In Germany, miners and others prepare for a soft exit from hard coal – by Valerie Hamilton (U.S.A. Today – December 13, 2017)

For most people, the top of the mine shaft at the Prosper-Haniel coal mine in Bottrop, Germany, just looks like a big black hole. But Andre Niemann looked into that hole and saw the future.

Part 1: No regrets from this soon-to-be-ex-miner

Niemann leads the hydraulic engineering and water resources department at the University of Duisberg-Essen, in the heart of German coal country, western Germany’s Ruhr Valley. For more than 150 years, Germany mined millions of tons of anthracite, or hard coal, from coal mines here that at their peak employed half a million miners. But that’s history now — Germany’s government decided a decade ago to end subsidies that made German hard coal competitive with imports.

Now, the last of these mines are set to close at the end of 2018, ending an industry, a tradition and a culture. “Prosper-Haniel is really special,” Niemann says. “It’s the last mine in this region, and everyone is looking, ‘OK, what’s happening now?’”

The end of hard coal mining in Germany comes just as Germany is working to slash its CO2 emissionsby replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources like wind and solar. The country calls it the Energiewende, or “energy transition.” But wind and solar aren’t always there when they’re needed, so a key challenge of the Energiewende is to find ways to store sun and wind energy for later use.

One way to do that is with a pumped energy storage system — basically a giant, water-powered battery. When the sun is shining or the wind is blowing, the excess energy is used to pump large amounts of water uphill into a reservoir. When the sun goes down or the wind dies, that excess energy can be released by letting the water flow back downhill, through turbines that generate electricity like in a hydroelectric dam.

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