Monday, November 15, 2010

Germany: Renewable Energy, Post-Coal Artsiness, and Huge Surface Mines

PREFACE: I wanted to start this entry with a note to say that I'm mainly only posting to the blog about my experiences that are relevant to my Watson Fellowship Project. Many other things happen on a regular basis, a lot of which might even be more interesting than the "official" things I post about on here. I am keeping a personal journal about everything else, and at some point I might decide to publish that material too. As always, if anyone is really interested in something, just email me at

I originally decided to go to Germany almost as an afterthought, somewhere to pass through on my way to an internship in southeast Austria. I found a couple of things that might be interesting to see from some random internet searches, but for some reason I never felt the need to spend a great deal of time here. Now I know that was a mistake, and at some point I will probably need to come back and more thoroughly explore all of the model projects happening here.

I rode a bus for 25 hours from Madrid, Spain to Freiburg, Germany, and as you might expect it wasn't the most comfortable journey of my life. Freiburg was simply the closest town of any size to the "bioenergy village" of Freiamt that I had found on the internet and wanted to visit. I hadn't looked into Freiburg very much at all before I got there, but it turns out this is quite an interesting place on its own. I spent a sleep-deprived day of seeing the old part of the city and learning about the place before finally getting some real rest and a better plan for how to go about this part of the trip.

Freiburg was heavily bombed during World War II, but in the post-war reconstruction it has established itself as "Europe's Greenest City" with more solar panels, better public transport, and more energy-efficient buildings than anywhere else on the continent. As a fairly small city of about 220,000 people, its economy is based much more on universities and research than manufacturing or heavy industry. It's on the edge of the Black Forest, and you can easily walk from the town center into a network of trails that go up through forested hills. To be honest, it was almost too nice, and definitely something of a shock to go from the informality and mild chaos of Spain to this very organized, clean, and efficient German town.

The real reason I came was to visit Freiamt, a network of very small villages in the hills of the Black Forest about 13 miles north of Freiburg that generate all of their energy (and some extra) from renewable resources. I was mainly interested in the biomass aspects, and I knew that at least one small farm was producing energy from anaerobic digestion of agricultral residues. Luckily I was able to borrow a bike from my couchsurfing host and pedal my way up there instead of navigating the countryside bus system. I kept noticing one old barn after another that had something I had never seen on buildings like this: a huge array of solar panels. After asking a small-town local that could speak English where to find one of the biomass energy projects, I was on my way to Reinbold Bioenergie.

When I emerged at the edge of the woods, I could smell a hint of organic things decomposing, but it really wasn't too bad. Soon I was walking around on the Reinbold property trying to find someone that spoke English, and before long I found Harald Reinbold working on a tractor. Luckily he was willing to spend a few minutes showing this unexpected random American guy around on their farm and energy operation. I had assumed they were a normal farm that happened to have an energy system as part of their operation, but I discovered that while this used to be the case they are now solely focused on producing energy and have dropped all of their livestock and food crop efforts.

Harald showed me around to the digesters where the mix of silage corn, hay, and cattle manure is processed by bacteria to give off methane gas that is then fed into engines that produce electricity and heat. The electricity goes into the main grid where they receive a premium kWh rate for small-scale biomass, and the heat from the engines' radiators is used to heat buildings and hot water systems for the nearby school, soccer club, and several houses. The nutrient-rich sludge left over after the energy production is then spread back onto the same fields that the crops came from. All of the feedstock for the system comes from a 6 mile radius around their farm, mostly from other small farmers in the area as well as their own farm. It seemed very strange to me that it could be more profitable to grow corn and hay to feed into a bioenergy system than to feed into an animal, but apparently with Germany's favorable feed-in tariff program it's more reliable for the farmers to grow crops for energy since the market doesn't fluctuate as much as the livestock market.

Of course this immediately brings up the "food vs. fuel" issue since a food crop is being used only for energy purposes. I couldn't help but also wonder how much chemical fertilizer, pesticide, and herbicide they have to use for the corn and how it all works out in terms of energy input versus the amount of energy produced. Harald said that they use much less fertilizer because of applying the leftover sludge, and that they don't have to use very much chemicals at all since it's just for energy and the whole plant can be used in a chopped-up form. I'm definitely a fan of small-scale community energy systems, but in the future I would like to find ways to produce energy in this way from plants that require much less input than corn. I thanked Harald for his time, then returned to the bike to find that it had a flat tire. After walking a few miles back toward Freiburg, I was helped by a very nice guy who lived by the road and happened to have an extra inner tube and pump.

The next day in Freiburg I met up with Craig Morris, a German to English translator from the US who has been living in Germany for about 20 years now. He mainly does translating for renewable energy companies and projects, and even wrote a book about how the U.S. would be much better off if we could learn some lessons about how Germany has pursued renewable energy development over the past couple of decades. We had some good conversation over lunch, and he then took me on a tour of Vauban, the greenest part of Europe's greenest city. This neighborhood was built in the past 20 years on cutting-edge sustainable design principles, employing everything from passive solar, passive heating/cooling, pedestrian friendly design, ultra-insulation, and sustainable building materials. Apparently you have to pay $20,000 a year for a parking space in the nearby garage, and you're not allowed to park for more than 15 minutes next to your flat. There's a small woodchip-fired heat and power plant nearby that supplies everything that the solar panels on the roofs can't, and every block has its own weird avant-garde looking playground.

Once again, I agree in theory with all of the principles in place at Vaubaun, but for me it's almost too nice. Maybe being from Eastern Kentucky means that I can never really feel comfortable in a place that's so neatly organized, clean, and efficient, since this is very different from what I experienced growing up. But, I did appreciate being able to see it, and it was good to make the connection with Craig. From here I headed up to the Ruhr Valley, European Culture Capital 2010, to see what was going on.

The Ruhr Valley (Ruhrgebiet in German) was once the industrial capital of the country, home to most of the coal mining and steel production that made Germany a powerhouse before World War II and enabled the rapid reconstruction after the place had been bombed to smithereens after the war. Until very recently, there was still a lot of coal mining here but it's pretty much nonexistent at this point. I didn't really know what to expect, so I just went straight for the middle of the whole area and thought I would explore from there. Essen was way blander than I expected; when I first got there I could not possibly figure out how this was the culture capital of Europe. There were practically no old buildings since the entire place had been more or less destroyed in the war, just uninteresting identical 5-story apartment buildings with some typical shops at the bottom.

My couchsurfing host let me borrow a bike to explore the area, so I went to a few of the places that were touted to be the key spots to visit. There was the mining and geology museum at Bergbau, the huge crazy futuristic Zollverein mining complex, the big weird glass-facade building with posters about renewable energy projects, the "Landscape Park" in Gelsen Kirchen, the home and estate property of the steel baron Krupp family, and finally the massive coal slag tip with a giant creepy metal slab in the middle of it (apparently this was cutting-edge art). Overall it seemed like the strategy for "economic reconversion" and the basis for the whole "European Culture Capital" status was centered around turning former industrial landscapes and structures into centers of education and post-modern artsiness. There has been some shift to high-tech and sustainable industry from the old heavy and fossil-fuel industries, but it doesn't seem to be very focused on the people who have now been made redundant by the recent end of coal mining in Germany. It would take forever for me to describe each of these places I visited; just email me if you're really interested and I'll send excerpts of my journal.

I came here largely because of reading articles about how the Ruhr Valley should be a model for Appalachia's economic reconversion away from coal. Once again (see the entry on South Wales), I can't help but think that these authors have no idea what they're talking about and have definitely not been to both Ruhrgebeit and Appalachia. This was a huge, sprawling urban area where one city flows into another with a total population of around 5 million. It's much easier to have "economic reconversion" if you already have lots of high-tech infrastructure available, a plentiful and well-educated workforce, and loads of money from the European Union to move from fossil resource industry to high-tech and some renewables. It was an interesting place to see in some ways, but overall it didn't feel very relevant. I met and stayed with some really great people, however I am just not a city person and it felt a bit overdue when I got on the road to Juhnde and Gottingen.

Juhnde is the original bioenergy village that Freiamt was based on and has a bigger biogas system. I managed to navigate a tricky bus network to this small and beautiful old town in the middle of Germany after spending the night in Kassel. I met up with Jonas, the 18 year old son of one of the original farmers who helped to get this bioenergy project off the ground. Jonas was very friendly and helpful, and actually knew much more about the inner workings of the system than he originally claimed to. I really liked this town and appreciated their willingness to meet with me and show me around for free, especially considering that they usually charge a good bit of money to groups of tourists from all over the world. The same food-vs-fuel and chemical input arguments apply here as in Freiamt, but I still think it's pretty awesome that a small rural area can become self-sufficient in heat and power from local resources. I have more details about this installation from my notes if anyone is interested, otherwise the website has a decent amount of info (it's better to use google translate to look at the German version of the site instead of the English version since it has much more info).

In Goettingen I made contact with one of the main people behind the whole bioenergy village movement in Germany, but I would have to wait a couple of days to meet up with him. In the meantime I spent a day hiking in the nearby Harz mountains with Andi, my couchsurfing host. This area looked a lot like the Appalachian mountains and used to be a major mining area, but the only thing left now is a constant stream of metal-contaminated water runoff. To be clear, the mining here was for minerals (copper, gold, etc) and took place mostly in the Middle Ages up till about 100 years ago. The other aspect I liked about this area was that while the forests contained a lot of evidence of logging, it seemed like it was nearly all being done on a more sustainable scale so that the forest was left standing while only a portion of the trees were removed. Overall it was very nice to be up in some hills after being stuck in the sprawling metropolis of the Ruhrgebiet.

I met Dr. Ruppert at Goettingen University the next day to talk about how this whole bioenergy concept came about and how it has been economically possible in Germany. It was quite a long process to find funding to do the first model bioenergy village (Juhnde), conduct feasibility studies, educate and involve the local citizens and farmers about the process, and finally get a working system in place. For me, it really comes down to two things: a strong incentive program for the energy produced and strong support from the European Union for the initial funding for model community-scale energy projects. Germany provides around $0.16 per kWh of energy produced from biomass systems smaller than 5 MW, and the EU was willing to provide significant matching grants to get this project off the ground. In the US we lack these feed-in tariffs that allow renewables to compete with (currently) cheaper fossil energy sources, and most of the grant funding seems to go to large-scale projects that could never fit within a community-owned framework. This seems to be a fundamental difference to me, that parts of Europe recognize the value of local self-sufficiency and are willing to provide at least some initial funding to show that this sort of system can work. Juhnde certainly proves that it can; this area has been operating profitably for 10 years in this way.

My last stop in Germany was in the former Eastern Bloc town of Cottbus, just a few miles away from the border with Poland. I had used some research papers while at Berea College that came from Brandenburg Technical University (BTU) in Cottbus for my work on agroforestry approaches to remediating surface mined land, so it seemed to make sense to go to the place where those papers were produced. East Germany is home to some massive brown coal fields which almost exclusively use surface mining, and reclamation of these areas carries a lot of the same issues as mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia. The only difference is that there are no beautiful biodiverse hills in East Germany, just expanses of farmland and small villages. To be fair, this mining has completely erased or dramatically changed entire communities against their will, but for me it's not quite the same if it's happening on flat ground.

After some hit-and-miss communication (and a random night of partying where I met a bunch of students who are working on agroforestry reclamation!), I eventually met up with some of the faculty at BTU who are in charge of the work around bionergy plantings on strip mined areas. To my surprise, the chair of the department asked me to give them a powerpoint presentation on reclamation/reforestation work in Appalachia, and gave me about 45 minutes to put something together before we would all meet back up. I think it went surprisingly well, and luckily I already had some presentations from classes at Berea that I was able to splice together into something decent. They had plenty of questions and I was able to answer all but the most data-intensive (i.e. how many millimeters of rainfall per year, average temperatures, etc). I made plans to check out their project area the next day and went home to a crazy couchsurfing experience.

I met with a representative of Gruene Liga the next morning in the very strange looking and ultra-tight security university library. Gruene Liga has been working on issues around brown coal mining for quite some time, and I was interested to hear the perspective of someone who has been dealing with the ins and outs of community protection work on the other side of the planet. There were many parallels with Appalachia, but also some very strange differences. For example, there's only one company that does surface mining in East Germany, and it's actually a Swedish state-owned company called Vattenfall. This company is trying to branch out to do more renewables, and they harvest all the biomass on the areas they're about to mine and use it for bioenergy (definitely not a justification for surface mining in my opinion!). Also, the region of Brandenburg is pushing the development of renewables at the same time that they're pushing for more large-scale surface mining. Massive amounts of land has been dramatically reshaped by this practice, and while a bit of it has been successfully reconverted to farm land, huge expanses have become lakes that are leaching pollutants into nearby streams (including some that feed into the protected Spreewald area).

After my meeting, I got a ride from my couchsurfing host out to the university's agroforestry research site which is located on a huge strip mined area directly adjavcent to an active mine site. Christian, a PhD researcher, was willing to meet with me for awhile to show me their work. I was surprised at how much area they had covered with a combination of black locust trees and an alfalfa/grass mix; it must have been several dozen acres. It was a bit surreal to stroll around on a site that has been the basis for much of my proposed method for redeveloping Appalachian strip mined areas, and with one of the researchers responsible for writing papers that I have used thousands of miles away. Although there were no mountains around, the soil conditions (or lack thereof) were very familiar to me. The fact that these plantings are several years old and doing quite well is good news for the plantings I hope to do when I get back at the end of this year.

From there we drove over to the active mining area which had official viewing areas set up with information billboards (all in German of course). This was by far the most massive continuous surface mining operation I have ever seen; maybe there are MTR mines back home that are just as big, but if so I've never been in a position to look out over them like this. The machinery was also ridiculously massive, maybe bigger than the huge draglines used in Appalachia. The strange thing about this place was that just beyond the complete destruction to the west, you could see several wind turbines spinning in the distance and in the east, there was a huge coal-fired power plant which also had wind turbines beside it. This stands in stark contrast to the mentality we seem to have back home where you're either for coal or against coal with no middle ground; I would be pretty surprised to see these turbines go up beside the AEP power plant near Ashland, Kentucky.

I spent a couple more days in Cottbus before catching a ride down to Vienna, Austria through the Czech Republic, but didn't do anything really worth writing about. Overall my time in Germany was definitely worthwhile and surprising in many ways. One aspect that I have neglected to mention is the fact that I constantly found World War II on my mind as I traveled through this country. I hadn't even thought about this before I got here, but I couldn't help but wonder what all of these places looked and felt like just 65-70 years ago. To my surprise I was told by a few people that "Hitler is still everywhere," meaning that the atrocities of that time are still on people's minds and only very recently have people been able to start feeling some kind of national pride again. It also seemed odd that so much wealth and progressive activity has arisen from these ashes whereas countries that weren't so destroyed are lagging behind (i.e. US and UK).

It was certainly a trip to bike around in the countryside and see old barns completely covered in solar panels. I have to admit that I assumed that people would be very formal and fairly unfriendly. Luckily this was not so much the case; I found everyone to be quite accommodating and Germany has a quirky sense of humor that pops up fairly often. I definitely think that the US has plenty of lessons to learn from the developments here, but the real lesson might be the most difficult one to turn into reality: political support and will on both the local and national level.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Coalfields of North Spain

It’s going to be very difficult to condense my 3 weeks in Spain into a readable blog entry, but I’m going to try and hope that I do this period of time some justice.

I started with a harrowing two-day journey from Edinburgh, Scotland to the plane that would take me from London to Madrid, Spain, followed by the bewildering experience of navigating the Spanish capitol’s subway system to arrive at my translator/travel partner Maggie’s apartment in the old working-class part of town. Some friends in Whitesburg, KY had put me in touch with Maggie a few months ago when I had asked if they knew of anyone who could help me with a chunk of time in Spain. Maggie is from the US originally but has lived in Madrid for the past 10 years. She works as a professional Spanish to English translator to pay the bills, but spends most of her time getting involved with interesting projects (like this one which definitely deserves support). Luckily she found my Watson Fellowship project to be something worthy of donating a couple of weeks to. I somehow found my way through the narrow, cobblestoned, steep, winding old city streets to the door of her flat, and soon we were having a traditional Spanish lunch in an old hole-in-the-wall restaurant. Before long we were back on the subway to travel to our first interview of the trip with a woman that was deeply rooted in the Spanish coalfields.

Anna, the mother of a friend of Maggie’s, was from a long line of coal miners from the region of Asturias. She was very interested in talking to us when she heard that someone from America wanted to learn about coal mining history in Spain, but nothing could have prepared me for the intensity of the experience I was about to have. Maggie and I emerged from the subway station to meet Anna and her mentally handicapped daughter (who I didn’t know was coming), and immediately Anna launched into a rapid string of conversation with Maggie. First I should mention a few things: one, I was running on barely any sleep from having a crazy schedule of buses and flights over the past couple of days. Two, this was the first time I had been in a non-English speaking country and I was still adjusting to the fact that barely anyone spoke my language. Three, Spanish culture is very different from American or for that matter British; people love to talk a lot, they speak very fast, and they like to be close to you, look deep into your eyes, and touch you as they talk to you. All told it was a very surreal and bewildering experience that I found myself in the midst of.

I knew very little about Spanish history or Spanish mining before coming here, but I began to learn very quickly. The coal miners of this country have a long and very strong tradition of labor organizing and struggle, much like miners in the US and the UK. However, Spain had a very brutal civil war from the years 1936-1939 that ended with 36 years of a fascist dictatorship. The miners had been some of the most radical anti-fascist activists and fighters before and during the war, which meant that they were prime targets for capture, torture, forced labor, and execution. Prior to the war Spain had been seen as one of the most progressive countries in the world for union activities and workers’ rights; the mines were able to secure an 8 hour work day and good pay in 1919. During the 36 years of the Franco dictatorship it was illegal to unionize and they lost all of their previous labor rights victories, but many clandestine strikes and actions took place anyway. It wasn’t until the regime was almost over in 1972 that any new labor agreements were signed between workers and the industry, and this was only after 2 years of intensive demonstrations and strikes in 1969-1970. Franco died in 1975 and for the first time in 36 years a democratic government was possible. Once again unions were able to flourish, and Spain is possibly one of the most pro-union places in the world.

Anna didn’t actually tell me all of that, but I thought that I should at least set the background for the journey I was about to set out on. She did tell me loads about guerrilla fighters in the mountains, miners that went missing to never be seen again, how many in her family had been miners, and lots and lots of stories. Unfortunately I couldn’t understand a word of it as she stared at me intently and pointed to various family pictures and old magazine articles, and she was so wrapped up in telling the stories that she seldom gave Maggie a chance to translate any of it. I still felt like I was having a connection with her, but it was strange to have it in such an abstract way. By the end I was completely mentally exhausted.

Before going further I feel like I should explain a bit about the goal of my time in Spain and indeed for this trip in general. I originally wrote my Watson proposal with the thought that I would mainly try to spend time gaining experience with specific types of projects that I think could be part of a solution for a more sustainable Appalachia, such as community-scale biomass energy, value-added organic agriculture, and land remediation. Since I’ve started, I have been much more drawn to finding places that mirror Appalachia in other parts of the world in order to broaden my perspective on the issues that are currently facing us back home. Ideally I will find innovative solutions within some of these “parallel Appalachias,” but I have to realize that more often than not I will have to go to other areas to find the solutions. The time in Spain ended up being much more about having a parallel experience than about finding solutions, though I certainly did try for the latter.

Maggie and I left the next day to drive 4 hours north of Madrid into the coalfield mountains of north Leon. It was very dramatic to see the landscape change from the mostly flat, arid plains and mesas of middle Spain into the looming rocky mountains. I remember coming down the main mountain pass at dusk and thinking that it looked quite a bit like coming down Pine Mountain in Letcher County, KY. We initially stayed at a place that we had been told was something of an organic agriculture training institute, but this ended up not being the case so much. From there we drove on up through the mountains of Asturias to the city of Gijon, where Maggie had a few contacts we hoped could prove useful. They were quite helpful, and soon we had a general plan of where to go and when.

Before getting down into the coal mining mountains of Asturias (a region that borders Leon and which is in north-central Spain), we spent a few days in Gijon and also in Ovieda, the capitol of the region. After a mildly interesting meeting in Ovieda we wandered up the street into a situation that was a bit unexpected. In front of the main parliament building in the center of town, about 200 people were gathered holding banners and looking rather stern. With some guesswork and help from Maggie, I realized that this was a pro-coal mining rally with Spanish banners saying things like “Bring a Carbon Capture Plant to Asturias” and “For the Future of Coal, Sign the Decree!” A union leader gave a speech out of a bullhorn, followed by a few rounds of deafening noise makers.

The people we had been meeting with before the rally then took us on a brief tour of the historical parts of the city that ended at a very old-school Spanish restaurant. Apparently you can only get a real meal in Spain between 1:30pm to 3:30pm and luckily we were in that window. This “lunch” is called a “menu,” and it’s meant to be a massive meal that you center your entire day around. Most people eat a little toast and have some coffee in the morning, stuff down a huge “menu” in the middle of the day, take a nap or drink strong coffee afterward, and then have a small “dinner” around 9-10pm with some drinks. This whole arrangement was another shock to my system, but the food (lots of oil and pork!) was quite satisfying.

The lunch conversation was largely focused on the event we had just witnessed and the background behind it. Apparently Spanish coal mining is no longer economically competitive with cheaper imports from Poland, Russia, and India. In order to keep the mines alive and miners employed, the industry has to be heavily subsidized by the government in the form of decrees that require power plants to burn a certain amount of Spanish coal. Since Spain is part of the European Union (EU), they are bound by agreements and decrees that come out of Brussels in Belgium that affect all of the countries in the EU. The EU generally doesn’t like policies that allow countries to focus on their domestic economies in favor of international trade, and it’s also trying to phase out any policies that promote the use of coal. In about a week and a half, the EU would decide whether to allow Spain to continue to subsidize the use of domestically-mined coal until 2014 or whether to cut it off immediately. Lots of pro-coal rallies and hunger strikes were therefore planned for the lead-up to the Brussels decision day of September 29th.

One other twist that I found interesting was the split between state-owned coal mines and privately owned (for-profit) coal mines in Spain. Apparently about 30% of the total mines are state mines (known as HUNOSA), and the rest are owned almost entirely by one guy named Victorino Alonso. He is something of a mafia-esque character with close ties to top politicians, and he is known for using unsavory tactics to get what he wants. We were told that he has refused to pay his workers for the past couple of months, saying that he will go bankrupt if the EU doesn’t sign this decree and that the workers need to stage massive demonstrations to pressure them into signing it.

We drove from Ovieda back to Gijon for an Asturian renewable energy conference that someone had emailed Maggie about. It was taking place at a big fair and conference center which happened to be hosting a big genetically-modified cattle show at the same time; it was kind of like the Kentucky State Fair but much smaller and weirder. The conference wasn’t too impressive to be honest. The presentations were very boring, almost nothing was about actual projects or real plans to do anything, and there were no really innovative ideas proposed. We spoke to a couple of the presenters afterward about my project to try to find leads for worthwhile places and projects to check out, but while people were quite nice they didn’t have any concrete suggestions to offer for things happening in the region to transition to a more sustainable economic and resource base.

After a nice bit of time checking out the Asturian coast line, we found a route to take us down into the coal mining valleys of the mountains to the south. Again the change in landscape was quite striking. From the lush rolling hills next to the sea, we were soon driving into the Spanish Eastern Kentucky. Before long the hills were much steeper and heavily wooded, the roads windier, and the homes a bit more run down but with lots of character. When we finally saw our first coal tipple, I would have felt like I was back home if not for the Spanish barrel tiles on the roofs of the houses. Then it was one tipple after another, sometimes with the familiar conveyor belt structure spanning across the road. Eventually we made it to our destination for the evening, the home of Luisa.

Luisa is the mother of one of Maggie’s good friends, and she is a 78 year old widow of an Asturian coal miner and comes from one of those families where pretty much everyone was involved in mining. She was one of the most pleasant people I’ve ever met and was delighted to have a young man in the house that she could cook enormous meals for. She told me lots of very interesting stories that I couldn’t understand, and sometimes Maggie would be around to translate but other times we would have fascinating conversations that were mysteries to us both. Sometimes she would ask me a question, and then repeat it louder and louder with the hopes that I would eventually understand, but to no avail. Even if I had known basic Spanish it probably wouldn’t have helped since Asturias has its own very distinct dialect that is mostly Spanish but also has lots of unique words and sentence structures. Maggie described it as somewhat “Yoda-like” (Ran to the store the boy did; Going where are you?).

The next few days were spent exploring the area and going to some meetings that ended up being quite productive. We spent an hour of time with the historian for the main mining union (CCOO) and it wasn’t nearly enough; I could barely keep up with the rapid fire onslaught of information. Benjamin was very friendly, surprisingly young and hipster-ish, from a long line of miners, and wanted to give us tons of books (all in Spanish of course). My brief notes are a page and a half long which I can send to anyone who’s interested, but I’ll just bring up some of the highlights here. Spanish union history is filled with anarchists, communists, and more centrist groups that all managed to work together under some very harsh conditions as described earlier. Black lung has been pretty much eliminated in Spain because underground workers only have 7 hour shifts and they’re strongly encouraged to wear breathing protection. For every year that a miner works, they earn 1 ½ years of retirement, so that lots of people retire when they’re about 45. Most coal in Asturias is at a very steep slant because of the way the mountains were formed. A lot of the mining is still fairly manual with a pneumatic hammer type of thing, but bigger mines have longwall sections now. HUNOSA doesn’t do any surface mining because of the damage to the environment, but Victorino does. He also gets away with using non-union labor by hiring short term “construction contractors” for all of the heavy machinery instead of actual miners. Most of this activity is in north Leon.

We also met with a member of the Green Party in the Asturian parliament who likewise had huge amounts of information to relay. Enrique had lots of interesting perspectives on the big-picture situation of coal in Spain and transitioning the coalfield regions to newer ideas, but it seemed as though many of his good ideas and well-written plans were being more or less ignored. Apparently the electric companies in Spain would like to switch from coal to natural gas since they have constructed some expensive new gas-fired power plants that are barely being used. However, Spain has no domestic natural gas and instead imports it from unstable places like Colombia and Algeria through the mega-company Repsol. There are plenty of issues around poorly reclaimed surface mining and illegally mining land without permission by Victorino’s company. The Greens have put forth plans to parliament to develop a distributed renewable energy economy in the region that would focus on job retraining for former miners. The plans have been approved, but no action taken because of the influence of the huge power companies that want to retain control of power sources. There is quite a bit of renewable energy in Spain but very little in the coalfield areas. Even where renewables exist they are mostly huge projects that are controlled by the same huge companies that own the coal-fired power plants. Everyone knows there’s a pressing need to transition the economy and energy base of the region, but lack of will is preventing anything from really happening.

Before leaving Asturias to go to nearby Leon, Maggie and I made a trip over to a working HUNOSA mine to get a tour and even to go underground. Unfortunately when we arrived a belt had just caught fire, so we only got a tour of the outside area from a young engineering intern. He could actually speak a little English, so for once I was conversing a little with someone other than Maggie. We did get to meet some Spanish miners who were just coming off shift, and to my surprise there were a couple of female miners among the crew. Maggie had some good conversations with a few of them, then we got to go up into the big pithead pulley gear towers (almost all underground coal mining in Europe is deep shaft mining, so they have to use these massive cable and pulley systems) and finally into the control room where the guys seemed quite happy to have a girl to talk to for once. One fellow thought we should stick around for the protests they were going to have in the next couple of days; he was really looking forward to setting things on fire in the streets.

The drive to Leon was another exercise in dramatic landscape changes. The transition from the green, medium-height hills of Asturias to the tall and almost alien-looking arid mountains was quite intense and then it was back to green forested mountains but this time they were much taller. I had fallen asleep in the car and woke back up in the town of Villablino. Maggie was talking on the phone with a member of the Green Party who we thought we would meet with in this town, but apparently he was in exile now after he had been physically threatened on more than one occasion for trying to stop an illegal surface mine on a nearby mountain. As I looked around I could have sworn we were in West Virginia, and I wondered if this area would be as polarized and conservative as some people had warned.

We stayed in nearby Ponferrada that night but ended up back in Villablino the next morning as we followed our couchsurfing host German up to his job as a forest fire lookout guy on a mountain tower above the little mining town. After taking in the massive view, we decided to spend a day getting out into the mountains and drove over to a forest reserve that was supposed to have some of Spain’s last bears. No bears to be found, but it was nice to just get out and be in the nature of the area. I think we both needed to air out a little bit too; it was actually a bit stressful for both of us to be trying to more or less plan this trip by the seat of the pants while also dealing with another person. We also got to stop at a pub in a sleepy little town where the bar was held up by old coal wagons and talked to the owner’s son about the lack of opportunities in the area and how he pretty much has to move to Gijon to be able to have a career even though he’d prefer to stay in his home village.

After the hike we went back to Villablino with the intention of talking to local people about the situation around the future of coal mining in the area, but first we decided to take a detour to a nearby mountain that had been strip mined for coal and then abandoned. It was very surreal to drive up the steep windy mountain roads to the yard of abandoned heavy equipment and then to hike on up to the higher parts that had been mined; again it was almost a little too familiar. To be honest this didn’t seem anywhere near as serious as Appalachian surface mining. The mountain was more or less resculpted to the original contour and it wasn’t as expansive as the strip mines I grew up around, but it was still striking to see something so similar halfway across the world.

After driving back into town and finding a little bar that looked pretty “working class,” we picked out a couple of guys for Maggie to go talk to. The first was a very recently retired miner, which surprised me because he didn’t look any older than 40. He had a very interesting perspective on things, not at all the hard-line pro-coal agenda some people had said we would encounter here. He said that everyone has known for a long time that coal mining has a very limited future here, and that the government has done a piss-poor job of finding real alternatives for the economy of the region. He thought that most people would definitely support renewable energy jobs since they’re desperate for pretty much anything, and that most folks are definitely in favor of protecting the local mountains. Afterward she talked to a much older retired miner, and to my recollection he more or less echoed some of the same sentiments.

The next day was set to be a day of pro-coal rallies in medium-sized cities across North Spain in anticipation of the decision for whether or not to sign the EU decree to extend Spanish coal subsidies for another 4 years. Ponferrada was one of those cities, so we decided to spend the whole day there talking to people before the rally and then being in the middle of it. Maggie was very good at having very direct, frank, and revealing conversations with miners and their families, and we learned that they are very aware of the many facets of their situation and quite capable of accurate analysis. It was strange to hear them acknowledging that Victorino Alonso is basically manipulating them into staging these demonstrations to pressure the EU into signing the decree that will keep their jobs viable but also that they are protesting and organizing against his backhanded tactics. They also acknowledged that coal is a dirty fuel and that we need to be moving to renewables, but as long as Spain is going to continue to burn some amount of coal then it should be Spanish coal and not shipped in from thousands of miles away.

These miners had walked for dozens of miles from their home villages, and they would be walking dozens more to the capital town of Leon. We walked a mile or so with them, and it was a strange feeling to be in solidarity with these people that reminded me so much of people back home but also knowing that their livelihoods would only be around for another 4 years at the most. In a way it was gratifying to hear so many of them say that they wanted alternatives for their communities since I am proposing the same for Appalachia, but it was disheartening to see that so little had actually been done in this direction when they are so seriously needing it.

We headed back to Madrid the next day, bidding the coalfields of Spain goodbye. I spent a few days exploring the city and eating weird food from different countries before spending way too much money on bus tickets to Zaragoza and then to Huesca. I wanted to briefly check out a renewable hydrogen energy project in the brown coal area of Aragon before moving on to Germany.

The Hydrogen Foundation had been suggested to me by Enrique in Ovieda as one of the only innovative projects in a somewhat coal-related area that he was aware of. This group of young engineers is working on ways to develop innovative approaches to hydrogen technology that use 100% renewables as the energy source. The hydrogen would be used not only for vehicles in the future, but they are also looking at using it for large scale stationary power storage so that intermittent power sources (like solar and wind) can be used to charge a hydrogen fuel cell bank and then discharged when the power is needed. This could also be used to send hydrogen through a pipeline to remote villages in the Pyrenees mountains where small local generators would create power where it’s needed. These are ideas that I had not considered before, and I wonder how they could potentially be relevant to a decentralized renewable energy future in Appalachia. The other aspect I really appreciated was the fact that everyone on staff there was between 25 and 35 years old and were all from the Aragon province. If I can manage to put projects together when I return to the US, I would definitely like to follow this model.

My next to last day in Spain was spent wandering around in the midst of a mind-numbingly massive amount of people in the streets of Madrid. This was the General Strike, a once-in-a-decade phenomenon where everyone in every kind of job across the country is supposed to go on strike for the entire day. This time was in protest of the most recent wave of EU labor policies that have made unions weaker and opened up the way for more cheap imports, at least from what I could tell. I don’t think there’s too much point in going into tons of detail for this day, but I will say that it was strange to be in the midst of a humongous protest in a foreign country that I felt very little connection to when people that I know very well were in the midst of this protest back home in the good old USA. I ended up feeling very alone in a sea of thousands of people.

I don’t know if I’ll be able to adequately sum up the little bit of Spain that I experienced. The people were consistently very friendly, even if I couldn’t speak their language at all. Everyone was very forthcoming and frank, and seemed to be quite happy that someone from so far away was genuinely interested in their situation. I felt like the parts of Asturias and Leon that I spent time in mirrored Appalachia very closely in several ways. There wasn’t a great amount of material wealth, and people who had lived hard lives through very tough working conditions were very proud of their culture that had grown up around this shared past. At the same time, that reality was rapidly changing and nothing concrete was coming in to take its place. It seems that this is a common theme for mining areas. The other theme so far has been that everyone wants to see some type of alternative jobs appear, but even in countries and regions that have progressive ideas (such as renewable energy and organic agriculture) those ideas seldom make it to the places that need it most, such as the coalfields. I hope that these lessons can be transferred back home to Central Appalachia so that we can find ways to make this transition happen for us rather than to us.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

A Wee Visit to Scotland

I arrived in Edinburgh, Scotland on the wrong train which I was luckily not kicked off of and which to me exemplified the non-wisdom of a privatized train industry in the UK. If there was one national train company that coordinated everything and which all the trains belonged to then you wouldn’t have two trains going to the same place 5 minutes apart and owned by two completely different companies. Also they probably wouldn’t be so bloody expensive. Anyway, I digress.

My first official stop was at the UK Biochar Research Centre at the University of Edinburgh’s south campus. Andrew Cross, one of the main soil science researchers there, had very kindly and promptly responded to my emails about wanting to check out this world-renowned research center. I received a fairly thorough tour of their newly-built dedicated facility, comprehensive descriptions of the various ongoing projects, and introductions to the team members who were available. I felt acutely out of my league and a bit self-conscious talking to these folks who have an international reputation as one of the leading places for cutting-edge biochar projects, but all of the researchers except one were graciously willing to give me a bit of their time to talk about their work, my travel fellowship, and future projects I intend to undertake on surface mined lands in Appalachia. This one exceptional fellow constituted the only time so far on this trip when I have felt about 2 inches tall when leaving a room; he basically said that if I wasn’t going to pursue a PhD with him or spend at least 6 months working with one of his project partners then it wasn’t worth his time to talk to me or share contacts. I suppose a humbling experience can be good at times, but I’d like to think that I’ll never let prestige go to my head (assuming I eventually execute some successful projects) and cause me to have a rude attitude toward inexperienced young people who have an interest in my field of work.

The next day was spent on a bit of a non-project trip to the area of Glamis, about 12 miles northwest of Dundee. This is the place that my mother’s side of the family is supposedly descended from, and I felt like Ith or 9th earl in the family of the Earls of Strathmore, which were semi-royalty that had lived in Glamis Estate and Castle since the late 1200s. Only the first son receives inheritance and becomes the next earl, so the story goes that he left in a rebellious rage and falsified records in Virginia to show that he had been born there so that he could fight for the American army. The Lyon family in Kentucky has been mostly poor subsistence farmers and manual laborers until the most recent generation, while the Lyon family (now Bowes-Lyon due to some political bargaining in the 1790s) in Scotland continues to occupy this massive castle and 40 acre estate. should at least see this place that has become enshrined in Lyon family mythology. According to our records, our furthest back traceable ancestor is William Lyon, who came over from Scotland to fight in the American revolutionary war and was awarded a tract of land in Johnson County, Kentucky for his service. He was the third son of the 8

It was a strange experience to ride through the ornate gate and half-mile driveway to the castle where I ended up paying full price for the inside tour after unsuccessfully trying to bargain on account of being a distant cousin. I’m not really a fan of royalty and the obvious superiority and class divisions inherent in such a system, but I tried to suspend that for a bit to take in this place that may well have been my ancestral home. It’s difficult to describe the odd feeling I harbored as we walked through opulent halls filled with classical portraits of the former earls, gigantic fireplaces, ridiculously ornate beds, and the one section of the castle that dated back to the 1300s and which was quite spooky (all stone walls, floor, and ceiling, heads of various animals all over the place, pieces of weapons and suits of armor here and there). Apparently this was the castle where Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” was set. After the tour I tried to find William Lyon on the family tree displays in the main area, but apparently they don’t pay too much mind to the non-inheriting members of the family. After strolling the gardens and forest area around the castle, I undertook a harrowing journey of confusing buses and a late train to get back to Edinburgh.

The fellow at Tower Colliery in Wales had mentioned that there were quite a few former mining towns close to Edinburgh, so Thursday I set out to find them and hopefully have some random interesting occurrences. That morning I came across the Scottish Mining Museum in Newtongrange on the internet which seemed like as good a place to start as any. I wandered around the free bits of it for awhile before going into the gift shop area and striking up conversation with a fellow who had worked 37 years in the pits and now served as a tour guide for the underground mine part of the museum. It was more of the same unfortunately; Maggie Thatcher shut the pits down with no plan for the future, the old culture of these mining towns is gone, and now the former miner’s cottages have become commuter houses for outsiders who work in Edinburgh and don’t want to pay high rent in the city. He did suggest an interesting pub that I might meet some good people at and also a nearby town that was worth visiting.

The Dean Tavern was the only example I’ve come across of a community benefit pub, i.e. the profits are all returned to benefit the local community. Apparently this is a Swedish concept known as “Gothenburg” and the Tavern dates back to the late 1800s when it was started as a miner’s tavern by the resident coal company but then gifted to the community by the early 1900s. It was a bit too early in the day to find old miners to get stories from, so I chatted with the bartenders for a bit about the history of the place and the current situation of the town.

Roslin was the next stop, which I didn’t realize was mainly known for its association with “The Davinci Code.” Honestly I know next to nothing about the book, and apparently I was the first non-local anyone had met that came to the town for a reason other than to see the chapel that’s mentioned in the Davinci Code. I happened past “The Original Rosslyn Hotel” which was across the street from “The Roslin Hotel” and was not a hotel at all but a pub that featured some very colorful local characters. After asking a couple of friendly-looking older gents if they knew of any former miners that hung around there, I was immediately pointed over to a table with a guy that was a bit haggard and shaggy-looking and a couple of somewhat more well-kempt friends. The shaggy haired guy was apparently the one to talk to, but I was advised that the problem wouldn’t be getting him started but rather shutting him up.

Before I knew it these fellers were buying me pints and talking about the good old days of working in the pits, fighting police in the strikes of ’84-’85, random adventures they’d had in times away from the mines, and arguing about pointless things in a particularly abrasive and humorous Scottish fashion. They were all interesting guys in their own right, but the shaggy haired one (affectionately known as “Shuggy”) was a definite standout. We ended up back at Shuggy’s place for some Scotch with coffee and to pass a guitar around and trade songs. Shuggy and one other guy were actually really good musicians, and I got to hear everything from 30s jazz, fingerpicked folk, and a traditional Scottish mining song. I in turn played some old time Appalachian songs (including “Only a Miner”) and they at least acted like they were really into it. I had to take off to get the last bus back to Edinburgh, but that was surely a standout experience on this trip so far. Shuggy even gets his own profile story on the “People” section of this blog, whether he likes it or not! (he wouldn’t tell me his full name because I couldn’t fully convince him that I wasn’t some kind of spy or undercover agent)

I spent a couple of days in Glasgow just to see the place that so many had referred to as the sketchy, run down, industrial side of Scotland, but I found it more endearing than Edinburgh in a lot of ways. There was way less of a touristy international vibe; it was authentic, crazy, gritty, occasionally drunk and scary Scotland at its best (and worst). I won’t go into too much detail of my shenanigans here, but I will mention that I randomly found an authentic ceilidh (pronounced kay-lee) with live musicians on the third floor of a beautiful pub in the middle of the city. Ceilidh is the Scottish version of a square dance (or maybe square dance is the Appalachian version of a ceilidh), and there were definitely intoxicated brash young dudes in kilts whirling and twirling with young lasses, as well as older folks and a few random international student types. By the time I got up the nerve to ask somebody to dance they decided to do the Virginia Reel to the tune of “Yankee Doodle Dandy;” not exactly what I was hoping to get out of a Scottish traditional dance experience, but it was a good time anyway.

I finished out my Scotland (and indeed UK) time with a generic day-long guided minibus tour of the highlands. I forgot to bring my camera with me, but if you google image search “Scottish highlands” I’m sure you’ll get plenty. While it was a fairly run of the mill tourist affair, I was glad to at least get a glimpse of this area that I’d always heard of as being the place that so many Appalachians are descended from. I knew very little of the history of the area starting out, but Dave the tour guide kept on with a constant stream of jokes and information that I assume was at least partially factual. I was particularly struck by the whole Jacobite revolution and the following “Clearing of the Highlands,” which is both heartbreaking and also the reason behind much of the Scottish immigration that has largely shaped my home region. I couldn’t help but wonder if possibly some of my ancestors are from this area even though we don’t have official records of it; I kept getting an eerie feeling of familiarity while driving around the Scottish holler backroads in this minivan filled with Indian, Japanese, Dutch, and other assorted tourists. We finished with a tour of the Dewar Scotch Distillery, which was especially interesting on account of the multiple free samples. For the record Dewar’s isn’t very good; I would recommend Laphroig if you can find it.

One week was definitely not enough time to really get to know Scotland. If I didn’t have lots of other places to be (and if it wasn’t so blasted expensive) I would’ve loved to check out some of the isles off the north or west coast, the really mountainous highlands around Aberdeen and Inverness, and also the burgeoning micro-hydro industry in some of these areas. In the end, I’m on a focused travel fellowship, not a vacation, and I was beginning to feel guilty about losing some of that focus by the end of my time in the UK. I’ll spare you the soap-boxy rant on how I feel about the UK’s approach to coalfield transition and community-based efforts to transition to a sustainable energy economy, mostly because I already did it in the last post. I can assure you that the next post about my time in coalfield Spain will be very different and most likely much more interesting.