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License: All rights reserved. Credit: Greenpeace

Back to black: How Germany, Poland and a Swedish state-owned firm are turning towards brown coal.

Damian Kahya
Damian Kahya is the Energydesk editor

The town of Proschim in Eastern Germany has much in common with Balcombe, recently the site of the UK’s latest battle over fracking: in an old village near a wood, some of the residents are concerned about new plans for fossil fuel extraction in the area.  

But in Proschim they aren't likely to be worried about a Balcombe-style hunt for unconventional oil.

The Swedish state owned firm, Vattenfall are seeking permission to demolish the whole village. It needs to go to make way for an extension to their nearby Lignite (brown coal) open cast mine.

Unlike hard coal, lignite isn’t mined underground. This dirtier, more contaminated form of coal sits closer to the surface - often just beneath the soil - and extracted simply using giant mechanical diggers.

The mine near Proschim is one of five new mines the company is planning, with a further project planned by the Polish state energy firm just over the border.

That may change, if German renewable roll-out continues, but for now the  return of lignite may cast a long shadow further east. Leaders will gather later this year in Warsaw to discuss global action on climate change.

Villages moved

“From here to the next biggest city, Spremberg, there is a distance of 30km,” says Johannes Kapelle, the 77 year-old organist in the local church. “Over this distance we had a lot of very beautiful villages. They are all gone.”

In Germany Lignite already provides the kind of abundant and locally available fossil fuel promised by supporters of Balcombe’s tight oil - it’s now forcing even hard coal off the system.

“For this mine 1400 hectares would be used and 800 people would be resettled,” says Petra Rösch, the village Mayor - her tone defiant but her manner [] weary.

“Even those villages which remain, they are losing all their lands on both sides, they won’t have a normal life any more.”

But Ms Rösch knows there are those who support the mining as crucial to the local economy.

It’s been going on here a long time.

Open-cast lignite pits have so far covered around 800 square kilometers of land, re-locating 135 villages and 27,000 people, according to campaigners.

It was the boom fuel of the communist era - providing a vital energy supply to the East German economy but many had expected it to fade out with the introduction of a market in carbon and policies to promote renewables.

Iron curtain

Indeed Kapelle points out that the residents of his village have already invested in solar, wind and biogas on their farms. The town produces more power than it consumes.

But whilst solar power in Germany has undermined economics of coal and lignite plants - which need to run constantly, the collapse of the European carbon price (from a peak of 30 euros to under 5 today) has seen Lignite come back to dominate German power production.

Vattenfall say their mines are producing more coal than at any time since 1993 with lignite-fired output at its highest level since the collapse of the iron curtain.

Reuters figures suggest that burning Lignite is now three times more profitable than imported ‘hard coal’, even though Lignite plants are less efficient - and so more polluting.

Hard coal is usually imported and though prices for coal have fallen, they can’t compete with Lignite mined next to the plant it’s burnt in.

In the Welzow open pit a sand-storm blows up from the basin of an endless expanse of dirt. As far as the eye can sea giant conveyors and bucket excavators work the grey dirt and carry the coal to the Schwarze Pump Vattenfall lignite plant.

Over the border in Poland, a cluster of petrol stations await German drivers on the hunt for cheap fuel. But if people still travelled to pick up coal, the traffic would be the other way.

Cheaper than coal

German Lignite is the envy of Poland’s leaders - the country still uses coal for 90% of its energy, and is showing little enthusiasm for clean energy.

Instead the state owned firm, PGE, is examining plans for a new giant mine and coal plant close to the border between the villages of Gubin and Brody.

In Germany, Vattenfall has promised that lignite mining can be climate friendly - if the carbon dioxide produced is captured and stored.

But recent projects in the Schwarze Pump and Jänschwalde plants have both stalled.

Vattenfall says it won’t build new plants without CCS - but is keen to push ahead with new mines regardless. Campaigners say the new pits would provide enough coal to power existing plants through to 2050.

Renewables impact

A recent report by Poyry for the UK government suggested that whilst many new German coal plants - planned a decade ago - would never open, and new lignite plants were off the cards - existing brown coal burning shows no sign of abating.

Analysts have suggested that to guarantee a switch from coal and especially Lignite to gas, the price of carbon would need to be several times what it is now.

Alternatively the roll out of renewables - which interrupt the ability of coal plants to run at ‘base load’ may gradually undermine the economics of lignite.

Indeed, even Germany’s hard coal plants are struggling: an analysis by the FT suggested that 65% of plants being closed by German Utilities over the next few years will be coal plants, struggling in the face of new renewable generation... and lignite.  

The decision over the fate of Proschim will be made in a couple of years.

“We have made our decision to stay here and fight, says Mayor Rösch, “For us it is very clear we want to remain in Proschim and defend our homes.”

But as long as burning lignite is the cheapest way to fuel Eastern Europe’s economic heartlands, it’s a fight she may not win.