Food for thought from Dresden and Lusatia

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If you are going to be motivated by any city or place as to how it can reconstruct and reinvent itself then Dresden is probably as good as most. Targeted by allied bombing back in 1945, which badly destroyed its historic centre with huge loss of life, and then isolated within the former German Democratic Republic for much of the next 45 years, the city has managed to rise again combining the old, the rebuilt and the new, mostly since the 1990s. As such, the city and the hinterland to the north including the coal mining region of Lusatia proved both an inspired and inspiring choice for this September’s Energy Landscapes: Perception, Planning, Participation and Power, European Conference of the Landscape Research Group.

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With Dresden basking in sun and temperatures around 25 degrees Celsius, the actual conference itself was excellent, providing much food for thought and throwing up new ideas for future directions. Aside from excellent keynote presentations from Patrick Devine-Wright, María José Prados Velasco, Maarten Wolsink, and a barnstorming finish by Don Mitchell, the parallel panel sessions proved extremely stimulating – it was just a pity we weren’t able to get to all the talks. Of particular interest to me, some of whose research interests are focused upon the evolving energyscapes of the South Wales valleys, then the final special perspectives session on Recycling Energy Landscapes, excellently chaired by Peter Wirth from the Leibniz Institute of Ecological Urban and Regional Development in Dresden, was especially invigorating with some eye-catching visual global perspectives in Mike Pasqualetti’s presentation proving a real highlight.

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With the conference sessions completed, the following day Peter hosted 50 of us on a coach drive north to the villages and landscapes of Lusatia where growing numbers of wind farms and solar installations highlighted the drastic transitions taking place German energy policy with fossil and nuclear energy sources being replaced by renewable energies. However, as we witnessed, the weaning off coal is taking time with large scale lignite mining and its dramatic impacts on the landscape a feature of the region, with villages having been destroyed in some cases.

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Vattenfall Deutschland, a subsidiary of Swedish state-owned power company Vattenfall, appears to be the major company that has taken on the inheritance of former state-owned mining areas from the GDR era. Most of its electricity production in Germany utilises ‘brown coal’ and we visited its operations in and around the villages in Lausitz, the scale of which has to be seen to be believed. In the valleys, interestingly, Vattenfall is currently creating the largest onshore wind farm in Wales and England, Pen-y-Cymoedd, which, it is fair to say, hasn’t received universal approval from local communities close to the 76 turbines presently being erected on the adjacent mountain tops. Perhaps a more enabling attitude towards small-scale local community-based renewable energy schemes might go some way to developing what some see as a more equitable energy future in Wales.

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The rehabilitation of the huge scars from depleted lignite mining areas in Germany was undeniably impressive with in some cases new vineyards being developed. Most impressive of all was the creation of new lakes to develop tourism, the so-called Lusatian lake district now being Europe’s largest artificial lake area. In Wales, the fate of some former and remaining opencast mines has been the subject of legal dispute in the last year. With the Welsh Government looking to develop its own ‘Energiewende’, the necessary transition to new energy futures is going to prove interesting with the impacts on the landscape a continuing source of debate. The Dresden and Lusatia experience certainly proved to be an inspiring and thought-provoking experience for me.

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STOP PRESS: I originally wrote this article for the Landscape Research Group’s new e-bulletin upon my return from Germany. Since then, in late September, Vattenfall announced that they are to sell all their lignite mining and associated generation interests in Germany. Further to political opposition in Sweden last year over plans to extend their German lignite operations, the company divested itself of its Danish coal power plants early in 2015. Another very recent development is that Greenpeace has now said it wants to buy Vattenfall’s German brown coal assets to prevent their reopening. Watch this space………………

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