Can Brandenburg Show West Virginia How to Dump Coal?

Why you should care

How Brandenburg bridges the divide between its coal country, and clean energy villages could hold lessons for places ranging from Kentucky to Poland.

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On the surface, Feldheim, a village of 135 inhabitants located 40 miles south of Berlin, Germany, is unremarkable. There is only one straight tree-lined street less than a mile long; to its left and right are a few houses and a farming cooperative surrounded by fields that stretch to the horizon. It’s a quaint village typical of the rural parts of the eastern German state of Brandenburg.

But Feldheim is special: A decade ago, it became the country’s first energy self-sufficient community, with its own electric grid and heating system powered entirely by renewable energy. Today, Feldheim serves as a window into a carbon-free future.

A mere 100 miles to the east, that future is a source of fear. From outside the town of Spremberg, the open-pit mine Welzow-Süd is visible. Huge mining excavators dig deep into the soil, and smoke rises from the cooling towers of a nearby power plant. To many people in Spremberg — located in the heart of Lusatia, one of Germany’s three remaining coal regions — a carbon-free future sounds more like a threat than a promise.

Welzow open pit lignite mine and the endangered village of Proschim

The small village of Proschim in southern Brandenburg has long faced the possibility that the Welzow-Süd coal mine would be expanded.

Source Patrick Pleul/Getty

Together, Feldheim and Spremberg are emblematic of a growing divide in Germany’s climate politics: Often praised for its energy-transition policies, Germany also remains Europe’s largest producer and burner of coal. Now, with a commission set up by the government deciding earlier this year to stop all coal production and combustion by 2038, Brandenburg, the state that surrounds Berlin, has emerged at the front line of this paradox.

Many people here are deeply skeptical that this transition will work.

Christine Herntier, mayor of spremberg

In recent years, it’s been seen as a poster boy for clean energy; today, it is the state with the highest installed power capacity of renewable sources per capita. At the same time, Brandenburg’s economy still depends heavily on the coal industry, which provides 6,000 people with well-paid jobs that 20 years from now will no longer exist. Whether and how Brandenburg can bridge the divide between Feldheim and Spremberg could hold lessons for other coal-dependent parts of the world struggling with similar transitions, from Appalachia to Poland.

“People try to approach this like they would any other political problem,” says Alexander Reitzenstein, policy advisor at E3G, a Berlin-based think tank for the energy sector. “We in Germany have now found a compromise that’s somewhere in the middle, but that doesn’t adequately address the climate crisis.”

Reitzenstein’s sentiments capture how the German government’s 2038 plan has found critics on both sides of the climate divide: those who think it’s too far-reaching and those who believe it’s not nearly ambitious enough.

The divide is creeping into politics too: The populist far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has a strong base in eastern Germany, won 23.5 percent in the Brandenburg state elections in September after campaigning heavily against shutting down coal mines. It was the party’s best-ever performance in the state. The party exploits the fears of many here that the loss of coal will be the final nail in the coffin for a region that, after German reunification nearly 30 years ago, lost most of its industry. Today, only Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Saxony-Anhalt have a lower gross domestic product per capita than Brandenburg, among Germany’s 16 states.

Wind turbines operate near a barley fiel

Wind turbines sit beside barley in the town of Feldheim, Brandenburg.

Source JOHN MACDOUGALL/Getty

To address these fears, the coal exit plan of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centrist government includes a 17 billion euro ($18.7 billion) investment package for sustainable economic development and structural adjustments in the affected regions to support the transition away from coal. According to this plan, the German government will, over the next 20 years, fund infrastructure projects and new research clusters, with a focus on renewable energy such as hydrogen. Regional politicians market these measures as a chance for the region, but the perspective of giving up coal for many people is still as scary as it is for the mining communities in West Virginia or Kentucky.

“It’s good that we finally have an opportunity we never believed we would still get,” Christine Herntier, the mayor of Spremberg and a member of the coal commission, says. Still, she adds, “Many people here are deeply skeptical that this transition will work.”

Herntier can’t hide her frustration about missed opportunities in the past, echoing a feeling of neglect expressed by many people here. “All of these measures could have been introduced earlier,” she says. “It’s not our citizens’ fault that others kept pushing these things off into the future — and now suddenly they’re supposed to feel the pain all at once?”

The AfD uses this sentiment to rail against the coal exit plans — a strategy that helped the party consistently come in first in cities and towns across Brandenburg’s coal region. In Spremberg, for example, 37 percent cast their ballots for the party. “In eastern Germany, there are deep doubts about the reunification, because people feel they’ve been treated unfairly by the West,” Reitzenstein says. “So now [the AfD] has this narrative: In Berlin something is decided about climate policy, and we have to suffer the consequences.”

Feldheim’s experience could help calm the fears of places like Spremberg — and serve as inspiration for thinking of the energy transition as an opportunity rather than a disaster. The citizens of Feldheim don’t necessarily think of themselves as die-hard environmentalists: Embracing green power has made economic sense.

“It wasn’t the plan to become a green role model,” says Stefan Them, the official responsible for climate and energy issues in the town of Treuenbrietzen, the larger municipality in which Feldheim sits. “The incentive was to pay less for power.” Today, the price for energy in Feldheim is nearly half the German average.

What’s more, renewable energy has also created a lot of jobs in the area, as it has in other parts of Brandenburg. More than 18,000 people work in the sector statewide, far more than in the coal industry. If the German government’s strategy unfolds as planned, Lusatian coal country could be home to even more jobs.

“If you talk to local politicians in the poorer regions of Lusatia, they’re fairly optimistic,” Reitzenstein says, noting that clean energy jobs could be a way for the region to retain its identity as one of Germany’s main energy providers. “They say, ‘We had this experience that after 1990, things only went downhill.’ … For us, this could be a chance to thrive.”

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