Germany is arguably one of the most innovative and successful countries in the renewable energy sector. In 2016 they were generating 29.5% of their energy from renewable sources (including their exports), so compared to the US who comes in at around 10%, they are ahead of the game and have big plans for the future.
Germany’s next big project is taking place at the Prosper-Haniel hard coal mine in the Northwest region of the country. After 50 years of service and following news that the mine will be decommissioned in 2018, researchers are undertaking the arduous task of turning the site into a huge renewable energy battery.
The plant will harness hydroelectric energy using the elevation provided by the 600-meter deep mine shafts, something which was previously impossible in the area due to the flat terrain. The plant will work with solar, wind and biomass, leading to totally sustainable energy production. In times of high energy generation like very sunny or windy days, the excess power which would have previously been wasted can now be used to pump water up to a reservoir at ground level, storing it as potential energy until needed. Then at peak times, such as when people are returning home from work in the evening, the water is able to flow using gravity, spinning turbines which generate useable energy. Elevation is crucial to the design of a plant like this and although hydroelectric energy isn’t a new concept, it is something which was once unattainable in areas with flat topography.
A further benefit of this design is that it doesn’t require further environmental alterations and there is no need to reroute rivers or disturb natural ecosystems. We can also expect that as these older mines get “cleaned up”, and are no longer producing the dust and gas emissions of their previous lives, that the local environment will benefit greatly. Add to that the likely economic boost the region will receive.
With some 26 kilometers of shafts in the plant, it is expected the project will supply energy to over 400,000 homes in the region. Previous studies have shown that hydroelectric plants often consume more energy than they generate but as Germany tries to move forward to a greener future there are certain trade-offs for a more reliable and stable source of energy which wind and solar alone are often not able to provide.
In addition to providing clean energy, the plant will also generate much-needed jobs in a region where the coal mine was the main source of income for its inhabitants. If a success, the plant will serve as a blueprint for more mines to be converted around the country in future. Similar projects are being proposed in the US and work is already underway on an unused goldmine in Australia.
As the US and the world start to move away from fossil fuels, it is comforting to know that we will have a use for such places which were once such an integral part of our society, powering our homes, schools, and hospitals. Perhaps these relics of the industrial age can be used to create clean energy, cut down on waste and be great examples of the best kind of recycling.