Dirtiest Fuel Threatens 700-Year-Old Villages in EuropeMarek Strzelecki and Maciej Martewicz
Europe’s energy dilemma -- burning the dirtiest coal while meeting pollution targets -- is crystallizing in opposition to a plan that would uproot 700-year-old villages and dig two pits the size of Manhattan.
PGE SA and Vattenfall AB, the Warsaw- and Stockholm-based utilities, want to tap Europe’s richest lignite deposit, along the German-Polish border. They’re opposed by communities already suffering sporadic sand storms and crumbling roads, in an area where the 12 kilometer (7.5 miles) long Jaenschwalde mine has dominated the landscape for three decades. Locals will form an 8-kilometer cross-border human chain on Aug. 23 in protest.
The battle reflects the divide across Europe. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk sees coal, used to generate 90 percent of his nation’s power, as a way for Europe to depend less on Russian natural gas. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government calls lignite “the black gold” that will help smooth out fluctuations from wind and solar generation. The European Union, to which both belong, wants tighter pollution rules that make coal pricier to burn.
“We feel like Asterix and Obelix fighting the Roman Empire,” said Andreas Stahlberg, an engineer analyzing the impact of the expansion for the German municipality of Schenkendoebern, referring to the French comic strip characters resisting powerful invaders. “Since Poles are dealing with the same problem and the mines will be so close, we think this is an international issue,” he said in an interview in Gubin, Poland.
PGE bought the project in the Polish towns of Gubin and Brody from the state for an undisclosed amount in 2010, a year after it was blocked in a referendum. Poland’s largest utility has since tried to persuade the almost 11,000 locals in the area to change their minds and approve zoning plans that would include the mine.
Zbigniew Barski, mayor of the 7,300-strong Gubin rural community that surrounds the town of the same name, and Ryszard Kowalczuk, his counterpart in neighboring Brody, still oppose the project.
Including the mine in zoning plans means coal resources will be prioritized over other developments, Kowalczuk said May 28 in an interview at his office. “We are closing the community for new investments for many years,” he said.
Lignite is a soft, brown, sedimentary rock formed from compressed peat. Germany is embracing the fuel to back up intermittent solar and wind power and compensate for lost output as it shutters nuclear plants, Thoralf Schirmer, a Vattenfall spokesman in Cottbus, Germany, wrote in an e-mail June 6.
Lignite’s share of the nation’s power generation rose to 26 percent last year from 23 percent in 2010, according to data from AG Energiebilanzen e.V., an association of energy lobbies and economic research institutes.
Coal for delivery next year to Northwest Europe is up 2.6 percent from this year’s low at $79.25 a ton. The contract is down 8.5 percent in 2014.
Fossil fuels, including lignite, “are part of the national energy mix and are indispensable for the foreseeable future,” Merkel’s party said in a treaty with the Social Democrats, its coalition partner.
Poland’s use of the fuel has risen 15 percent since 2010, according to grid data, displacing generation from hard coal, which PGE says is as much as 50 percent more expensive.
Burning coal at power plants emits about twice as much carbon dioxide as natural gas. Lignite is about 16 percent dirtier than hard coal, according to the Polish government.
The European Commission seeks a deal by October to cut greenhouse-gas emissions across the 28-nation bloc by 40 percent by 2030 from 1990 levels. The current target is for a 20 percent reduction by 2020.
Gubin and Brody have suffered financially since plans for the mine were announced in 2008. Buying and selling of arable land slowed and as a result fewer farmers can take loans to expand, Barski said in a May 28 interview at his Gubin office, less than four kilometers from fields that would be swallowed up by the expansion.
After plans to build the mine were announced, the amount of farmland sold by Gubin’s Agricultural Property Agency fell by more than a third from prior years from 2009 to 2013, data provided by the agency’s branch in Zielona Gora show.
PGE may start work on the 10,000-hectare (24,700-acre) mine within four years if it gets the approvals, according to Jacek Kaczorowski, who heads PGE’s conventional generation unit. The project may be expanded with an adjacent power plant depending on Polish and EU climate and energy policies, he said in an e-mail June 9.
Poland relies on Russia for 59 percent of its gas, according to Eurogas, a Brussels-based lobby group. The new mine is instrumental to promoting coal as an alternative, Prime Minister Tusk said during a May 22 visit to Gubin.
“I want to be as clear and definitive as possible that the Polish energy mix will be based on coal, both hard and brown,” Tusk said. “We need to prove to all Europeans that such investments are safe from the point of view of CO2 and other emissions. But the intention here is clear, this investment will happen.”
Vattenfall, which plans to cut its carbon-dioxide emissions by more than 26 percent by 2020, will decide whether to build a new power plant next to Jaenschwalde in the next five to 10 years, Schirmer said. The project includes expanding the mine to the north along the Polish border.
Schenkendoebern’s 3,800 residents, 16 kilometers away, are suffering even before any new coal has been mined.
Ground water levels are declining, while sand and smoke from the mine has cut electricity output from the solar panels that once made the community self-sufficient, Stahlberg said May 28 without providing specific data.
The towns are working together across the border. Schenkendoebern is supplying data on the environmental, economic and social impact of the pit to Gubin as they seek an energy mix based on renewable power instead, Barski said.
“A Polish mine will only make things worse, my village will be an island between two pits,” said Eugeniusz Swiderski, a Polish farmer about two kilometers away from Jaenschwalde who has lived in the area for more than 30 years.
This month’s demonstration is being organized by an association called “No to the Pit,” which includes people from Brody and Gubin.
Opposing the utility, which sponsors sports and cultural events, isn’t easy, says Marzena Prugar-Wasilewska, who heads the organization.
“We’re staying united even though sometimes dividing lines cross families,” she said.