Black Future The World's Ever-Increasing Hunger for Coal

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Part 2: Brutal Interventions in Nature


The idea of clean coal seems absurd to anyone who has ever peered over the edge of the Garzweiler open-pit lignite mine into the crater below. The mine, which is located near the city of Cologne in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, is five kilometers (3.1 miles) wide and more than 200 meters (656 feet) deep. It was dug by the world's largest excavators, and every day they chew up another piece of the moonscape. There are few places on Earth where man has intervened quite so brutally in nature.

The oldest machine in use at the mine, excavator 258, stems from the 1950s, an archaic monster that weighs almost 7,000 tons. The steel girders are still riveted together, and some of the switches are still made of Bakelite, but the giant machine is now controlled with state-of-the-art technology. Using a monitor, the driver can watch the blade wheel digging the coal out of the seam on the edge of the pit, in a constant downward movement. "Look, there's a water pipe," he says, pointing to a flashing red dot approaching the excavator. He tilts the joystick and the blade wheel, which has a diameter of about 18 meters, bypasses the concrete pipe by a hair.

Available in Abundance

Every second, excavator 258 digs more than a ton of lignite out of the ground. Lignite, also known as brown coal, is a moist, crumbly material, created millions of years ago out of the remains of plants in which energy derived from photosynthesis was stored. Today human beings utilize this former solar energy. Although the energy value of lignite is only moderate, because more than half of the material consists of water, it is available in abundance in the coal-mining area between the western German cities of Aachen and Cologne.

Conveyor belts several kilometers long transport the coal to be loaded onto railcars or directly to one of the power plants in the vicinity. There, it is dried and ground to the consistency of ground coffee, then blown into a combustion chamber and fired at more than 1,100 degrees Celsius (2,012 degrees Fahrenheit).

The high temperature causes the water to evaporate, and the resulting steam flows at high pressure against the blades of a turbine, setting it into motion at exactly 3,000 revolutions per minute. A generator converts the rotational force into electrical energy, and finally the electricity is fed into the grid.

RWE controls the entire process, from the large excavators in Garzweiler to the high-voltage power line. And RWE executive Rolf Martin Schmitz oversees it all.

'An Energy Source with a Future'

Schmitz grew up with lignite. Originally from Mönchengladbach, a city in Germany's industrial Ruhr region, he studied engineering in Aachen and then embarked on an illustrious career in the world of utilities, with stints at Steag, Veba, Thüga and E.on before he started working for RWE.

"Coal is an energy source with a future," Schmitz once said, and he still thinks so today. "We will need more and more electricity in the world," he says.

RWE meets almost one-third of the total electricity demand in Germany. The bulk of this electricity comes from the 100 million tons of lignite that are mined and burned each year. The Essen-based company is even investing in the expansion of some of its production facilities. In other words, in the future too, lignite will continue to ensure RWE's place as Germany's largest electricity producer.

It also makes the energy giant Europe's biggest air polluter. No other company emits as much CO2. And nowhere else does it enter the atmosphere in quite as concentrated a form as in the neighborhood of the Garzweiler open-pit mine.

Three power plants -- Niederaussem, Neurath and Frimmersdorf -- are located there within a radius of just 3,300 meters. The water vapor from the cooling towers often darkens the sky, and a film of ochre-colored dust coats the landscape. And then there is the carbon dioxide. Together, the three power plants emit roughly 65 million tons of CO2 a year, or about as much as 25 million cars. Many residents of the area are tired of the dust, the darkened skies and the gas emissions.

They are fighting against overexploitation on the ground and pollution in the air. After 50 years of lignite mining, they say, enough is enough. The region they call home is being literally burned up. An opposition movement is beginning to take shape, and not only in the Ruhr region.

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