Hands down, Germany has become the world leader in transforming its post-coal mined lands into solar farms, particularly in the nation’s eastern Lusatia region, where more than a century of intense surface mining has despoiled much of the landscape. According to a 2018 report, region-wide there are some 9 GW of solar project potential across nearly 50,000 hectares of torn up land. Spurred on by 2022’s energy crisis while looking long-term as the price of emissions certificates rise and global carbon budgets shrink, several European fossil fuel producers are re-evaluating their strategies, perhaps none more so than one of Europe’s dirtiest energy generators, LEAG. In 2022, this German-Czech company announced plans to close their lignite mines and replace them with new solar and wind farms built across their surfaces while they transform their existing power plants into battery and storage hubs. Lead blogger and podcaster, Michael Buchsbaum, takes us through their vision of supplying more than four million households with the clean electricity of the future, starting now. Read part 1, part 3 and part 4 of this series.
Coal to solar pioneer
One of Europe’s earliest large solar parks, called Meuro solar park, was constructed in stages over a decade ago across the surface of post-mined lands previously disturbed by the Meuro opencast lignite complex which operated from 1958 through 1999.
Today, instead of excavators and bulldozers, several PV farms with a combined 246MW of capacity generate clean energy. One of the advantages developers capitalized on, and a factor which remains a tremendous advantage for other post-coal solar parks, is the re-use of the former mine’s existing energy infrastructure, which meant there was little need to construct more power lines to connect the new panels to the regional grid.
Not far away, construction continues on the “Energiepark Lausitz” where developer GP Joule has already placed into service a 90MW solar farm near the town of Klettwitz on the grounds of another former lignite mine.
With an eventual goal of installing 300MW of capacity, Joule has already built several solar parks on conversion sites at Meuro as well as the nearby former Ganzlin mine.
But this summer, ground broke on a mammoth 650MW solar park, the largest yet to be built on former mined lands.
On track to becoming the single highest capacity solar plant yet in Germany, insurance and financial services group Signal Iduna and Hansainvest Real Assets began construction on the surface of the former Witznitz II brown coal mine about 30 km south of the city of Leipzig.
Through mid-2023, project developer and general contractor Moveon Energy plans to install more than 1.1 million solar modules that, once in operation, could meet the electricity demand of some 200,000 households.
LEAG leads Germany’s solar transformation
As Germany suffers through the worst energy crisis in the post-World War Two era, high gas and electricity prices are forcing changes in the business models of many electricity producers, but perhaps none more than lignite-heavy Lausitz Energie Bergbau AG or LEAG.
The largest energy utility in eastern Germany, LEAG, in 2022 announced their sweeping “GigawattFactory” plan to begin closing its four surface mining complexes and replacing its 7GW of conventional coal and fossil fuel power generation capacity as it brings online at least 7GW of new solar and wind power combined with a fleet of batteries, green hydrogen and other thermal storage systems between 2030 and 2038.
And fundamental to its strategy is the re-purposing of post-mined lands, closed power plant sites and former industrial sites into renewable energy centers.
Owned by Czech-based EPH and PPF Investments, there are some suggestions LEAG could actually increase their ambitions by expanding to over 12 GW of clean energy capacity as they establish virtual power plants, construct charging stations for electric vehicles and develop green hydrogen production facilities to supply public transportation systems, in the process of creating Germany’s largest renewable energy hub throughout their home region of Lusatia, southeast of Leipzig.
With a legacy of heavy industrial impacts dating back to the communist East German government-era, the company has identified some 33,000 hectares of available land located on former and abandoned open-cast mines.
Re-developing these lands, they believe, will be simplified given existing energy transmission infrastructure as well as a lack of opposition from the region’s population, many of whom are equally keen to improve the area’s long-suffering environment and flagging economy.
With approximately 7,400 current employees, mostly engaged in lignite production or coal-fired generation, LEAG also hopes this plan will help retain and stimulate job growth by attracting new industries to the region.
Already the utility has made progress on their planned 400 MW Bohrau solar power plant, which is joining the in-service 102 MW Forst-Briesnig 2 wind farm at a recultivated site of the company’s sprawling Jänschwalde surface mine.
They also plan to construct an additional 40 MW solar park atop Jänschwalde’s huge coal ash landfill.
Over the summer 2022, LEAG also announced its intention to install up to 300 MW of photovoltaics on the grounds of their still-operating Welzow-Süd opencast mine.
Construction for a 17-megawatt solar park has also begun on the site of a former and partially recultivated industrial tailings pond at the Lippendorf power plant in Böhlen.
Nearing the end of 2022, LEAG had already introduced more than one gigawatt of green energy project potential into Germany’s byzantine approval procedures. And in cooperation with EP New Energies (EPNE), they have some two gigawatts in the pipeline with over 250MW planned for installation and commissioning through 2025.
To realize their renewables shift, which LEAG estimates will cost more than €10 billion, they intend to use a mixture of both their own capital and external funding, including the €1.75 billion in remuneration they expect to receive for closing their coal plants before the previously planned end to their operating lives.
Key, however, is that the German government would need to prioritize projects like these happening on abandoned, closed or depleting mines.
Right out of the gate, Chief Executive Officer Thorsten Kramer said LEAG is getting “very positive signals” from responsible municipal, state and federal authorities.
“The GigawattFactory will combine energy storage solutions, green hydrogen as well as wind and solar power plants to make environmentally friendly energy available in the eastern German region.” Kramer told participants at a recent East German Energy Forum in Leipzig.
With the right support and bureaucratic assistance, by 2026, Kramer estimates the company could install 1 GW in solar power capacity spread across various projects.
To help anchor the planned rapid expansion through 2030 and beyond, Kramer added that LEAG is also considering the construction of their own solar panel factory to help ensure Germany’s clean power shift can happen without being totally dependent on imported components.