From 500-ft below ground to 500-ft above ground: Day 2 with RWE

June 6, 2012 at 12:28 am 1 comment

For my second vocation day with RWE I was first taken to the Garzweiler open pit lignite (brown coal) mine, and it was unlike anything I have ever seen. The large hole in the earth was absolutely massive, and words nor pictures do it’s shear size justice. Lignite is a key component for Germany’s energy mix, and it is in a different position than black coal mined in deep mines like we saw in Gelsenkirchen. Black coal has had to rely on government subsidies to operate for decades,and because it is now cheaper to purchase on the global market, the German government is ending the subsidies, and thus much of the industry by 2018. But lignite is different. It is in such abundant supply and it is much cheaper to mine in an open pit, thus it has not needed any government subsidies to operate.

One kilowatt hour of electricity in four in Germany is generated from lignite, and the percent is even higher in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. In this area of Germany lignite is in abundant supply, making it a secure home grown source of energy for Germany. I was told that this region of Germany has 55 billion tons of lignite to be mined which is the same heat value of the oil resources found in Iraq and Iran combined. Even though this region has enough lignite to mine for 200 years, current techniques would make only half of that supply mineable in an economical fashion. Additionally RWE only has permits to operate their open pit mines in this region for another 35 years, after which time it is unclear whether or not lignite mining will continue. Lignite is also very cheap to produce in comparison to other energy sources. However there are also downsides, chief among them the ecological impact of coal. Yesterday I learned and observed how RWE has invested millions of dollars to mine and generate electricity from lignite in the most environmentally sensitive ways possible. For example, after the giant pit (roughly 30 sq. Kilometers in size) is mined, the area is refilled and returned to nature, either in the form of agriculture land or Forrest. It was pretty impressive to see area that previously were open pits and in the last few decades have been restored to a natural setting.

Driving to the bottom of the pit to see the mining take place was truly impressive. You are roughly 500 feet below the surface of the earth standing next to machines that are absolutely huge. The mining and refilling machines cost roughly $250 million each and RWE has 12 of them on site; one for each of the 6 terrace levels to mine the coal and one in the back to refill the pit. The machines are roughly 300 feet tall and almost 750 long from end to end when fully extended. Wow!

Another major difference between lignite and black coal is the cost to transport. Lignite has a much higher water content making it much heavier, and thus more expensive to transport. As such, the only way to make lignite economically viable is to have power plants in near proximity to the open pit mining operations. This is why RWE has 3 open pit lignite mines and 5 power plants all nearby and interconnected by their own rail system to transport the product from mine to power plant. In the afternoon I was given a tour of the newest power plant in RWE’s portfolio, a massive 1,000 megawatt, 500 feet tall, state of the art lignite burning power plant. Everything inside was massive; the generator, the emission filters, the air pipes, the cooling towers, ect. This power plant combined with it’s neighboring lignite plants create 12% of all power generated in Germany, and employ over 2,000 workers, proving to me once again how this region is the industrial backbone of Germany. The view from the top of the power plant was also amazing. From that height you could see Cologne, Dusseldorf, dozens of wind mills, several other power plants, and lots and lots of farmland!

I great day of sights and education, thank you RWE!

– Cory







Entry filed under: Team Blog.

Willich Welcome Good Bye to Gelsenkirchen and Hello to Willich!

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. billrobson1  |  June 6, 2012 at 9:45 am

    I didn’t know that lignite was still mined. I am from the black coal area of N. England and it was always described as “useless dirt”. Good to know that the Germans are using this “useless dirt” to generate power.


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