Transition cities: from black to green

There is life after coal!

Energy transition in coal mining regions is not a new issue, but lately, it has come up often in my newsfeed. I am sure you have heard about the protests against the expansion of a coal mine in the ancient Hambach Forest in Germany. Articles and declarations on the possible consequences of the energy transition on urban environment, regional identities and jobs quickly followed. But the more I read about innovative cities’ actions and renewables transition stories, the less I believe in political discourses supporting business as usual paths.

“Shrinking cities” or transition cities?

Traditional narratives lead us to see an old mining city as a shrinking city, almost like a “ghost town”. A shrinking city is a city that has experienced consistent population loss due to structural changes (e.g. job loss or resource depletion). As a result, its infrastructure has become too big and expensive to maintain. Previous social and financial structures don’t function anymore.
I am not denying the considerable challenges the closing of a coal-mine can bring. But not all mining cities are destined to become ghost towns! The way they will react and adapt to the new situation is what makes the difference. I would like to tell you about two old mining cities who successfully left coal behind. And they improved their citizens’ life in the process!

Loos in transition

Loos-en-Gohelle is a small town of 7000 inhabitants located in the north of France. The city, like its surrounding area, was deeply affected by coal mining industries, active from the 1850s to the 1980s. Once the mines closed, the local administration had to take a very important decision: they could either replace coal-mining by attracting new big industries, or they could try a whole new path. They decided to choose the most forward looking option. Today, Loos-en-Gohelle is a textbook case on how a city can free itself from its dependency on fossil energy.
The actions taken encompassed all sectors, from building renovation, to tourism, green technology and renewable energy generation. For example, when they had to renovate the town church’s roof, the municipality decided to set up a photovoltaic solar installation. The church’s roof now has photovoltaic cells replacing slates. They have been operating since 2013 and provide EUR 5000 in revenue to the municipality each year.

 “We cannot build the future if we reject the past”

The twin mining heaps 11 and 19 are a testimony of Loos-en-Gohelle’s mining past. Registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2012, base 11/19 was converted into a cultural and sustainable development centre. It hosts several cultural organisation and R&D centres, so it’s also playing a role in the town’s future.

According to the city’s Mayor Jean-François Caron, “we cannot build the future if we reject the past”. The town had to confront many challenges, but the biggest one has been re-inventing itself as a community. Local stakeholders participated in this process. During the period 2008-2014, the municipality organised about 200 public meetings. Citizens could contribute to the implementation of local projects or express their opinion. After more than a century of coal-mining industry running their lives, they got their capacity of actions and personal initiative back!

Giving new life to disused mines

Energy Cities’ member Heerlen is another old mining city taking energy in its own hands.  In the 1900s, coal mining was the most important economic activity in the area. The Dutch government dug a vast system of mine passages in and around Heerlen for the extraction of coal. Tens of thousands of miners and their families lived from the mining industry. After the closure of the mines, between 1965 and 1974, the region faced a period of economic, social and cultural decline. The old mining tunnels filled with groundwater, which was heated by the earth naturally. The mines became a water reservoir, unused for many years, until the municipality decided to step in with the Mijnwater project.

Mine water for renewable energy

Heerlen administration was committed to improve the local living condition and rehabilitate the region. In 2005, with support from the EU and the governmental agency Agentschap NL, they drilled five wells and built an underground piping system to allow for the water to circulate. In 2008, the first mine water geothermal plant in the world, Gen Coel in Heerlerheide, became operational, and the first connections to the Mijnwater grid were established. Currently, the municipal company provides renewable energy to dwellings, offices, elementary schools, supermarkets, a nursery and a sport facility.

The city went from being a renowned coalmining area, to being internationally awarded for its impressive efforts in the field of geothermal energy. Beside taking important steps towards energy independence, the project created local jobs, investment opportunities in the region and generated local knowledge and expertise. Not bad for a ghost town!