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Germany's energy transition: a good goal, a difficult process

 | The End of the Mine


  Waltraud-Kiefendorf pulled up to the fence and looked out over the desolate landscape of the Gatzweiler mine. Some people sarcastically call it the 'surface of the moon,' others call it the 'Big Crater,'" she says, holding her hand on the railing. I'd say it's more appropriately called 'The End of the World'." The Gatzweiler mine is the largest open-pit mine in Western Europe, covering 48 square kilometers, 200 meters deep, with a bare surface and, now, nothing but giant excavators and trucks.

  More than 30 kilometers southwest of Düsseldorf is the Gatzweiler mine. The power station in Ruhr burns lignite from this mine. Lignite is very polluting, but Germany still has a long way to go to say goodbye to it. The pit is getting bigger and bigger, and the surrounding villages are in danger of being swallowed up, one of which is the village of Kukum, where Walter Lauder lives. "There are 192 villagers here, and our village is likely to be next." She said. The owner of the mine, Rheinland Group, has been trying to persuade villagers to leave in order to exploit that land in Kukum village. Some villagers have already taken their checks and left, but Wolterraud refuses to compromise. "My husband and I are the only ones left on that street in our house." She says proudly. A number of reluctant villagers from nearby villages have formed their own village protection group, and Walter Lauder, who is nearly 60 years old, has joined them. They will even buy back small pieces of land out of their own pockets to keep the Rheinland group out of their hands. A few miles away is the village of Neukukum, and she doesn't want to move there, not just for her own home, but for the sake of the environment. Germany has made many commitments to combat climate change, she says, and with lignite coal used to generate the most pollution, the presence of the Gatzweiler mine is clearly going against the grain.

  The village of Lutzerath, which happens to be located next to the mine, is home to an elderly farmer who, like Waltraud, refused to leave. More than 20 young people learned of this and set up a makeshift camp in the nearby woods specifically to fight together. In mid-September of last year, the camp was sealed off and they were not allowed to re-enter or take pictures. One participant told me that they were trying to figure out how to get back. Meanwhile, the rumbling in the big pit never stopped, and despite the protests, the mine continued to run at full speed without stopping.


A coal power station in Bergheim, Germany, is adjacent to a residential area.


Environmentalists gathered at the Gatzweiler mine to protest coal-fired power generation


  Germany plans to say goodbye to fossil fuels by 2038. In the first half of 2021, Germany's lignite consumption rose by a third and CO2 emissions by 6.2 percent. By the numbers, Germany is getting further and further away from the goals of the Paris Agreement. Considering this situation, experts suggest that Germany will have to stop using all fossil fuels in 2030 if it wants to reach its goal of a 55% reduction in CO2 emissions, which is eight years earlier than the official time given.

  Germany has been vigorously developing renewable energy sources, but so far we have not seen results in terms of CO2 emissions. Data published by the World Bank show that Germany's CO2 emissions are twice as high as France's and 1.3 times the EU average. The huge mines in the Ruhr region are enough to illustrate Germany's dependence on fossil fuels.

  The horizon is blocked by two plumes of smoke from the Niederhausen and Neurath power plants, which are the main recipients of lignite from the Gatzweiler mine. From the mine to the power plant, you can see a dozen or so wind turbines on the way, which shows that Germany has really made a lot of efforts to develop renewable energy. But the day I went there, there was no wind, most of the generators did not even turn. However, the wind did not affect the excavation of the mine. On that day, excavators kept digging lignite out of the ground, loading it onto trains and transporting it to the Neurath power plant. The fog from the chimneys drifted dozens of meters into the air before dissipating, and while it continued to supply electricity to the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan area and parts of Western Europe, it also continued to pollute the environment.

| Why do Germans resist nuclear energy? | Why do Germans resist nuclear power?


  In May 2019, VW CEO Herbert Diess said in an interview that there is a simple and efficient way to reduce pollution from coal-fired power plants, and that is to use nuclear power plants for a few more years. 2011, after the Fukushima accident, the original pro-nuclear energy After the Fukushima accident in 2011, Angela Merkel, who was originally a supporter of nuclear energy, decided to gradually shut down the country's nuclear power plants due to public pressure. Today, Germany has only six nuclear power plants left in operation, and the remaining 29 have been shut down. "Things are prioritized, and the priority is to get rid of coal, not to call off nuclear energy." Dees countered. Nuclear energy provides a constant source of electricity without producing carbon dioxide, making it the ideal energy source. VW is making a big push for electric cars, and without nuclear energy, it would be difficult for Germany to provide enough energy for electric cars. Dees is naturally a big name in Germany, but he is also alone in this matter. None of the candidates, party leaders, or cultural figures are willing to speak up for nuclear energy. Thomas Jahn, a columnist for the German newspaper Handelsblatt, recently wrote an article titled "We should give nuclear energy another chance". "The article didn't get many hits." Jahn says frankly, "It's as if nuclear energy has turned the page in our country. Surveys show that most people are opposed to the reintroduction of nuclear energy. Politicians are even more unambiguously opposed."

  200 kilometers away from the Gatswelle mine, a nuclear power plant called "Groenende" has closed. It was a world-renowned nuclear power plant that had been generating an average of 10 billion kilowatt hours per year since it began operating in 1984 and more than 400 billion kilowatt hours as of Feb. 7, 2021. Nonetheless, the operator is shutting it down at the end of 2021. A spokesperson for the power station said, "We have proven in action that Groennd is stable and reliable, but we are required by regulation to shut down, which we deeply regret." The question was raised: Will any politician fight for nuclear energy? The spokesman replied, "I honestly can't think of anyone at the moment."


  Last July, there was a demonstration in front of the Groende nuclear power plant against the decision to shut it down, but with limited impact. 60-year-old Rainer Clute, an information systems specialist, founded Nucleaire, a pro-nuclear energy charity that now has 350 members. "We didn't take a penny from the nuclear energy industry." Clute said. He did so partly to change stereotypes about nuclear energy and partly to drive home the point that a hasty abandonment of nuclear energy would only come at a huge environmental cost. "We have a very limited appeal, mainly because Germans have not yet realized that this policy will have serious consequences." He said, "People have not thought through how calling off nuclear energy would affect electricity prices as well as the climate." He added that Germans are usually rational, but when it comes to nuclear energy, they are very emotional. "It's hard to explain this thing. It may have something to do with the Greens, who have been stressing for the last 40 years that nuclear energy is harmful. Our popular culture may also have something to do with it. Many Germans have read the book "Those Clouds," published in 1987, and it's not too much to say that it influenced a generation." Klueter said. Columnist Jahn believes that the U.S. deployment of nuclear warheads in Germany after World War II also influenced German judgments about civilian nuclear energy. "The country was rebuilt from the ashes, and these nuclear warheads mean the country could fall into ruin again at any time." He said, "Many environmental groups are against nuclear energy; they support renewable energy, but opposition to nuclear energy has long been written into their DNA."


  Germans are usually rational, but when it comes to nuclear energy, they are very emotional.

| Protest |


  According to the German government's blueprint, Germany is to use 65 percent of all energy from renewable sources by 2030, and 100 percent by 2045. However, Germany has not only opened some old coal power stations at the moment, but also built some new ones. 2020 May, a new coal power station was put into operation in the small town of Datteln. Retired policeman Rainer Koester, a resident of the town, is angry at the smoke rising in the sky. He said, "The first day the coal power station was operational, the town's residents took to the streets in protest." They later took the coal power station to court. At the end of April last year, the court declared the coal power station to be operating illegally. But the coal power station appealed immediately afterward, and as evidenced by the smoke coming out of its chimney, it continues to operate. Koster is not discouraged, in his words: "Justice is on our side. When the court decision comes down, I'll be the first one to take up the hammer and tear down this coal power station." Without the coal power station, what about the power supply of the nearby areas? "A gas power station, it will be less polluting," he said, "and the gas pipeline will be built soon, so we can use Russian gas." Should we use Gatzweiler's lignite or Russian gas? It's a real dilemma for Germany.


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