All posts by Aubrey Patti

The Ruhr Transition

The Ruhr area has transitioned from major coal and steel production into one of the “green” guiding lights of Europe

Today, we began with a wrap-up discussion of our time in Eindhoven. We then travelled to the town of Essen, which is in the Ruhr area, which is considered the old industrial heart of Germany. There, we visited the Zollverein Industrial Complex, an old coal mine transformed into a museum and took a tour led by guide Peter Reuter. Walking up to the museum I was struck by how huge the physical infrastructure of a coal plant is.

We begin our tour by looking at a small scale version of the complex.
The building of Zollverein Industrial Complex.

Beginning in the early 19th century there was a huge steel and coal mining industry that moved into the Ruhr area. It completely industrialized the small farming area, which led to a huge economic boom. It also led to horrible pollution. In the 1950’s pollution was so bad that you could only see 17% of the sunlight on the ground during the day- they had to keep street lamps on at all times. The typical life expectancy for miners at that time was only 25 years, so they were encouraged to get married and reproduce young. This brought up an interesting point. Our guide said that industrialization led to the realization of human rights as more than a philosophical argument.

We got to look into the coal mines’ mills, which used to crush coal into smaller pieces with its own weight.
Students look at examples of the size of the coal before and after milling.

Soon, technology progressed to the point where miners were no longer needed. They became almost completely replaced by machinery, something that is continuing to happen in the coal industry in America. Misplaced miners were reeducated and highly valuable in industries similar to coal, such as steel. However, it still took time for acceptance. Many old mines were turned into event venues, art galleries or restaurants. Old miners would refuse to go to these places at first. Now they are some of the most popular venues in the Ruhr area. This was a really great example of ways to reuse old infrastructure and avoid razing and rebuilding. Many of the old railroad tracks that went to pick up coal have been repaved into bike paths and other forms of transportation infrastructure.

On the rooftop, we could see the many surrounding towns and cities making up the Ruhr area. Because they were originally small farming communities before industrialization, many don’t have a city center.
Old mines have become some of the most popular event venues in the Ruhr area.

As one of the poorest areas of Germany, many things still need to change for the Ruhr region. The outsourcing of steel in the 1980’s left many out of work. Now, much of their economy comes from the over 1 million tourists that visit the region each year. While there are still many large businesses based there, the majority of work is mechanized. Most jobs are minimum wage, and are service oriented. Despite this, there are many new initiatives that are hoping to bring more vitality to the region. The Ruhr area is incredibly diverse, thanks to the many international investors and diverse cultures that have moved there, which allows many different paths and innovation to occur there.

In 2017, Essen was given the European Green Capital Award, which is given to one European city that consistently meets environmental standards and is committed to improvement and development of sustainability. Our guide explained the way that Essen got the award as being just letting all of the plants grow nonstop, except to add biking paths and pedestrian areas, which led to trees and wildlife areas springing up everywhere. They have also completely redone their wastewater management system. Originally a manmade system of open sewers, they have converted it into enclosed underground sewers while retransforming the original water systems into near-natural bodies of water.

The 150-year transformation from polluted coal and steel industrial area into the Green Capital of Europe is inspiring and provides a beacon for cities trying to redevelop.

Energy in Schonau

 

The Anti-Nuclear movement has led to renewable growth

For the second half of the day, we visited the EWS (Elektrixitätswerke Schönau) in Schönau, Germany. To get there, we took a bus towards the Black Forest. We walked into a building with solar panels covering the roof, and immediately started a lecture with one of the anti-nuclear activists, who now works at EWS. She presented to us many of the arguments against nuclear power that began the entire Energiewende movement in Germany. It was really interesting to hear about how the Chernobyl disaster affected the Germans, and through that, their energy policy.

The sun shines on Schönau, Germany. We had a walking tour after our discussion, and were shown wind turbines and a small hydroelectric plant, as well as the original offices of EWS.

The clouds from Chernobyl rolled into Germany and across Europe, leaving effects that still hurt people today. Nuclear resistance was reinforced by the Fukishima disaster. Now they are in the process of completely phasing out nuclear plants.

Chernobyle and Fukishima made it clear to many in Germany that nuclear disasters leave a hole on the earth that is basically non-recoverable for many lifetimes, not to mention the impact on human lives. The anti-nuclear movement has more subtle reasoning behind it than just the risks of a nuclear disaster, as well. Nuclear power plant waste can be used to create nuclear bombs, so many believe that one of the reasons governments push for nuclear is so that they can use that funding to go into the military.

We also discussed that there are a lot of public relations efforts vastly impacting how people feel about nuclear energy. With more public relations in the United States, and more money put into lobbying, we are much more open to the idea of nuclear energy than they might be here in Germany. These public relations efforts are also starting to affect Germany, and their energy policies are beginning to shift.

After the lecture, we were shown around a few of the faciliites and the town of Schonau. The EWS has a hydroelectric plant just down the road from their headquarters. There were windmills in the distance that power many homes.

During our tour, we were shown the original building of the EWS. We also discussed and passed some restaurants on the walk that were very supportive of renewables because of the aforementioned opposition to nuclear. We were also told many stories of the original protests to nuclear. One of the founders of the EWS smuggled a piece of paper into the white house to attempt to persuade former President Obama to turn away from nuclear. The EWS and anti-nuclear advocates have gone door to door asking people to vote against nuclear energy and for their own causes.

-Aubrey Patti