lignite boom is not limited to the former East Germany. In the Rhineland region in the west, the village of Immerath has recently been made into a ghost town to make way for expansion of German utility RWE's lignite-mining operations. But in Lausitz, the big brown coal player is Vattenfall, whose name means "waterfall," a utility wholly owned by the Swedish government that is Germany's third-largest power producer. The nonprofit KlimaAllianz says that Vattenfall's plans for strip-mining lignite in the Lausitz region could force relocation of 10,000 people in several towns. (See related, "Poland Hosts Climate Talks, While Boosting Coal Industry.")

Some blame the return of coal on the imminent end of Germany's nuclear power industry. In 2002, politicians decided to shut down Germany's nuclear plants by 2022. Chancellor Angela Merkel backed away from the move when she was elected in 2005, citing climate change and economic concerns. But in 2011, in the wake of the disaster at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi plant, the German government reversed course and put the nuclear plants back on the chopping block. (See related, "One Year After Fukushima, Japan Faces Shortages of Energy, Trust.")

That will leave a hole in the country's energy supply that renewables can't quickly fill, meaning fossil fuels will continue to be part of the German energy mix for a while longer. Since coal is the most greenhouse-gas-intensive fuel, coal's comeback could set back Germany's efforts to combat climate change.  (See related "Quiz: What You Don't Know About Climate Change Science.") Environmentalists are especially worried about the growing reliance on lignite, the lowest grade of coal with the highest carbon dioxide emissions per kilowatt-hour produced. Brown coal also is cheap coal, increasing its appeal at a time when high energy costs are roiling Germany.

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Residents of Atterwasch and other villages gathered in the rain last year to protest plans for expanded brown coal strip-mining that would erase their Lausitz towns from the map.

Yet those in Atterwasch, and environmentalists elsewhere, blame not nuclear's pending demise but brown coal's political clout in the region and around Germany. Because of the way Europe's energy market works, brown coal remains much cheaper here than natural gas, an alternative that produces lower carbon dioxide emissions. While nuclear energy indeed has declined in Germany 10 percent since 2011, natural gas power is down 23 percent. Coal power is up 9 percent, and electricity production overall is up 3 percent.

The plans to plow Atterwasch under, and relocate its 900 people, in fact, have been in the works since 2007, before Fukushima sealed the fate of Germany's nuclear power industry. "The connection between the nuclear phase-out and the phase-out of coal is not there," said Stefan Schurig, climate and energy department director at Hamburg's World Future Council, a think tank devoted to sustainability issues. "The resistance of the coal industry is massive."

Brown Coal Jobs

In and around Cottbus, an industrial town about 20 miles (32 kilometers) from Atterwasch, thousands of people are employed by the coal industry. "Coal is the motor of the region, and when it collapses there won't be anything left," said Wolfgang Rupieper, head of Pro Lausitzer Braunkohle, a Cottbus-based pro-coal lobbying association. (The name translates to "For Lausitz Brown Coal.") "I know it's not pretty, but people who don't have a future here because there are no jobs will lose their homes too. They'll have to go elsewhere."

A petition circulated in the area by Pro Lausitzer Braunkohle last year garnered nearly 60,000 signatures in support of expanding strip mines. (A competing petition against more mining got 120,000 signatures, mostly from big cities like Berlin and Hamburg.)

"Conventional power plants as a part of the national energy mix are unavoidable for the foreseeable future," Cottbus Mayor Frank Szymanski, a noted brown-coal supporter, said in a December speech. "It's entirely reasonable that people debate the future of brown coal. But keep in mind that the majority of people in the Lausitz region stand behind the tradition-rich coal sector."

Local activists respond that they don't want to shut down the strip mines tomorrow, and argue that existing mines have enough coal to run for decades. "We're talking about a transition period of 20 to 30 years," said Monika Schulz-Höpfner, an Atterwasch resident who represents the area in the state parliament. "That's another generation's worth of jobs, and a long time to develop other solutions."

Taboo Topic: The Future

Vattenfall spokesman Thoralf Schirmer says with energy demands across Europe rising each year, brown coal supplies may run out sooner—in ten to 15 years, at most. Securing permission for new mines now will guarantee the company's supplies into the future. "These things take a lot of advance planning, and we need to think at least ten years ahead," Schirmer says.

Vattenfall estimates there are 250 million tons of brown coal under Atterwasch and two nearby villages. The company has promised to essentially re-create Atterwasch elsewhere, although a new location hasn't been identified yet. "The aim is to resettle everybody to one location," according to a Vattenfall brochure, which assures property owners that they will be compensated at existing value without need for new loans, and that replacement properties will be of equivalent size and value.

But this is not the future that residents like Schulz-Höpfner anticipated. "This region could be a pioneer for renewables," she said. "We could be an example for Germany." Her barn's roof is covered in solar panels, and an experimental windmill tops a centuries-old stone house on her property. Her husband is angling for a Tesla car, which he says could store the extra electricity their house produces. "Brown coal is a technology from yesteryear. Ecologically it's senseless," she said. Schulz-Höpfner argues that the Energiewende is worth it, and staying the course will take commitment-and creativity. (See related, "Frozen Fish Help Reel in Germany's Wind Power.")

For now, Atterwasch is in limbo. As long as plans to destroy the village are in the works, houses here are virtually worthless, trapping many retirees. Meanwhile, young people are reluctant to stay in a place whose future is so cloudy. Schulz-Hoepfner says the future has become a taboo topic in the 900-person village. "When we celebrate birthdays, we agree in advance not to discuss it," she said. "There are those who want to fight, those who are in the middle, and those who just want out."

Vattenfall has promised to build a new Atterwasch somewhere else, but to many that's not an appealing option. "People may leave, but the soul stays in the village," said screenwriter Huschga. "Another place will never feel like home." (See related, "Harbin Smog Crisis Highlights China's Coal Problem," and "Coal Burning Shortens Lives in China, New Study Shows.")

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.