Environment

For the next week, I won’t be reporting on the environment in Louisville, or Kentucky. Instead, I’ll be in Germany, exploring that country’s energy transition — which could be of particular relevance to the commonwealth.

I’ve been thinking about Germany a lot in the past year. The country is in the midst of a really ambitious project to change how it gets energy; the goal is to get 80 percent of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2050.

At the same time, Germany is phasing out its nuclear power plants in the aftermath of the meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima plant. This means for the short-term, the country is still very dependent on more carbon-intensive sources, including coal.

Politicians such as Kentucky Senator and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have used that continued reliance on coal as justification for ignoring Germany’s plan to reduce the carbon emissions that cause global climate change. When asked about reducing U.S. emissions last year, he scoffed.

“Even if you feel that’s an important thing, it’s also noteworthy that no one else is going to do it. Germany, which is the greenest country in Europe, is now importing coal,” McConnell said, before going on to list the rises in Chinese, Indian, and Australian coal production.

And that’s true. Even as Germany takes progressive steps toward a greater reliance on clean sources such as wind and solar, they’re still burning some coal. The country is phasing out the few “hard coal” mines (akin to the coal produced in the U.S.) in the next few years, but Germans are still mining and burning the dirtier lignite coal.

But that’s also what should make Germany’s Energiewende (or “energy transition”) interesting to Kentuckians.

Some of that coal German power plants are burning comes from Kentucky and other places in Appalachia. Here in the commonwealth, 93 percent of the electricity generated still comes from coal. But more than a third of the state’s coal fleet has announced plans to retire by 2020, and economic and regulatory forces have necessitated the closure of numerous coal mines.

In the coalfields of Eastern and Western Kentucky, residents are asking what’s next. I think Germany may offer some lessons for Kentucky — both of what works and what doesn’t.

Over the next week, I’m going to be visiting key places in Germany that will help me tell a story about the Energiewende — and figure out what lessons coal-producing areas like Kentucky can learn. I’ll be in North Rhine-Westfalia, a traditional coal mining region, as well in the larger cities of Hamburg and Berlin. My trip is funded through a fellowship through the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

I’ll be posting updates from the trip here on wfpl.org, or you can follow me on twitter @ericampeterson or search for the hashtag #WFPLinGER. I’ll also be checking in on the air at 89.3 FM throughout the week.

Erica Peterson reports on energy and the environment for WFPL. She is also Enterprise Editor.