Last update: 4 November, 2014.
The lignite mined in the Lausitz goes mostly into the production of electricity; a small portion is made into briquettes for heating. Short distances between mine and power plant keep the transportation costs low and obviate the need for stockpiling at the plant. Jänschwalde, the plant in the first few images and one of three gigantic plants in the area, generates electricity for about 5 million people and steam heat for several towns in the vicinity. It burns up to 80,000 tons of coal a day. A downloadable pdf-brochure in German outlines the basic facts. What the numbers mean in terms of land use can be gleaned by comparing the first and the second image, taken about a decade apart.
Nowhere is the contrast between energy infrastructure and antecendent landscape more pronounced than in the wetlands to the South and West of Jänschwalde. The bird and fish populations of this biotope would be notable anywhere. When the view of the cooling towers is obscured by tall grasses or trees, the illusion of a remote nature preserve is almost perfect -- until the wind changes direction and carries the clatter of the bucket-chain excavators into the refuge.
The new Schwarze Pumpe (black pump) plant, depicted in the trio of images across a green corn field, is one of the most advanced facilities of its kind in the world. It operates more efficiently and cleanly than most coal-fired plants. (In comparing figures, one has to take into account differences in measurement units and in the quality of the coal.) State-of-the-art filtering reduces dust and sulfur dioxide in the exhaust by around 95% and nitrogen oxide by about half. These reductions make it possible to that used to mark the landscape and instead feed the cleaned exhaust gases into the cooling towers.
The trouble is, of course, that the exhaust still contains large quantities of carbon dioxide, on the order of one ton of CO2 per ton of lignite burned. Coal-fired plants are the worst CO2 offenders per unit of energy produced among all power plants, and lignite-fired ones are the worst of the worst. The recent improvements in efficiency in lignite-fired plants have gone some way towards levelling the playing field at least among coal-fired plants. But the fact remains that, so far anyway, burning coal and especially lignite is worse in terms of CO2 emissions than burning just about anything else. So thinking about more radical change is in order.
Such thinking was underway until recently right at Schwarze Pumpe with a pilot project exploring Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS). The project tested the oxyfuel technology in which the end product of the combustion process is almost pure CO2 that is ready to be cooled, compressed and pumped underground for good. CCS is heralded by its proponents as a "viable climate change mitigation option" and "essential to allow the continued use of coal to generate electricity". Its opponents denounce it as a scam that won't work, waste taxpayers' money that would be better spent on non-fossil sources of energy, and, even if it did work, would only prolong rapacious and ultimately doomed mining practices.
For learning more about the issue, the MIT website is a good place to start. CCS technology works on the drawing board and in the lab, but the big question is whether it can be scaled up to industrial proportions. Beside technical hurdles there are political ones. The first site targeted for the sequestration part of the Schwarze Pumpe project was bumped off the list by the resistance of local protesters worried that the underground storage won't be as safe as promised. In 2014, Vattenfall stopped the pilot project and decided not to pursue CCS in Germany, citing adverse political circumstances. The insights gained at Schwarze Pumpe will be useful for a ten-times larger project in Canada.