German innovation: turning coal mines into renewable energy

I’ve written at length about Germany’s struggle to make a quick transition from nuclear power to clean energy. But really, that transition is a shadow of the biggest overhaul the German energy economy is facing, the move away from coal. Coal is Germany’s leading electricity source. Historically, it’s not only been central to the Germany economy; it was also a major driving force behind the predecessors to the EU. And as in America, there are concerns about what’ll happen to the regional economies of coal-producing areas — like the Ruhrgebiet in western Germany — once the mines start to shut down.

Luckily, Germans are an innovative bunch. One of the leading coal mining companies in the Ruhr Valley is developing a plan to convert its mines into hydroelectric energy sources. Quick background: Germany produces a ton of renewable energy, but it’s inconsistent, since the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow, and it’s difficult to store. One method of storage would be to use excess energy (on windy or sunny days) to pump water upward, and then to allow it to cascade down through energy-producing turbines when power is scarce. The problem is that, absent good natural locations for these turbines, this takes a lot of construction.

But in the Ruhrgebiet, the infrastructure’s already there. The coal mines are already deep, with lots of energy potential if water is released from the top down to the bottom. And the mines already pump groundwater up to the surface. So all that’s really needed is a few turbines (and some other not-massive changes), and you’ve converted a dirty energy source into a clean one.

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