The coal conundrum from the ground up, from the perspective of villagers in Atterwasch, Kerkwitz and Grabko.

PHOTOTGRAPHY: Lothar Michael Peter


In 2011, Germany embarked on what Ottmar Edenhofer, co-chair of working group III of the IPCC, describes as “one of the greatest social experiments in German history, comparable with the process of reunification”.

That social experiment is the German Energiewende, or “energy transition”. The “energy transition” is an ambitious set of policy measures which aims to shift Germany away from reliance on fossil fuels and towards a fully renewable future. In the short term, Germany aims to generate 35% of its electricity from renewables by 2020, a target it is already close to achieving. Nuclear power will be completely phased out by 2022.

By 2050, renewables will generate 80% of all electricity, and according to Felix Christian Matthes, of the Institute of Applied Ecology in Berlin, Europe’s largest economy will be approaching full decarbonisation.

Wind turbines in Lusatia
Wind turbines in Lusatia.

Solar array
Solar array near threatened villages in Lusatia.

But the energy transition has a dirty secret. Renewables – chiefly wind, solar and biogas have been so successful that the only energy source which is still cheaper is brown coal.

There’s a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the energy transformation, one which Arne Jungjohann and Craig Morris describe as the “coal conundrum“. The coal conundrum can be expressed as follows:

while renewables’ share of the German energy mix has been growing, so too has that of brown coal (lignite), one of the most polluting and carbon-intensive fossil fuels of all.

Open cut brown coal mineJänschwalde open-cut brown coal mine.

According to Ortwin Renn, head of the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, a paradoxical situation has emerged:

“the more Germany invested in the energy transition and poured more than 24 billion Euros into energy subsidies, the more the amount of Co2 increased due to the fact that among the fossil fuel providers only lignite coal was able to remain competitive in the energy market”.

Our study investigates the “coal conundrum” from the ground up, from the perspective of villagers in Atterwasch, Kerkwitz and Grabko, three villages in the region of Lusatia (Lausitz) in Eastern Germany, close to the border with Poland.

All quotes attributed to individuals are from interviews conducted for the radio documentary series, Beyond the Coal Rush, one of the outcomes from this project.

Case Study: Lusatia

The “coal conundrum” and local resistance

For nearly ten years, their villages faced demolition to make way for the proposed expansion of the nearby Jänschwalde open-cut brown coal mine.

In 2007, the Swedish state-owned electricity company Vattenfall sought approval from the State governments of Brandenburg and Saxony to expand existing open-cut brown coal mines, or open new mines, at five locations in Lusatia. If approved, they would allow Vattenfall to access and mine an estimated total of about 750 million tonnes of brown coal over the life of the mines. Nearly all this coal would be burnt in local coal-fired power plants to generate electricity.

If all five mines go ahead, the three villages mentioned above – Kerkwitz, Atterwasch and Grabko – would be demolished or rendered uninhabitable, along with a further three villages elsewhere in Lusatia. Altogether around 900 residents would need to be relocated, and large areas of farmland and forest would be swallowed up by the mines.

Overburden conveyor bridge Jänschwalde coal mine
Overburden conveyor bridge, Jänschwalde coal mine.

Jaenschwalde Power Plant
Steam rises from cooling towers of Jänschwalde power plant.

Ulrich Schulz’s family have been farming land in Atterwasch since the time of the Thirty Years War. Schulz carries on this long tradition, growing crops — mostly for feed — and breeding cattle, pigs, and chickens. Alongside his barn is a biogas plant, which generates 160 kilowatts of electricity and heats the poultry pens in winter.

But all that could come to an end if the mine extension goes ahead.

“This sword of Damocles has been hanging over us for years,” said Schulz in September 2014, at the beginning of our fieldwork for this project. “The whole farm is sitting on top of a coal seam. Where we’re standing would be a gaping hole. What it would mean for us financially, I don’t even want to think about. What it would mean for our morale? Well, it’d be just be a disaster.”

Ulrich Schulz with a cow
Atterwasch farmer, Ulrich Schulz.

Since 2007, residents of the villages have been campaigning to stop the mine extensions. Many of the villagers see this campaign as a struggle to defend not only their homes, farms and fields, but the goals of the Energiewende.

Wind turbines turn over the low hills which rise above the villages, and the surrounding countryside is dotted with small-scale wind farms and solar parks amidst fields of maize, apple orchards, and vineyards.

Next to the village church of Atterwasch, which dates back to 1294, the rectory sports an impressive rack of solar panels on its roof. The solar array recently won an “Ecumenical Environmental Award” from the Ecumenical Council of Berlin-Brandenburg.

Looking over Atterwasch towards windfarm
Looking over Atterwasch towards wind farm.

Solar panels on a village church
Part of the “Ecumenical Environmental Award” winning solar array.

Monika Schulz-Höpfner, former mayor of Atterwasch, argues that the energy transition is already a reality in Lusatia. “We don’t just talk the talk, we live it” she says, “You can see it right here on my farm in Atterwasch. I mean the solar panels, I mean our windmill, I mean our electric car. What my family and I talk about, we live as well. The very same climate policy which our Federal government has promulgated, onwards with renewable energy! That’s already a fact here!”

That’s a sentiment echoed by Roland Lehmann, of the nearby village of Kerkwitz. Lehmann has been active in protests against the proposed mine extension since 2007. Lehmann says the villagers’ primary motivation was to save their homes, their livelihoods and way of life; but many have come to see their struggle in the wider context of climate change:

“Everybody knows today that if you look beyond your own backyard it’s about a lot, lot more. It’s not just about a village here or a village there that might vanish from the Earth. In the end, we’ll all be affected by climate change, not just those of us whose villages get dug up. The bill for what happens here will have to be paid eventually. Not by us, not directly, but by our children, and their children. And we can’t let that happen.”

Roland sits in front of a large wood stack
Roland sits in front of a large wood stack in his backyard.

In recent years, the villagers have formed alliances with local, regional and national environmental organizations and NGOs, such as Friends of the Earth, and Oxfam. They have taken part in a series of protests, from the “Human Chain against Coal” in 2014 to the Ende Gelände protests in 2017, one of a number of simultaneous actions around the world.

These protests have highlighted both the local impacts of the mine extensions, and coal’s contribution to climate change.

Nationally, the coal industry employs just 50,000 people, while the renewable energy sector employs more than 400,000.

Our study explores the links between local resistance by villagers, their regional and national allies in the region, and the emerging global movement for climate action. We also consider the perspective of those currently employed in the local coal industry, and their fears that Lusatia will become “deindustrialized” without a long-term future for coal mining.

The number of jobs in the coal industry has already shrunk from 100,000 to 17,000 since reunification, according to Wolfgang Rupieper, a former judge and spokesman for Pro Lausitzer Braunkohle, an organisation set up to promote the future of the coal industry. Nationally, the coal industry employs just 50,000 people, while the renewable energy sector employs more than 400,000.

Overburden conveyor bridge Jaenschwalde coal mine forest in background
Jänschwalde coal mine with wind turbines in the background.

A victory for the villagers and their allies

In 2016 Vattenfall sold all of its coal mines and coal-fired power plants in Lusatia to a Czech company, EPH. In April 2017 the LEAG (Lausitz Energy Inc.), a consortium set up to manage these coal holdings, announced it would no proceed with the extension of the Jänschwalde coal mine. The villages of Kerkwitz, Atterwasch and Grabko have been saved from demolition; but the sword of Damocles still hangs over at least other villages in Lusatia, Proschim and Welzow, and their 800 inhabitants. The long-term future of coal in Lusatia remains uncertain.

Our project also considers the perspectives of local activists such as Monika Schulz-Höpfner (a former Christian Democrat member of the state parliament of Brandenburg), who wants state and national governments to get opponents and supporters of the coal industry together around one table, in order to plan a structural transformation which will boost investment in renewables and move the region towards a future beyond coal.

“The energy transition won’t just happen here in Germany. It will have to happen throughout the world”.