ATTERWASCH, Germany – Five days a week, a giant machine eats its way through soil at the Jaenschwalde open-cast mine in eastern Germany, exposing the brown coal buried beneath.
Lignite, as this form of compressed peat is known, is becoming an increasingly important part of Germany's effort to phase out nuclear energy. It's also the reason why Atterwasch, a village that survived the Thirty Years' War, a Soviet onslaught at the end of World War II and four hard decades of communist rule is slated to be razed.
The village, with its volunteer fire station and old brownstone church, is to make way for a strip mine in the next decade. Dozens of other villages have fallen victim to the same fate, as coal once again becomes king.
The plan has many of Atterwasch's 250 inhabitants up in arms.
"This is an ancient village," said long-time resident Monika Schulz-Hoepfner. Historical records first mention Atterwasch in 1294, and the house that she and her husband raised their three children in was built in 1740.
Environmentalists, meanwhile, point out that Germany's hunger for lignite flies in the face of its green credentials.
"Germany has a coal problem," said Regina Guenther, Director Climate and Energy at WWF Germany. "Despite the expansion of renewable energy the carbon emissions are rising because the dirtiest coal power plants are running at full steam."
The low cost of coal-based energy means that the cleaner, but more expensive, gas power plants are not running at full capacity, she said.
Vattenfall, one of Europe's biggest energy companies, says the five open cast lignite mines and three lignite power stations it operates in the Lusatia region a couple of hours drive southeast of Berlin provide over 33 000 jobs. Anti-mine campaigners put the figure much lower, but still conceded that the jobs run into the thousands, in an area with high unemployment.
At least as important as the jobs is the energy that comes from the 60 million tons of lignite mined there each year. That's because Germany's ambitious plan to shut down all its nuclear reactors by 2022 and dramatically ramp up the use of renewable sources — known as the "energy switchover" — requires coal as a stopgap.
"Lignite is part of the energy switchover because it offers a bridge to the time when, as is the goal in Germany, 80 or more percent of energy is generated by renewable means," said Thoralf Schirmer, a spokesperson for Vattenfall.
Even after 2050, when all nuclear plants have been closed for 28 years and renewable sources should be highly developed, there will be a role for lignite, he said.
"If you have little wind or sun available," he said, "then you have to rely on one of the remaining conventional energy sources."
Last year, about a quarter of the German gross electricity production came from lignite, according to the German Federal Statistics Office. More than a third of the lignite — up to 10 percent of Germany's total energy supply — comes from the region around Atterwasch.
Vattenfall has recently outlined plans to sell the German lignite mines and power plants as a part of the Swedish company's own drive toward renewable energy.
But it is unlikely that the buyer of the plants would want to stop the mine expansion given the vast lignite deposits — estimated at hundreds of millions of tons — and potential profits to be made.
The current plan, approved years ago, is to remove Atterwasch and two other nearby villages by 2025 to make way for an expansion of the Jaenschwalde mine.
"We're making a sacrifice that isn't really necessary anymore," said Schulz-Hoepfner. "I think it's simply not legitimate to let old villages, which are part of our cultural heritage, fall into a coal hole anymore."
She and others campaigning against the mine haven't given up hope that the village will be saved, and are appealing to the Brandenburg state government for help.
To them, Atterwasch is "Heimat," she said, a German word that loosely translates as "home" but which signifies a deep emotional connection to a particular place. Its location near the present German-Polish border and the bilingual road signs in German and Sorbian — the language of Germany's Slavic ethnic minority — testify to the region's complex history.
"It's like a tree that's dug its roots deep into the ground," said Schulz-Hoepfner. "And then someone comes along and wants to pull this healthy tree out."
Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.