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.