A new study by the International Energy Agency says that coal could challenge oil as the biggest energy source worldwide by 2017. In Germany, energy company Vattenfall will have to stop coal mining in 2025 at Welzow-Süd in the state of Brandenburg. They are currently applying for permission to open a new mine in 2030 called Welzow-Süd II, but local residents are opposed.
Swedish energy company Vattenfall is the third largest energy producer in Germany. Around 80 percent of the electricity it produces is derived from brown coal (or lignite). Every year the company extracts around 60 million tons of it out of the ground nationwide to feed coal powerplants. This, despite the fact that many consumers are turning to electricity producers that use renewable sources.
The mine at Welzow-Süd is one of five remaining opencast mines in Germany. There is an estimated 750 million tons of brown coal in this area and the seam lies 80-100 meters below the surface. Drilling down this distance is logistically difficult and can affect water systems in the area. Extracting using this method also consumes a lot of energy in itself.
According to the German Institute for Economic Research, Germany has about 35 years of brown coal reserves left. Still, the organization Friends of the Earth Germany argues that if the country doesn't set a good example of switching to renewable energy sources now, it can't demand that other countries like China use renewable energy.
Germany remains committed to an energy change to greener energy sources, as part of its energy turnaround policy (Energiewende in German). In many parts of the country there are wind farms starting up, like here in northern Germany. The challenge though is how to transport the power fast enough to the grid so that industrial centers in the south can use the energy.
Protesters in front of a coal power plant in Krefeld, in western Germany, demand an end to the country's reliance on fossil fuels. In the first half of 2012, Germany covered 25 percent of its electricity needs via wind, solar and other alternative power sources. Angela Merkel's government aims for renewable energy input to reach 35 percent by the year 2020.
The concerns about using coal for power aren't just due to emissions. The environmental impact on the mined sites is also an issue. Hühnerwasser is a six hectare area that was previously mined by Vattenfall. Scientists are now studying this new ecosystem. In 2005 Vatttenfall built up the substrate and since then the site has been allowed to develop by itself.
Hühnerwasser is one of the largest artificial watersheds worldwide constructed for scientific purposes. In 2005, there was nothing but dirt there. Today there are over 150 plant species on the site and birds and animals are starting to come back.
Germany is committed to reducing its reliance on fossil fuels and nuclear power. Currently though, the country gets much of its electricity from burning brown coal, causing high carbon dioxide emissions and other damage.