Climate Leader Germany Faces Challenging Exit from Coal

ProPublica's Alec MacGillis discusses his recent New Yorker magazine article on Germany’s protracted struggle to wean itself off of coal.

Germany has earned a reputation as a leader in the effort to lower greenhouse gas emissions, and today counts some of the highest rates of renewable energy in the world.

Yet one of the continuing ironies of Germany’s energy transition is that the country remains very much dependent on coal-fired generation, which last year provided over a quarter of its electricity. In fact, as Germany pursues steep reductions in emissions, it also plans to continue mining and burning coal nearly to the end of the 2030s.

ProPublica reporter Alec MacGillis discusses his recent New Yorker magazine article on Germany’s challenging exit from coal, and the fuel’s sustaining, and uniquely destructive relationship with German communities.

MacGillis’ article, “Can Germany Show Us How to Leave Coal Behind?”, was published in the January 31, 2022 issue of The New Yorker, and on ProPublica.org.

Andy Stone: Welcome to the Energy Policy Now podcast from the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. I’m Andy Stone.

Germany has earned a reputation as one of the more progressive countries in the effort to lower greenhouse gas emissions and address the challenge of climate change. Germany was an early leader in both solar and wind power and today accounts for some of the highest rates of renewable energy in the world. Yet one of the continuing ironies of Germany’s energy transition is that the country remains very much dependent on coal-fired generation, which last year provided the country with over a quarter of its electricity. In fact, as Germany pursues steep reductions in emissions, it also plans to continue mining and burning coal nearly to the end of the 2030s. Germany’s complex relationship with coal is rooted in the demands of its industrialized economy and in the legacy of German reunification.

On today’s podcast, we’ll take a look at the challenges surrounding Germany’s exit from coal with the journalist Alec MacGillis, who has long covered the energy transition. His recent article, published in The New Yorker magazine is titled “Can Germany Show Us How to Leave Coal Behind?” In it, he examines coal’s sustaining and uniquely destructive relationship with some German communities and the broader economic concerns that accompany Germany’s energy transition. Alec, welcome to the podcast.

Alec MacGillis: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Stone: So you’ve covered the coal transition in the U.S. extensively. What attracted you to write about Germany’s energy transition and its brown coal regions?

MacGillis: Well, I had the opportunity to apply for a fellowship over in Germany at the American Academy in Berlin, which is sort of an institute on the Western edge of Berlin that hosts journalists and academics for a semester per year. And I was thinking about what I could spend my time there working on, reporting on, what issue that I’ve been covering over here in the U.S. is also present in Germany? And the thought immediately came to me: Coal.

I knew vaguely that Germany was trying to get out of coal and had a whole plan to do so, and I knew that we back here in the U.S. were also, of course, talking about getting out of coal, but in a much less coordinated, deliberate kind of way. And so I thought, “Let me look into what Germany is up to and see if there are lessons there for us here in the U.S. and basically spend as much time as I can in Germany, going to Germany’s coal country” — Germany’s versions of West Virginia and Wyoming. And I got to do that last fall, thanks to the forbearance of my employer, ProPublica, which let me go over there for a few months and work on this.

Stone: Now it’s interesting, so you’ve written in the article about Germany’s brown coal industry, and these are the open mines. And there’s kind of a close-to-home aspect of this for me. My sister has lived in Germany for several decades now. She lives in Western Germany, near Cologne. And these large mines are near where she lives. When I visited there, it always sounds like there’s a train going in the background, but it’s actually these massive and somewhat terrifying excavator machines that are working 24 hours a day to mine the coal. But I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about what these mines that you wrote about looked like physically. How large are they? How deep are they?

MacGillis: They’re extraordinary. I had no idea before I went over there what they were like. I knew that brown coal was different than bituminous coal and that Germany now mined only brown coal, but I didn’t realize what it involved. I didn’t realize that it meant these massive, open-cast strip mine operations like what you find out West in the U.S. in Wyoming or Montana in the Powder River Basin, where you have those huge open-cast operations out there.

But in Germany, of course, it’s different because you actually have all these villages and towns in the regions where the coal is being mined. So in order to keep mining it, to keep getting at this brown coal, it means destroying one village after another. All together, over the decades, there have been a couple hundred communities completely wiped off the map in both the Western and Eastern German coal regions. And these can be towns of up to several thousand — 4 or 5,000 inhabitants — that end up getting bought out, relocated, and then just completely bulldozed over to expand these enormous pits. The pits stretch for several miles, as far as the eye can see. They are typically about 100 meters down. You have to go about 100 meters down to get to the seam of the brown coal. So you’re just basically using those enormous excavators, some of the biggest machines in the world, to remove all the sand and clay that’s sitting on top of the brown coal, with those big bridge excavators that carry it from one side to the other. And then you get down to the brown coal and bring it out on conveyor belts, and then trucks.

It’s really an astonishing thing to behold. I got to go inside one in the Eastern region, and the whole thing was just mind-blowing. I still have trouble wrapping my head around it, actually.

Stone: To me, it’s almost like a Grand Canyon experience. I mean, that’s probably overstating it, but these open pits are massive. They really are. So Germany stopped mining bituminous coal, that’s hard coal, in 2018, but it still is mining this brown coal. What exactly is brown coal, and why is that coal in particular what is continued to be mined in Germany?

MacGillis: Yes, Germany did have a huge bituminous coal region, which was mostly in the Ruhr region, which is the famous industrial region of Germany around Essen, Dortmund, Bochum, Duisburg, and a whole bunch of other cities. That was really the sort of beating heart of German industry in the early 20th century, through the middle of the 20th century. And those bituminous underground mines finally declined over the course of the latter decades of the 20th century and were just not able to keep up cost-wise, efficiency-wise, against imported coal from Russia, Colombia, and the U.S., mostly. It finally did go out of business for good in 2018, but the brown coal has kept going by virtue essentially of its being so much closer to the surface. It is, in that sense, easier to mine and has remained more cost-efficient than the hard coal.

Basically brown coal is simply coal that has been compressed less over the eons, from the Carboniferous Era. And so it sits closer to the surface. Again, it’s at most, typically, about 100 meters down, so you don’t have to get at it with very deep shafts and tunnels, the way you do typically with hard coal. You can do it by digging these vast pits. And one of the other problems with brown coal, though, other than the fact that you have to destroy all these villages to get at it, is that it’s even dirtier to burn, both just in terms of straight pollution and in terms of carbon emissions than hard coal.

When I went down into that pit on that tour in the Eastern coal region, it was just lying there on the ground, this stuff. And we were encouraged to pick some up and take some home with us. And it’s just incredibly — it’s very soft. Various chunks of it look and feel more like mud or wood. It’s kind of shaggy, softer. It’s closer to peat, on that sort of arc of the transformation of carbon over the eons. It’s closer to the peat point on the arc, and it’s really kind of astonishing when you’re holding the stuff to think that this incredibly rudimentary, muddy, soft brown stuff is still powering a significant share of the economy of one of the most modern, industrialized, wealthy countries in the world.

Stone: I want to get to the climate characteristics that you just mentioned of brown coal in a moment, but the fact that it’s still being burned, and burned so widely in Germany, kind of implies it’s a very important resource, obviously, in the German economy. Can you tell us a little bit more about brown coal’s role in the economy? What’s keeping it going?

MacGillis: Well, what’s keeping it going is that Germany just doesn’t have — it needs it still for its electricity. You have this wealthy, industrialized country with enormous energy needs, not least because Germany still has a really healthy manufacturing economy, including, of course, a very, very large automotive manufacturing economy. And so you have this country that doesn’t have many other sources. It doesn’t have its own supply of natural gas the way that the U.S. does, so to the extent that it’s using natural gas, it relies on imports from the Netherlands, Norway, and most problematically, from Russia. And it has now decided to get out of nuclear, so that part of its sort of energy pie is on the way out.

It has been building up its wind and solar capacity to a very impressive degree, but it’s still nowhere near enough of that to supply all of its needs. So right now, as you mentioned at the outset, coal is still more than a quarter of Germany’s energy pie. That quarter, I should note, includes — they are still importing some hard coal from Russia, the U.S., Colombia, and elsewhere to power coal-fired plants. So their coal power is coming both from the domestic brown coal and from imported hard coal.

Every day I’ll check that wonderful app called electricityMap, where you can see where different countries’ electricity is coming from at any given moment in time. You go on there, and you see that Germany, just day in and day out now this winter has been — almost every day — the line for coal on that app is way ahead of the second-place line, which is typically wind. And you just see how reliant this very sort of allegedly green, progressive country still is on that dirtiest of sources.

Stone: We’re looking at the irony here, right? So Germany has very aggressive targets for carbon reduction. The target for 2030 is 65% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions versus 1990. That’s a more ambitious target than the E.U. itself has. So it’s interesting that coal is such a big resource right now. Can Germany achieve its climate targets and still hold onto its coal industry?

MacGillis: No, absolutely not, which is why there’s now such pressure to get out of coal. This was really the impetus for this whole process that began a few years ago, where you had the recognition that the country needed to get off of coal in order to meet its very ambitious climate targets. And so you had what has not happened in the U.S. You had this very deliberate, kind of coordinated consensus approach to trying to get off of coal. The Bundestag in 2019 convened a nationwide commission to decide on how to get off of coal with all these various stakeholders — industry, local communities, unions, environmentalists. They came up with this plan to exit by 2038 in a staged withdrawal, shutting down so many plants and mines per year until you’re finally out by 2038. And then going along with that exit, a huge investment in the transition.

So several billion for the two main energy companies themselves as compensation for getting out of the business. Five billion euros for the workers, to help older workers retire early. There’s also going to be separate money for the younger workers, to help tide them over until they get new jobs. And then the biggest chunk of it, 40 billion euros, for the communities, the coal country communities, to help them with the transition.

So just this massive investment and all this planning and forethought towards this exit that they know that they need to make, if they’re going to have any hope whatsoever of meeting those ambitious targets.

Stone: One of the things that you point out in the article is that Germany is moving much more slowly in getting out of the coal mining business in the Eastern part of the country, the old GDR, than it is in the West. Why is that?

MacGillis: They’re actually — just to be clear — they’re moving roughly at the same pace in those two regions. What’s different between the regions is that the exit in the Eastern region is much more fraught, and there’s much more resistance there.

Stone: As you point out, in the Eastern region, in the former GDR, coal mining was quite a high-status job at one point. It’s much more integrated into the lives of the communities. Is that right?

MacGillis: That’s right, and that’s exactly why it’s more fraught. I spent most of my time reporting in the Eastern region because there are many more dynamics at work there, including political dynamics. Basically, in the Western region, it’s going to hurt a lot when they close those mines and plants down, for sure, but there’s much more around there — many more alternatives for people to look for work. You’re not that far from Cologne and Dusseldorf and the Ruhr region, and it’s a better-off region in general.

Whereas in the Eastern region, the English word for it is Lusatia. The German word is Lausitz. It’s right along the Polish border, and it’s this region that was really a quite impoverished farming area before they discovered the brown coal and got all these big mines going in the 20th century. And that entire region just became completely wrapped up with brown coal. The economy just became incredibly reliant on it, and then this was especially the case in the East German decades, in the decades of the GDR, because East Germany had virtually no other energy natural resources other than brown coal. It depended on the brown coal for just about everything when it came to energy. They were even using it — they were liquefying it. They were using it for home heating, all the way pretty much up until the Wall collapsed. And it became deeply embedded in really the cultural identity of East Germany.

People who worked in the industry were exalted. It was really one of the iconic jobs in what they called the “Farmers’ and Workers’ State of the Socialist Republic.” You got a better pension when you worked in brown coal. You were really seen as a kind of national hero in the industry. It permeated life. You had the soccer team in Cottbus, which is the biggest city in the region. It was and still is called Energie, “energy.” One of the greatest music celebrities in East Germany was a guy called Gerhard Gundermann, and he was an excavator operator. That was his job. He operated one of these massive machines, and he wrote songs about it and continued working in that job, even as he got some renown in the music business.

So it was a real, sort of central feature of East German life, and especially in this region. And so now to have the prospect of this all being shut down, it’s not only going to have a real economic impact in the region, but it really kind of strikes at the core of the region’s sense of purpose in history and culture. It’s also very important to note that the talk of shutting it down is especially sensitive in the region because after the Wall came down, after reunification in the early ’90s, the industry already went through a huge reduction. There were about 80,000 people in Lusatia alone. This was a region, at the time, of maybe at most one-and-a-half million people. They had 80,000 people working in the brown coal industry. After reunification, that plunged to about 8,000. It’s now down to under 8,000.

And so you already had this real, massive blood-letting in the region in both that industry and others. So many people left the region, especially younger people, and so there’s a sense that, “We already went through this terrible reduction, and now you’re going to make us do it one more time, and leave us with nothing.”

Stone: It sounds like these towns are being hollowed out. It sounds very similar to the experience that we’ve had here in the United States and is ongoing with coal communities. Are there parallels or significant differences you’ve seen in the German experience?

MacGillis: Absolutely. I kept thinking about places I had been to in West Virginia and in Southern Ohio and Southwestern Pennsylvania in American coal country. And so absolutely that feeling of being abandoned, that feeling of people elsewhere in the big cities never having fully appreciated how much their daily life was dependent on the hard and dangerous work being done in coal country to provide the electricity that keeps all of our cell phones and laptops and all the rest going in the big cities.

But then there also are differences, the very crucial differences that I kept coming across. One is the fact that the coal industry in Germany remains completely unionized, and so you have in a way more sense among the workers that even as they’re up against these challenges, that their voices are being heard, that they have a voice in the process. You also have, even as you’ve seen a rightward shift in the politics in Lusatia — Lusatia has now become one of these strongest regions for the far-right party in Germany, the AFD, and the coal exit is part of that. You have the unions acting as somewhat of a moderating force on the miners themselves. The union is, at the national level, allied with the Social Democrats, the center-left party. And so you don’t see the worker themselves, necessarily, all rushing to join the AFD now.

Another crucial difference is that you have had investment in this region, in East Germany generally, even prior to the coal exit. Ever since reunification, of course, Western Germany, the German federal government has poured billions into Eastern Germany. And so things just look better, from just that sort of a facade level than they do in the abandoned coal towns of, say, Southern West Virginia, where you go down there, and it just breaks your heart because things are really in such rough shape. You don’t get that sense when you’re in these semi-abandoned towns in Eastern Germany.

And finally, you of course don’t have one of the terrible aspects of what coal country in the U.S. is dealing with, namely the opioid epidemic. That is simply not present to any degree in the coal regions of Germany. And so just that complete devastation that that has wreaked upon the American coal country is also something that German coal country is not dealing with.

Stone: I would imagine it’s kind of a situation where we’re looking at Germany as potentially a best-case scenario for the exit from coal, given the fact that so much financial support is being given to the communities. I think you already mentioned, and it’s definitely in the article — you said 5.5 billion euros are targeted towards coal workers for early retirement.

MacGillis: Well, in theory it should be helping — all these billions for transition in the regions. The problem is that a lot of the money so far is being spent on some pretty questionable stuff. The process for spending the money is very opaque and not very transparent. And there have been all these reports coming out in the media about these pretty frivolous-sounding projects like a techno festival, a big new, fancy sort of campus for the nation’s — sort of their version of the CDC, their public health bureaucracy that’s going to be out in an exurb of Berlin, very far removed from the coal region. It really seems like some bureaucrats and politicians are using this massive pot of money to pay for pet projects that have been on the shelf for a while that are really not at the core of the coal region. And people are seeing that, and they’re getting upset about it. So the money is not necessarily helping as much as it should be to soothe feelings locally.

Stone: Germany is extremely industrialized. I think it’s the most industrialized country in Europe, in terms of how dependent the overall economy is on heavy industry. And one of the major questions here in Germany’s switch away from coal is: What will the impact be on electricity prices, and then by extension, what will the impact be on Germany’s industrial competitiveness? And it’s important to point out here that Germany already has — as again, you point out in the article — very, very high energy prices overall. It has maintained a strong manufacturing sector, despite that. But I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about the eyes that are watching what this transition does? And what the switch away from cheap and abundant coal does to energy prices, and by extension, to the economy?

MacGillis: Oh, yeah, this is a huge concern there, and it’s even a concern locally when you talk to people in the coal regions and you ask them about this transition. Often the first thing they’ll talk about is not necessarily their worry for their own job or what the loss of these specific brown coal mining jobs will mean for the area. Often their first concern is actually about the electricity prices and what it will mean for them as energy consumers, and more importantly, what it will mean for the German economy in general.

There’s a little tavern in Hoyerswerda, which is a town right in the heart of the Eastern coal region, and I was talking to a guy who works at one of the other big employers there, which is a BASF plant, the big chemical company. And he makes paint for German automakers. He’s very worried about what the shift will mean for German car-makers who both are going to have to compete now against electric cars like Tesla, but are also going to have higher energy prices in their plants as a result of the transition. And he’s just very worried that the customers, the clients that he is working for, that he’s making this paint for, are not going to survive this transition and that he, in turn, will then be out of work.

There was talk while I was in Germany about some big aluminum-makers in the Ruhr shutting down or moving elsewhere because aluminum is very energy-intensive, and they were not going to be able to afford the very high electricity costs anymore. There’s a sense among many Germans, and especially Germans in these regions that there is an element of magical thinking behind the transition. They just wonder where in the world are we supposed to get our energy from when we now are exiting both nuclear and coal in close succession? There’s just not enough wind and solar yet to make up the difference. And there’s real worry that this country that does, to its credit, remain a very vigorous manufacturing power — it’s astonishing the degree to which Germany, unlike many other Western countries, has managed to retain a very strong manufacturing sector, whether it’s going to be able to continue doing so in the face of one of the highest electricity costs in the world.

Stone: There’s a very poignant little passage I wanted to read here from the very end of your article. You had this interesting conversation with someone who had worked in the coal industry. He wasn’t a miner, but he had a different role. He put this perspective as follows: “You can’t have deindustrialization in Germany,” he said. “Industry means prosperity. A loss of prosperity would be absurd.”

And here’s a critical point that he adds: “If other countries look to see how Germany has fared, and they see deindustrialization and a loss of prosperity, and the people growing discontent and populism gaining a new foothold, who would want to follow our example?” That’s a pretty apocalyptic outcome, but it’s interesting that you stated you would like to have had more time to have that conversation.

MacGillis: Yes, it was such a striking way for him to put it. He’s a young man. He’s only 29 years old. He basically runs the telecom operations at the mines and the power plants in the Eastern region. He loves his job. He’s actually quite progressive-minded. He’s a Social Democrat. He’s not with the AFD. He believes in climate change, but he’s very worried about this transition and whether it’s going to be done right.

And to hear him talk about that prospect, that this becomes a very bad example for the rest of the world if it doesn’t go well — it was so resonant to me because so many other people, so many of the advocates of this transition were speaking of it also in the terms of it being a global model for everyone else. That was why this mattered so much, even though Germany now makes up only about 2% of all global greenhouse gas emissions, this was so important as an event — the German coal exit — because it could show so many other parts of the world that it actually could be done, that you can get off of these dirty fossil fuels, and without doing too much damage to a wealthy, industrialized economy.

And he was basically offering the flip of that, that if it went badly, then it could send a very bad signal to the rest of the world.

Stone: And it doesn’t sound from what he was saying that he was actually trying to play politics with this. He wasn’t trying to scare anyone. He was just saying, “Look, this is a real concern that I have.” Is that right?

MacGillis: That’s right. There are these huge stakes here, which is why I decided to take it on. It really does resonate beyond this one country of 83 million people.

Stone: Now when you go to these communities where so many jobs have been lost, what is the sense there now? You presented, obviously, the positives here in terms of government support, but are people staying in these communities? Are they facing the same situation or the question here that many people in the American coal communities face, of having to leave? Is there optimism, pessimism? What’s your sense?

MacGillis: It’s very similar in that regard to the American coal country. You have on the one hand, incredible population decline. So you have cities — Cottbus, the biggest city that I already mentioned — they were up around 135,000 people. It was really a quite grand, handsome city that has now dropped under 100,000 people. Hoyerswerda, where I talked to the paint-maker in the bar, my gosh — they’ve fallen by half. They were up around 70,000 in the days of East Germany, and they’re now down under 35,000. You have all those kinds of classic East Block high-rises that were built for the coal workers in East Germany now standing vacant, being demolished. And the people who remain in these communities tend to be older. So many of the younger people have left for either Western Germany or the bigger Eastern cities of Berlin and Leipzig.

At the same time, a lot of people haven’t left, and then you also have a lot of people who know in theory that they should leave to seek more opportunity elsewhere but are reluctant to do so because there is this — Just as you find in the American coal communities, you have this real attachment to the towns and to the land. Lusatia is really quite a lovely region, and you have people for whom this is home. And their family is there, and their families have been there for generations, and you don’t necessarily want them to move five or six hours to Frankfurt or Stuttgart, or wherever it might be.

And it’s so similar to what you find in the U.S., where we’ve actually seen in the U.S. a striking reduction in the rate of people leaving over the last few decades. There’s been a reduction in the rate of people leaving for opportunities elsewhere, people going across state lines for work. That kind of migration used to be much more common in the U.S., and now you find people often staying put, even if, in theory, there might be more opportunity elsewhere. There’s real ambivalence about making that move.

Stone: Let me ask you a final question. Are there any takeaways from the German experience that might have some relevance in the American experience of our energy transition?

MacGillis: Oh, absolutely. I think despite all my concerns about how things are going at the ground level in Germany, the fact that they’re not spending some of the money as well or as transparently as they could be, and the fact that they really are facing some real pressure at that sort of macro level with that energy pie. The fact that getting out of nuclear, as they decided to do, is definitely complicating the exit from coal — having to do those things basically at the same time. I still believe that what they are doing is admirable. The fact that they set out to undertake the coal exit with this real deliberate, nationwide approach, where you bring everyone together at the table over months and months and months and hash it out and come up with the plans, come up with dates, come up with the money to make the transition easier for everyone involved — that’s just something that isn’t happening at all in this country. We’re at this point now where our coal exit plan, to such an extent that we have one, basically consisted of the billions of dollars worth of incentives that were in that Build Back Better plan that President Biden and the Democrats put together, and that plan is now floundering in the Senate, partly because of the opposition of Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

And that’s just stopped it all up, and there’s nothing beyond that, really. There’s just this gulf between our approach and theirs. So even as there are reasons to be sort of warning signs in the particulars of the German approach, at the sort of big-picture level, they’re undertaking, I think, still remains a model for us.

Stone: Alec, thank you very much for talking.

MacGillis: Thank you.

Stone: Today’s guest has been Alec MacGillis, whose recent article, “Can Germany Show Us How to Leave Coal Behind?” was published in the January 31st edition of The New Yorker and by ProPublica.    

Alec MacGillis

Reporter, ProPublica
Alec MacGillis covers politics and government for ProPublica. MacGillis previously reported for The New Republic, The Washington Post, and the Baltimore Sun.

Andy Stone

Energy Policy Now Host and Producer
Andy Stone is producer and host of Energy Policy Now, the Kleinman Center’s podcast series. He previously worked in business planning with PJM Interconnection and was a senior energy reporter at Forbes Magazine.