Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Austria - Slovakia - Poland - Czech Republic

This is a very long entry as it covers a month and a half and four countries. It's also long overdue. As always email me at nathandavidhall@gmail.com with any further questions/comments etc, and click here to see more pictures.

The Gussing bioenergy plant in southeast Austria was one of the first places that I proposed to go when I decided to apply for the Watson Fellowship. I had discovered this place while doing research at Berea College, and had used it as an example of sustainable community-scale renewable energy in several presentations (one of my professors even started to use it as an example in his lectures). I was pleasantly surprised when one of the main scientists at the plant quickly responded to an email to let me know that I would be welcome to come spend some time there on my travels. We kept in touch over the months after I first submitted my proposal, and based on his suggestion I planned the first leg of my Watson trip around being there from mid-October til mid-November to avoid a planned maintenance shutdown period in September.

When I finally arrived to start my internship I found that they had changed the maintenance shutdown period to mid-October til mid-Novermber; in other words the exact time I had planned to be there. No one bothered to let me know about this change and I definitely could have set up my travels a little better, but oh well. I will spare the readers the boring details and complaining I could do, but basically I spent about two weeks doing absolutely nothing whereas I thought I would do a month-long internship learning about the inner workings of a state-of-the-art community scale biomass energy system. For posterity's sake, I will at least explain what I already knew about the plant before coming.

Gussing is a small town (around 5,000 people) in the southeast Austrian region of Burgenland, which until World War I was part of Hungary. It is considered to be the "poorest" part of Austria, but to be fair Austria is nowhere close to a "poor" country and this area looked to be quite well off to me. It's mostly a rolling landscape with a few hills and lots of small to medium sized farms and tracts of forest. The town of Gussing is of interest because over the past 15 years they have successfully implemented a number of renewable energy projects, especially around biomass which is a main interest of mine because of its potential for Appalachia. They have one of the only fully functional biomass gasification plants in Europe, meaning that instead of just burning wood or whatever else for energy, it is cooked under limited oxygen to release gases which are then used to fire an engine. This gas can also be used for other purposes, such as to create liquid fuels or to be reformed into chemicals like methanol or propane. Nearby there are also a couple of traditional biomass combustion energy systems, as well as a biogas system (anaerobic digestion, like the ones I visited in Germany). Finally, a solar panel manufacturing company has located here in recent years and the European Center for Renewable Energy is headquartered here.

I originally wanted to come and get involved in whatever work was available, but a serious language barrier prevented me from helping with the maintenance team and no other operations were happening. Instead, I spent time trying to figure out how the initial planning and funding for this project had come about. From what I could gather, a fellow named Reinhard Koch originally came up with the majority of the idea for the whole bioenergy concept for this town. He is a native of this area, made quite a bit of money in the construction business, and then worked with local officials to secure lots of grants and matching funding from the European Union to make this into a model region for small-scale renewable energy. Almost by chance he met with a research scientist at the University of Vienna who had been developing a unique approach to biomass gasification, and they decided to use Gussing as a place to test this design on a real-world scale. After some initial tweaking, the plant has been in nearly constant operation (except for occasional maintenance periods) for the past 10 years, and a couple of others have been built in nearby towns based on the same model. Besides producing quite a bit of electricity, they also supply most of the heat needed for the town via a network of underground hot water pipes.

I still think that this is a very good example of how a rural area can achieve energy independence and sustainability, and there are plenty of aspects of this place that could be applied to development in Appalachia. I spoke about how Europe has a bit of an advantage in terms of political will for implementing community renewable energy projects in my Germany blog post, and the same issues apply here as well. Beyond this there isn't a great deal to say about my time in Austria without starting to sound negative and I don't think anyone wants to read that. I visited some interesting places in the mountains (like Eisenerz, where metals have been mined for the past 1,000 years, and the city of Graz) and I was hosted by some really nice people (thanks Peter and Honzo!), but overall I was disappointed in my time here. After getting a ride to Vienna to apply for my visa to India, I suddenly decided to take a bus to nearby Slovakia and see what might happen.

I spent a couple of days in the capital city of Bratislava wandering the narrow, winding, crumbling cobblestone streets of the old city center and eating bryndzové halušky with no clear plan for the coming days. I made a random trip to the nearby town of Svaty Jur to go hiking, and met an older Slovak couple in the woods who were well-travelled and spoke excellent English. They spent a couple of hours telling me about the places worth checking out in their country; suddenly I had something of a plan for the most unplanned part of this trip so far.

My next stop would be Banska Stiavnica, a very old silver and gold mining town in central Slovakia. Once again I navigated a tricky rural bus system into non-English speaking territory to find one of the most endearing places I've been on this trip. Nestled amongst Appalachian-looking hills, this town was once the heart of the mineral wealth for the Hapsburg dynasty in the Middle Ages, surpassing even Vienna in importance at one time. Now it's a pale shadow of about 10,000 people (versus 60,000 in the 1600s) with a beautiful but somewhat falling apart town center that looks like it hasn't been touched in a few hundred years. Silver mining only recently stopped in the past 20 years, but now a Canadian company wants to restart operations with a method that would use some potent chemicals. From what I could tell the locals were very much against this idea because of the pollution it would cause, despite the jobs it might bring to this otherwise low-opportunity area.

I stayed with a very nice family who took me around to several interesting places, like a mountain that overlooked the whole area, a tour of an old silver mine, and my first view of a Slovak Gypsy ghetto. The latter was especially surprising; several gray nondescript apartment buildings were all crowded together and completely isolated from everything else. The only nearby landmark was an abandoned mine shaft structure that loomed over one of the buildings. Many of the windows were missing and had black stains all around the outside; I was told this was because the inhabitants would often sell the radiator for scrap metal and then make fires in the middle of the living room with the former window used as a chimney.

From B. Stiavnica I went on to Novaky, where one of the largest coal mines in Slovakia is still operating. There was a mine explosion accident in nearby Hanlova last year that killed 29 people, much like the Massey explosion that killed 29 in West Virginia in the same year. I got a tour of the abandoned part of the mine, and it wasn't really worth the 8 euros but at least I can say I've been in a Slovak coal mine. Then on over to Poprad where I had hoped to go hiking in the High Tatra mountains, AKA the Slovakian Alps but a thick fog that lasted for days made this less feasible. I decided instead to try to hike in the "Slovak Paradise," which I think would have resembled the Red River Gorge in Kentucky if I would have made it. Unfortunately this was thwarted by my first real Gypsy encounter.

I wrote a personal journal entry about this event (email me if you want to read it), but to make a long story short I got very sketched out when attempting to pass by a Gypsy community that looked like a total slum out of a movie. Two teenagers approached me demanding money, and when the little bit I gave wasn't enough I decided to turn back toward the town. It was a bit of a challenge to lose them, and I ended up paying some local with a car to take me back to Poprad since it would be a 2 hour wait for the next train which was on the edge of town by the Gypsy village.

I started this trip being very interested in Gypsy culture, especially in Eastern Europe. When I've met people who are from Eastern countries (especially Romania), I always ask about Gypsy culture with complete naivete and curiosity. Time and again I'm told that they are not nice people, they will rob you, it's not unheard of to be murdered, but that their music and stories are very interesting. Of course I am never one to listen to such advice so I wasn't too worried about trying to pass by the remote, isolated village on the edge of the "Slovak Paradise" national park. After this sketchy situation where I honestly felt like I could have been robbed, I am now much more wary and likely to listen to people's warnings but I'm also still determined to not let stereotypes influence how I perceive cultural groups which I know very little about.

When it seemed like the weather just wasn't going to clear in Slovakia, I found a bus north through the Tatras over to the Polish town of Zakopane. I really didn't know what to expect of Poland, and I have to admit that as an ignorant American I thought that it would be quite poor and fairly undeveloped. Zakopane was an annoyingly over-developed tourist town, and apparently a major destination of winter sports enthusiasts from all over Central and Eastern Europe. I only spent a couple of nights there and luckily was able to finally get up into some real mountains. It had been strangely warm for the past couple of weeks; I really didn't expect a Polish November to be in the 40s snd 50s. The temperature dropped very quickly as I went up to the nearly 5,500 ft. peak of Mount Giewont, where it was quite a bit below freezing and extremely windy. I didn't exactly dress for the occasion and felt pretty lucky to make it back down without freezing to death.

Krakow was the next stop as several people had told me that it's a very attractive city and definitely worth visiting. I was lucky enough to be taken on a couple of tours of different parts of the city from some nice locals. The old city center was very nice, but to be honest I've started to get used to the old European city look and feel. I ended up making it over to Nova Huta, which was not very visually attractive but for some reason I found it a bit more interesting than the picturesque center. This area is reputed to be the "ghetto" of the city, and it's basically a series of huge, identical looking "communist bloc flats" for as far as you can see in any direction. These were all built with the single purpose of housing workers for the nearby ultra-massive steel factory known as Huta im. T. Sendzimira now, and formerly known as Huta im. T. Lenin.

I started out not knowing very much about Polish history or communism in general, and while I wouldn't call myself an expert now I definitely learned quite a bit by walking around this eerie but weirdly endearing collection of massive identical looking buildings and abandoned factories with a born-and-raised local. For instance, I had no idea that the effort to end communistic control of Europe began in Poland with the Solidarność labor union movement in the 1980s. Also I didn't know that Soviet repression of the Church had been so severe; apparently police had used high-pressure water on people trying to go to Sunday service. Americans are familiar with the idea of the former Soviet Bloc countries from growing up hearing about the Cold War, but it was quite something else to be right in the middle of one of the defining communist neighborhoods.

A couple of days later I found myself in the midst of a series of unexpected and intense experiences. I woke up in Krakow worried about not having any clear direction for the next few days when I suddenly got an invitation from a native of the Silesian coalfields to go meet her retired coal miner dad and see some mines. This region was especially interesting to me because it's the heart of Polish coal mining country, and every country I've visited that used to have mining is now importing Polish coal. I wanted to see what the mines here actually look like since former miners in these other countries claim that Poland is using cheap and unsafe labor to undercut their mines. Before I would get a chance to see these places, my host had another experience in mind for me.

Silesia has another international claim to fame: Auschwitz. This was the heart of the Nazi death machine, and the entire concentration camp network was coordinated from the headquarters at the infamous Auschwitz I camp. It is now home to a memorial and museum which is owned and operated by a Jewish family, and this was our afternoon destination. Words cannot describe the feeling in the pit of my stomach as we walked through rooms of unbelievable photographs, piles of inmates' shoes, eyeglasses, and suitcases, and recreations of their living conditions in the very buildings where they were kept. My brain has trouble processing the fact that this all actually happened, that humans are mentally and physically capable of doing this to other humans in such a systematic, deliberate, organized, and ruthless fashion. It's one thing to learn about this in school and even to see film of the actual places; it's quite another to physically be there and sense the unimaginable suffering that went on for several years.

We then got a bus to her parents' place in Beirun, and I remember the strange feeling of seeing rail cars loaded with coal right underneath the "Auschwitz" sign at the main train station. After a nice dinner her dad took us around to several operating coal mines (including the one where he used to work), and I was able to ask many questions about the realities of Polish coal mining. These mines looked nicer and more professional than any mine I've ever seen in Appalachia. The buildings were sleek and sturdy with nicely paved parking lots and full showering and storage facilities for the miners. I wasn't able to actually go into any of the mines since I showed up on such short notice, but I was assured that I could go into a working mine if I could give a week or so notice.

The following day I also interviewed the former director of Piast, one of the largest single underground mines in the world, so I'll combine his information with that from my host's dad for a quick impression of what they had to say about coal mining in Poland. To my surprise, Polish coal miners get the same retirement deal as Spanish miners, meaning that every year worked equals 1 1/2 years of retirement benefits. The retired miner I spoke with was in his mid 40s and had started a roofing business with another couple of retired miners. The mines in this area were an integral part of the union organizing that eventually helped to bring about the end of communism, but it came at a serious cost with 1,500 striking miners staying underground for 2 weeks in 1981 and 9 miners being shot by police in that same year. 5,000 people work in the Piast mine, and another 4,500 work in a nearby mine that joins up with it underground. The average pay for a miner is about $1,000 per month, which doesn't sound like so much by American standards but the cost of living is much lower than in the States. In fact, all of the houses that I saw in this region looked quite decent and while the communist-era apartment buildings lacked visual appeal they are perfectly nice and livable inside. About 60,000 miners work in the small district that Beirun is in, and many many more work in the whole area of Silesia. Almost all of the mines are government owned and operated, with the one remaining private mine about to shutting down. About 25 miners die in Polish coal miners per year.

This all combined to present a very different picture of coal mining in Poland than I had come to expect. I thought that I would see a very poor place that mirrored the more run-down parts of Appalachia that I know, but even the small houses were sturdy and well-kempt. I also assumed that the mines would be rag-tag with poor working conditions, and while I didn't actually get to go underground the outside impression was quite the opposite. Both of the people I talked to had no connection to the industry anymore and as far as I could tell didn't have an agenda. Of course this should only be taken at face value since my time and investigation here was so limited. What really struck me was that even though this area employs far more miners and produces much more coal than Appalachia, I couldn't detect anything like the kind of "coal culture" we have back home. Even those who had made a good living and retired from it just thought of it as a job. There was no tradition of strong identity based on being a miner, nor was there any fierce defense of the continued extraction and use of coal. Both of the guys I interviewed had no qualms with the transition to greater use of renewable energy, and both acknowledged that mining would no longer be part of this area's reality in 30 to 50 years.

I visited a few more small towns in southwest Poland on my way toward the Czech Republic. One of these had a small organic farm that I spent a couple of days working on, and it was very good to finally get my hands dirty again. I learned about an organization that's creating a network of traditional small Polish farms that emphasizes organic practices and sustainable living, but unfortunately I didn't have the time to really dig into this since I was feeling the need to hurry up and finish my time in Europe and head to India ASAP. After passing through Bielsko-Biala and Cieszyn, I met up with some locals from the Czech Republic who gave me a ride across the border and into the Czech mining town of Orlova.

I spent the next couple of days waiting for an intense fog to clear and then set about exploring the area. The eastern Czech coalfields seemed a bit more depressed and dilapidated overall than what I saw in Poland. I learned that this area has some serious issues with subsidence (when underground mining causes the surface to shift downward, making buildings and roads crack and sometimes break apart), and entire neighborhoods have been abandoned in some cases. While this area wasn't as hilly as Eastern Kentucky, the overall look and feel of the place had a strange familiarity. This only really applies to the countryside, because the bigger towns like Orlova are mostly filled with huge apartment buildings form the communist era.

I was lucky enough to meet and talk with one current and one former coal miner from this area (indirectly through an English-speaking daughter), and the feedback I got from them was a bit different than from the folks in Poland. Their opinion was that no one works in the mines unless they absolutely have to, and everyone leaves as soon as they can. The pay is quite low and the safety conditions poor, with many younger people already showing signs of black lung. The former miner has early-stage black lung and now works a low-level desk job making more than he did in the mines. Much of the work is still manual with pneumatic hammers and handloading of coal, though many mines are transitioning to longwall miner sections. Neither of these guys was very supportive of the coal industry; for them it was just one of the only options in a depressed area. Miners were once held up as the epitome of working class heroes by the communist Bolshevik regime, but after the fall of communism mining came to be considered one of the lowliest jobs in the land. To be clear, I didn't go looking for people who might be anti-coal; these were just two completely random guys I happened to meet.

The eastern Czech coalfield area kind of sucked me in and I spent about a week hanging around here with the friends I'd made and also hiking in the nearby hills which definitely looked like Appalachia. I also visited a town which used to have a huge mine operating there that was imposed by the communist government, but which was now defunct due to local opposition. The modern government is now trying to reopen the mine and possibly expand to surface mining in the hills just behind the town, but there's a very strong local movement to prevent this from happening which includes the mayor of the town. The website for the group organizing these efforts can be found here.

If you're in the Czech Republic, it's almost imperative that you see Prague. I was able to justify my visit to this beautiful and historic city because there was also a Czech biomass energy conference happening, so I spent my first day there sitting through a series of presentations that I mostly couldn't understand inside a university building. I did make some contacts that could be useful, but for the most part it was material that I was well familiar with. From there I spent another day just wandering around the entire city. I'm definitely not a city person (especially when they're filled with tourist types), but Prague had a certain unique charm that took a few hours to set in. It was good to take in all of the history and gorgeous architecture, but a day and a half was good enough for me.

I next passed through the town of Trebic to visit a biomass energy installation that I had learned about at the conference a few days earlier. TTS Bioenergy supplies nearly all of the heat and a portion of the electricity for this town of about 10,000 people through direct combustion of locally-sourced wood and straw. They also design and manufacture boilers and plants for clients around the world. The size and feedstock for this planet is similar to what I would like to do in the future, but I'm not such a fan of direct combustion since it's more difficult to efficiently make use of all of the potential energy and since there's no carbon-storing charcoal left over from the process. Still I was very grateful for the time they took to show me around the plant, complete with my own personal translator.

The next few days were spent in Brno, the second biggest city in Czech. There was nothing too interesting here, as I was mainly using it as a base to explore a nearby village self-sufficiency project on my way back to Austria to fly to India. The village of Hostetin has several worthwhile projects happening to make it a model of sustainable rural development. Organic farming around the town, a fruit juice processing plant, fruit drying ovens, wastewater treatment through natural wetlands, lots of solar power, and a biomass heating system were the main points of interest. It appeared that someone had been quite successful in securing grant funding judging by the nicely-packaged promotional materials and the small staff of non-profit workers housed in the town. I would certainly like to be part of helping something similar to happen in East KY, but I always wonder about the long-term viability of projects that depend on constant grant funding to stay afloat.

By this point my Indian visa was finally ready, so I made my way back down to Vienna to pick it up and get on a plane headed toward the great subcontinent. I honestly had no idea what to expect; many people had tried to instill in me great caution and even fear about going to this "developing" nation of 1.1 billion people, so I was carrying some of that with me through the myriad of annoying delays and lines at the airports in Vienna and then Frankfurt, Germany. As soon as I can find the time to write the next blog post, I'll relay the craziness involved in landing and finding my way around in New Delhi and where I've been since then.