The Future of Coal.

Foreign Correspondent

By Eric Campbell in Germany

Updated yesterday at 6:09pm

Deep underground in Germany’s Ruhr valley, Uwe Seeger plunges a drill into the black earth just as thousands of coal miners in this region have done before him.

“My grandpa did it like this, we used it like this to destroy the big stones,” he tells Foreign Correspondent.

Black coal mines like this one in Essen, which opened its first shaft in 1875, once fired the furnaces that made Germany the economic powerhouse of Europe.

But this is no longer a working mine — it’s a museum, set up by Mr Seeger and some other former miners to show tourists how life once was in Germany’s western industrial heartland.

That’s because Germany shut down its last black coal mine in 2018.

Miners were offered a new job or an early retirement and a centuries-old way of life came to a sudden end.

“We don’t have [black] coal mining in Germany anymore,” says Mr Seeger. “I’m very sad about that.”

But Germany is not looking back. A nation that built its fortunes on coal has decided the fossil fuel’s days are numbered.

As Australia looks to expand coal exports and build new mines, like Adani’s proposed Carmichael project, Europe’s biggest economy is phasing out its entire coal industry for good.

Is solar thermal power the way forward?

As the world looks to Germany as a shining example of how to shift away from coal power, a nuclear expert in Queensland is advocating for solar thermal power.

Having already extinguished black coal, Germany is now doing the same to brown coal — a cheaper, dirtier fossil fuel that spews even more carbon emissions.

Berlin has announced a timetable to close not only every remaining brown coal mine but all the carbon-emitting power plants that burn coal to make electricity, by 2038.

In a grand compromise that many Australians might find hard to fathom, trade unions, energy companies, green groups and government have all agreed that the coal industry must go.

And the Government will give tens of billions of dollars to coal regions to create new jobs and industries.

From mines to museums

In the corporate foyer of German coal giant RAG, in Essen, a heaving black nugget of coal sits proudly on display.

It’s one of the last hunks of black coal dragged up from the company’s mine in Bottrop, in the Ruhr valley, before it was closed in December 2018.

“It’s part of the Berlin Wall for us, it’s the last coal,” says RAG spokesman Christophe Beike.

“We take care of this part and nobody’s allowed to take a piece of it. It’s like a baby.”

Germany’s black coal industry was shut down with the cooperation of big coal companies like RAG. And it had nothing to do with climate change.

By the 1970s, Germany’s remaining black coal deposits were buried so deep the mines were unprofitable and surviving on government subsidies. It was cheaper for Germany to import coal from countries with lower production costs like Colombia. Germany was even buying coal from Australia.

So in 2007, the government, coal companies and trade unions struck a historic deal to wind down black coal for good. “[The government] asked us how much time you need to do that without any problems, not to bring the people off the working market,” Mr Beike said.

Mr Beike said they were given plenty of time — and money — to make the transition. RAG maintains only a skeleton staff to administer workers’ pensions and contract mine restorations. Mr Beike says only 100 workers are still in need of a job.

One former miner tells Foreign Correspondent he found work as a research scientist; another has been retrained for a job as a trade union secretary.

Government subsidies were used to transform an old RAG coking plant into a World Heritage site, preserved as a piece of history for international tourists. It now has solar panels on the roof.

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