In Europe, Dirty Coal Makes a Comeback

A lignite revival threatens villages, and progress on global warming
A lignite mine viewed from Jezeří Castle in the Czech Republic Photograph by Bartek Sadowski/Bloomberg

From the baroque castle where Beethoven premièred his Eroica symphony two centuries ago, Vladimír Buřt gazes down on giant excavators that eat into the ground around the clock, loading brown coal onto conveyor belts that fill waiting railroad cars. “There used to be a lake where we’d go swimming every day,” says Buřt, the deputy mayor of Horní Jiřetín, a 750-year-old village in the Czech Republic that could be destroyed if the coal mine is allowed to expand. “The Communists started this devastation, and this government wants to finish it.”

Horní Jiřetín and other small villages along Europe’s mining belt may soon succumb to the continent’s quest for cheaper electricity. Alarmed that energy prices in Europe are about double what they are in the U.S., governments in the Czech Republic, Poland, and Germany are green-lighting the expansion of mines that produce lignite, a moist, brown coal used to fuel power plants. While lignite is plentiful and cheap, it packs less energy and releases more greenhouse gases than hard coal. The dirty coal’s resurgence runs counter to European Union efforts to limit emissions and promote cleaner energy.

“It’s absurd,” says Petra Roesch, mayor of Proschim, a 700-year-old German village that could be entirely leveled if authorities in the state of Brandenburg allow the expansion of a lignite mine owned by the Vattenfall power utility. “Germany wants to transition toward renewable energy, and we’re being deprived of our land.”

Worldwide demand for lignite is poised to rise as much as 5.4 percent by 2020, according to the International Energy Agency. Use of the fuel fell 40 percent from 1990 to 2010 as governments across the former Soviet bloc closed aging industrial plants. Poland, which gets almost 90 percent of its electricity from brown coal, is stepping up its use partly to bolster employment in some of the nation’s poorest areas, where lignite is mined. Electricity produced from lignite rose 3.7 percent last year, while output from hard coal plants fell 7 percent, according to PGE, a state-owned Polish utility. CEZ, a Czech power company that also owns mines, said in November it expected to increase output of lignite by 6 percent in 2013, to 24.1 million tons.

In the Lausitz region of northeast Germany, lignite mining has swallowed up 136 villages since 1924, according to the Archiv Verschwundener Orte, a museum that chronicles the impact of mining on the area. Brown coal is the single most important source of electricity for the nation, accounting for 26 percent of power production last year, according to AG Energiebilanzen, an industry research group. Mining lignite sustains about 22,000 jobs in Lausitz, according to Vattenfall.

Expanding the mine at Proschim would unlock 204 million additional tons of lignite for Vattenfall, which digs up about 60 million tons a year. Much of it is hauled by train to the Schwarze Pumpe power plant in Spremberg, which produces power for 2.4 million homes. Expanding the mine would keep the plant working until 2042. “Lignite is the only traditional energy source that is in the long run domestically available in sufficient amounts and at affordable prices,” says Kathi Gerstner, a spokeswoman for Vattenfall. “All the alternatives foreseeable today are more expensive.”

State authorities say a decision on extending the mine is due in the first half of this year. “We know that it’s a very polarizing and emotional topic,” Klaus-Otto Weymanns, a division head at the Brandenburg Ministry for Infrastructure and Agriculture, told reporters in December.

The International Energy Agency estimates that worldwide consumption of lignite would have to fall 10 percent by 2020 to limit the temperature increase from global warming by the end of this century to 2C, a goal that European nations and other countries have endorsed. Barry O’Flynn, a director in the environmental finance and clean technology team at Ernst & Young, says governments’ increasing reliance on the cheap and dirty fuel may force them to pump even more money into wind and solar. Says O’Flynn: “Lignite is not a threat to renewables. It could benefit them, since the emissions from lignite-fired plants will need to be offset” under EU pollution restrictions.