City, country, community
City, country, community
Lignite-fired power plant in Weisweiler
Germany will phase out lignite fully by 2038. This threatens to result in a loss of jobs in the Rhineland region. In order to maintain the economic strength of the region, municipalities and companies are looking for alternatives. Know-how from Jülich helps to shape structural change.
It has shaped the Rhineland region for over 200 years: lignite. Deep opencast mining pits criss-cross the landscape in the triangle between Aachen, Düsseldorf and Cologne. The few hills, such as Sophienhöhe near Jülich, consist of the dredged and backfilled earth from coal mining. Not only the landscape is shaped by the rise of the brown rock, but also the industry in the region with its power plants and chemical plants.
Picture above: Lignite-fired power plant in Weisweiler
However, the long-established structures are now breaking down. It is a done deal that lignite will be phased out by 2038 at the latest. Plus, Germany wants to become climate-neutral by 2045. The Rhineland region is thus facing an enormous economic and social challenge: tens of thousands of jobs could be on the rocks if the structural change in the region cannot be managed in a socially, economically and ecologically acceptable way.
The Rhineland region
Active opencast mines
Power plant locations
(as of June 2021)
“What the region needs is reindustrialization. New jobs have to be created for the ones that are lost, and this applies to a wide variety of educational qualifications,” says Prof. Wolfgang Marquardt, Chairman of Forschungszentrum Jülich’s Board of Directors. In his view, three prerequisites need to be met: the development of an efficient and modern infrastructure, the transformation of industry to open up new business fields, and the settlement of companies from new, promising industries.
“As a centre of research, we can make an important contribution to all three points. Above all, we can be a driving force, helping to establish a new high-tech industry with innovations from science,” emphasizes Wolfgang Marquardt. There are a few approaches: with digitalization, CO2 neutral industrial processes and plant-based products, for example, industry and agriculture could gain new momentum. A sustainable hydrogen infrastructure could make the region a beacon, both nationally and also internationally. Artificial intelligence and new computer technologies such as quantum computers could give rise to new businesses.
“Together with partners from science, business, politics and society, we want to contribute to making the change a success,” says Wolfgang Marquardt. Funding from the federal government and the state already makes various projects possible. A few examples allow us to demonstrate the ideas and locations with which Forschungszentrum Jülich is supporting structural change in the Rhineland region.
How lignite came into being
In the Miocene period 23 million years ago, a process lasting millions of years began: the formation of the large lignite deposits. In this process, layers of incompletely decomposed plant remains, known as peat, around 300 metres thick form in bogs. More and more sediment accumulates on the layer. Under the pressure of the sediment, the water is squeezed out of the peat and the plant mass is transformed into lignite.0
of lignite was mined in the Rhineland region between 1930 and 2020. That is about one third of the total production in Germany in this period.
Coal is on the way out, hydrogen is on the way in – so stipulates the hydrogen roadmap of North Rhine-Westphalia. Accordingly, the energy source plays a key part in structural change. Forschungszentrum Jülich brings its many years of expertise to bear here, from production and conversion to the economic aspects of hydrogen. Jülich is also designated as the location for the Helmholtz Cluster HC-H2, which is financed from structural change funds and is intended to cover the entire scientific value chain from basic research to technical application. Approaches to chemical hydrogen storage in liquid form, for example in methanol and other alcohols or in liquid organic hydrogen carrier (LOHC) systems, are primarily being pursued at the HC-H2. By using liquid hydrogen carriers, existing infrastructures such as filling stations can continue to be used. “With the cluster, we want to establish the Rhineland region as an innovation region for hydrogen, where new technologies are invented, developed and demonstrated in order to export them throughout the world. This would be an important contribution to creating new jobs here and to successfully mastering the energy transition at the same time,” emphasizes Prof. Wolfgang Marquardt, Chairman of Forschungszentrum Jülich’s Board of Directors. In addition to the cluster, other Jülich activities on structural change are underway: in the Agency for Cognitive Computing (ACC) project, for example, the regional economy is to be supported in the upcoming digital transformation. In the planned Center for Quantum Science and Engineering (CQSE), Forschungszentrum Jülich and Fraunhofer ILT Aachen want to enable local companies to develop and use quantum technologies. The expansion of the Ernst Ruska-Centre for Microscopy and Spectroscopy with Electrons “ER-C 2.0” is intended to create a platform for characterising and developing innovative materials.
Read more about structural change in our brochure „New thinking, new opportunities. How research contributes to structural change“. (in German)
Broschüre „NEUES DENKEN, NEUE CHANCEN. Wie Forschung zum Strukturwandel beiträgt“ (PDF in German)
Video series on structural change (in German)
The rise and fall of lignite
- After the Thirty Years’ War, lignite is discovered as an alternative to the coveted firewood.
1738In Kierdorf, farmers dig systematically for lignite for the first time.
1826Mining of a 7.5-metre-thick seam begins near Inden.
1877Steam-driven dewatering pumps open up areas near Brühl for opencast mining.
1895Start of industrial lignite mining: in the Donatus pit near Liblar, an overburden excavator is used for the first time.
1914The first power plant in Weisweiler produces electricity from lignite.
From 1918Hard coal shortages after World War I increase the importance of lignite in Germany.
From 1927Thanks to cheap energy and lignite, several chemical sites are built.
1949The village of Bottenbroich is relocated to make way for the opencast mine near Frechen. Further resettlements follow.
1953–1972The power plants at Weisweiler (newly built in 1953/55), Niederaussem (1963) and Neurath (1972) are connected to the grid. Neurath is now the largest power plant in Germany.
1957Development of the Inden opencast mine.
1978Development of the Hambach opencast mine.
1983Merger of several mining fields to form the Garzweiler I opencast mine, which will be expanded to include Garzweiler II from 2006 onwards.
1994Rheinbraun, RWE Energie and the North RhineWestphalian state government agree on a climate-friendly modernization of lignite-fired power plants.
2005The river Inde is diverted because of the opencast mining. Its new bed, 12 kilometres long, is being constructed on an ecological basis.
2018Partially violent protests against the clearing of further parts of the Hambach Forest to make way for opencast mining take place.
2020Germany decides to phase out coal by 2038. Coal regions in the Rhineland and eastern Germany receive funding for structural change.
2021The state of North Rhine-Westphalia is reducing the size of the three remaining opencast lignite mines.
Photos: Forschungszentrum Jülich/Sascha Kreklau, SeitenPlan (map)