Tim McDonnell joined the Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine, where he nurtured his interest in environmental journalism. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.
Germany is in the midst of a fierce battle against climate change and is making an aggressive push to get at least 80 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2050. But with nearly half its power still drawn from some of the world's dirtiest coal, there are plenty of bumps in the road ahead. One of the biggest is how to store renewable energy when the wind isn't blowing and the sun isn't shining, a problem that has tormented clean-energy advocates around the globe.
One engineer thinks he's found the solution—half a mile underground.
Most of Germany's coal is a low-grade form called lignite, which is dug out of sprawling open-pit mines and fed into carbon-spewing power stations. Lignite is dirtier than the hard coal more commonly found in the United States in places like Wyoming and West Virginia. Germany has its own hard coal, too—Steinkohle, in local parlance—but costs for the deep-shaft mines needed to get at it run so high that the industry has historically relied heavily on federal subsidies. Those are set to expire in 2018, and when they do, they'll take Germany's three remaining hard-coal mines with them.
Holzweiler, Germany, just escaped impending death.
A tidy village of stone houses clustered around an aging cathedral, it's only 40 minutes up the Autobahn from the modernist bustle of Cologne, the country's fourth-largest city. The drive winds past farms spiked with towering wind turbines, standard-bearers of Germany's nationwide green energy overhaul. But Holzweiler's quiet sidewalks are also precariously close to one of Europe's largest open-pit coal mines.
When I visited last fall, residents of Holzweiler and a cluster of neighboring villages had been living on borrowed time. The villages were in the way of the expanding mine, and locals had been told by the government that within a matter of years their homes would be bulldozed to get at the coal—the world's dirtiest kind, known as lignite—buried underneath.
Gisela Irving, a 78-year-old Holzweiler resident, keeps a small garden and a few chickens here that she raises with the help of a big, shaggy mutt named Butch. Gisela told me the region's threatened destruction was hard to reconcile with its bucolic present.
Gisela Irving lives in Holzweiler, Germany, which was just spared from being swallowed by a coal mine. Tim McDonnell
"It's a peaceful world," Gisela said, stooping to pluck a green pepper. "I very often say it's a little bit of a paradise."
Paradise peters out just a few blocks from this yard, where the cobblestone street turns to mud and the houses—many already vacated—yield to prairie. Since the early 1980s, Gisela has watched the coal mine—called Garzweiler after the first town cleared away to make room for it—inch closer to her door. In her yard, we could hear the low, not-so-distant churning of massive digging machines.
Gisela and her neighbors had spent years pleading with the regional government to block the machines' steady march; yellow ribbons adorned the gates of many houses here, signs of solidarity against the encroaching mine. In December, Germany's top court ruled that Garzweiler was important enough to the national power system for the company operating it, RWE, to proceed with plans to pay for the demolition and relocation of these towns. Last month, the government decided to spare Holzweiler, but nearby towns haven't been so lucky.
Germany's struggle with lignite mining is taking place behind the scenes of its green energy revolution, known here as the Energiewende. If Germany—which bills itself as one of the planet's most climate-friendly nations—can't kick its coal habit, can anyone?
Outside Holzweiler is a grassy hilltop where one can see a row of massive smokestacks—power stations fired by the local coal—nestled among a dozen wind turbines.
It's a strange contrast: Over the last decade, Germany has become a world leader in creating electricity from renewable sources, like the sun and the wind, that don't spew climate-warming greenhouse gases. The government has committed to some of the world's most aggressive climate goals: By 2050, it wants to slash its greenhouse emissions by 80 to 95 percent compared to 1990 levels while getting at least 80 percent of its power from renewable sources. Renewables already provide nearly a quarter of the country's electricity, double the US rate and among the highest in Europe.
Energy policymakers in the United States are keeping a close eye on Germany, because curbing coal use is a central tenant of President Obama's climate action plan. This year the Environmental Protection Agency is pushing a twin pair of proposed regulations to limit carbon emissions from new and existing coal plants. Obama's coal strategy is more head-on than the German model, which looks more like death by a thousand solar panels, and which is proving to be a very slow death indeed.
At the edge of Garzweiler, a yellow ribbon is "a sign of solidarity for the people who are going to lose their houses," says Dirk Jansen, a local anti-coal campaigner. Tim McDonnell
Despite its progress with renewable energy, Germany is still dependent on coal for nearly half its power—a larger proportion than even the United States'. And there's little hope for that to drop anytime soon. In 2013, coal's share of the country's energy mix rose 1.5 percent over the previous year, nearly three times the growth in renewables.
The Garzweiler mine will keep operating into the 2040s, according to RWE. At 35 million metric tons each year, it unearths about a third as much coal as the US's top-producing mine. But the scale here is still overwhelming: It covers 18.5 square miles—that's half the area of Manhattan. Stand on one side, and the pit stretches all the way to the horizon. An excavator wheel as tall as a seven-story house continuously shovels out coal, which is loaded onto a 57-mile network of conveyor belts to be delivered to the nearby power plants.
"Coal will have to be displaced soon," Lutz Weischer says. "But currently we don't see that happening."
And this is no ordinary coal. Most US mines produce bituminous coal, which forms deep underground at high pressure, has a relatively high energy content, and resembles a hard, black rock. Most coal produced in Germany, on the other hand, is lignite, which forms close to the surface (hence the open-pit, rather than deep-shaft, mine) and is brownish, moist, and crumbly. Its energy content is substantially lower, meaning much more must be burned to produce the same amount of electricity. Lignite also produces 6 percent more carbon emissions per unit of energy than bituminous coal, and 80 percent more than natural gas. Add that up, and the impact is startling: Just one lignite-fired power plant produces up to 50 million metrics tons of CO2 each year, according to the European Climate Foundation. That's about as much as the state of Montana. But more importantly it's fully half the level of carbon emissions Germany aims to produce in total by mid-century.
That's why experts say that if Germany wants to meet its ambitious climate goals, phasing out coal will be the biggest challenge.
"Coal will have to be displaced soon," says Lutz Weischer, a German energy analyst with the World Resources Institute. "But currently we don't see that happening."
At the end of March, Holzweiler finally got some good news. In a compromise between the coal-industry-aligned Social Democratic Party and the climate-focused Green Party, the state government decided to limit Garzweiler's growth—a rare move for this historic seat of coal production. Holzweiler, which was first settled in Roman times, will be skirted by the mine and spared from destruction. An estimated 1,300 people won't have to relocate, and about a fifth of the mine's coal will stay buried.
The Garzweiler lignite mine will continue production into the 2040s. Tim McDonnell
But about 2,000 people in neighboring villages still face relocation, at RWE's expense, so that the company can access roughly a billion metric tons of coal.
RWE, for its part, tries to ensure that "the personal impact to these people is as low as possible," according to Thomas Birr, a senior strategist with the company. "I acknowledge the personal and emotional challenge of those people we have to relocate, and we take that into account, of course," he adds.
With many of its residents moved out, the nearby village of Immerath is already a ghost town. Gisela drove me to a street that dead-ends into the mine, a place she calls "the edge of the world." The brick houses were shuttered and crumbling, the edge of the village literally eroding away.
"I've got the impression that people from outside Germany have got the feeling that we are more or less perfect and everything is correct," she said, over the roar of excavation machines in the pit below. "It's not."
Michael Mann called the decision "a victory for science."
Michael Mann, the perenniallyembattled climate scientist best known for his "hockey-stick" temperature graph, came out victorious yesterday in a court battle against a Virginia legislator and a conservative think tank that had sought to obtain thousands of Mann's emails and research documents from his time as a University of Virginia professor.
The Virginia Supreme Court ruled that unpublished scientific research can be exempted from the state's Freedom of Information Act requirements, because disclosing such information would cut into the university's competitive advantage over other universities. As a result, some 12,000 of Mann's emails and papers won't be released to the Energy & Environment Legal Institute (formerly known as the American Tradition Institute) and Virginia Delegate Robert Marshall (R-Prince William), who had requested the documents in 2011.
In a statement on his Facebook page, Mann called the decision "a victory for science, public university faculty, and academic freedom."
Back in 2012, a lower Virginia court ruled that the documents in question were considered "proprietary," and thus shielded from FOIA requests. ATI appealed the decision, and the case landed with the state's Supreme Court last October. The main question was whether research-related documents should get the same kind of protection as trade secrets and other information that could cause financial harm if released. ATI argued that Mann's emails didn't merit such protection, while Mann and U-Va. maintained that scientists should be able to hammer out their work behind closed doors before presenting a finished product to the public.
In a brief filed with the Supreme Court late last year, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press argued that in protecting Mann's research, the lower court had actually set the scope too wide, leaving open the possibility that a university could claim virtually any document to be proprietary. But yesterday's Supreme Court ruling revised the exemption criteria so that non-research-related documents—things like budgets and communications between administrators—could still be accessed with a FOIA, said Emily Grannis, the Reporters Committee staffer who authored the brief.
Of course, Grannis said, the ruling is only binding in the state of Virginia, but it could serve as a model for how other states set limits for what qualifies as proprietary if similar cases arise elsewhere.
If you know one thing about fracking, it might be that the wells have been linked to explosive tap water. Of course, a tendency toward combustion isn't the biggest problem with gas-infused water; it's what could happen to you when you drink it.
Although the natural gas industry is notoriously tight-lipped about the ingredients of the chemical cocktails that get pumped down into wells, by now it's widely known that the list often includes some pretty scary, dangerous stuff, including hydrochloric acid and ethylene glycol (a.k.a. antifreeze). It's also no secret that well sites release hazardous gases like methane and benzene (a carcinogen) into the atmosphere.
So just how dangerous are fracking and other natural gas extraction processes for your health (not counting, for the sake of argument, explosions and earthquakes)? Is it true, as an activist-art campaign by Yoko Ono recently posited, that "fracking kills"?
The answer to that second question is probably not, especially in the short term and if you don't work on or live across the street from a frack site (which, of course, some people in fact do). But that doesn't mean it's okay to start fracking away next to kindergartens and nursing homes: Gas extraction produces a range of potentially health-endangering pollutants at nearly every stage of the process, according to a new paper by the California nonprofit Physicians Scientists & Engineers for Healthy Energy, released today in Environmental Health Perspectives, a peer-reviewed journal published by the National Institutes of Health.
"We can conclude that this process has not been shown to be safe," the study's author said.
The study compiled existing, peer-reviewed literature on the health risks of shale gas drilling and found that leaks, poor wastewater management, and air emissions have released harmful chemicals into the air and water around fracking sites nationwide.
"It's clear that the closer you are, the more elevated your risk," said lead author Seth Shonkoff, a visiting public health scholar at the University of California-Berkeley. "We can conclude that this process has not been shown to be safe."
Shonkoff cautioned that existing research has focused on cataloging risks, rather than linking specific instances of disease to particular drilling operations—primarily because the fracking boom is so new that long-term studies of, say, cancer rates, simply haven't been done. But as the United States and the world double down on natural gas as a cleaner alternative to coal (as this week's UN climate change solutions report suggests), Shonkoff argues policymakers need to be aware of what a slew of fracked wells could mean for the health of those who live near them.
Even given the risks involved in producing natural gas, it's still a much healthier fuel source than coal; particulate pollution from coal plants killed an estimated 13,000 Americans in 2010, while a recent World Health Organization study named air pollution (to which coal burning is a chief contributor) the single deadliest environmental hazard on earth.
Any film that opens with Harrison Ford buckling into a fighter jet for the sake of science can't be all bad. Especially when that's followed by Don Cheadle tromping through Texas cow country, followed by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman strapping on a flak jacket and pushing into the heart of Syria's civil war. It's almost enough to make you forget you're watching a show about climate change.
But in fact, the new Showtime series Years of Living Dangerously is about just that, traversing the warming globe alongside an A-List cast that, as the season progresses, will include Matt Damon, Jessica Alba, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The show premieres Sunday (but the first episode, above, is already online), and counts Hollywood kingmakers Jerry Weintraub and James Cameron as executive producers, and Climate Progress founding editor Joe Romm and Climate Central scientist Heidi Cullen as science advisors.
If you already follow climate change, many of the stories here won't be new—deforestation in Indonesia, drought in Texas, conflict in Syria. But Years is a rare, big-budget effort to put the issue squarely in front of an audience more accustomed to Dexter and Homeland, and it does so with spectacular cinematography and compelling, interwoven plot lines that help to propel you through the basics of climate science to arrive at... aw, don't listen to me, just watch the thing.