Coal Mining in Germany: “No-One Can Forbid to Think Logically”
Green energy is set to become one of the main discussion topics at the Russian-German Raw Materials Dialogue starting April 29. Maxim Vorona, a graduate of Mining University, now a top manager at MIBRAG Consulting, part of the Germany-based coal producer MIBRAG, talks on business transformation amid the transition to a low-carbon economy.
Germany is among Russia's leading trade partners. In 2020, the trade turnover between the two countries equalled $41.9 bln, only falling below that with China, which totalled $104 bln. Despite the current tense political relations, bilateral contacts still reflect the respect and interest of the countries for each other. The state has been a top-three partner for many years, which inevitably affects many industries and business segments. Machine and power engineering, higher education, and science are among them.
"I always wanted to build my career in the mineral resources sector. My father was a chief engineer at the expedition that explored diamond deposits in Arkhangelsk Oblast: Lomonosov, Pomorskaya and V. Grib kimberlite pipes. He often let me join him whilst on holidays. Yet a teenager, I already knew how a drilling rig works, how to obtain a core, and what geological prospecting is. In 2002 I entered St. Petersburg Mining University, which even then differed from all the other universities. It had research labs, agreements with companies on internships and work placements, and its graduates had high employability. All these factors combined plus my knowledge and skills earned me the job position I'm in now," says Maxim Vorona.
In his fifth year, the soon-to-be graduate competed for a one-year internship at Freiberg University of Mining and Technology and won. This is a common practice in Russian higher institutions nowadays. Back then, the programme, jointly funded by the Russian Ministry of Education and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), was just gaining momentum. One postgraduate student and one undergraduate student left to Saxony after had been provided with the opportunity to broaden their experience from studying at the German university, familiarise themselves with another school of thought, and collect data for their theses.
"I indicated that I wanted to study milling machines. At the same time, I had absolutely no knowledge of German and could only rely on English. Half a year later, Professor Carsten Drebenstedt, who was lecturing to us, called me in. He is a world-renowned scientist with vast experience in open-pit mining, then Vice-Rector for Research at Freiberg University of Mining and Technology. He suggested I undertake an internship at Rheinkalk. This company is part of the Lhoist Group, the world's largest producer of lime and dolomite. Lhoist was planning to utilise milling machines at one of the deposits because of switching over to an extraction technique not involving blasting. Over the next three months, I personally participated in all the tests done in the quarry. Upon their completion, I compiled a detailed report, which included data on economic efficiency and technical characteristics, and presented it to the commissioner," recalls Maxim Vorona.
As a result of the Mining University's student staying in Europe, his studies lasted a year longer. Such an approach to engineering education is quite popular in Germany and some other countries, too. Both postgrads and undergrads intentionally look for and readily agree to lengthy internships, typically done abroad. Thereby they gather material for research articles and acquire additional competencies.
In many ways, the German educational system favours it since it allows students to arrange the examination schedule independently. It means they can be flexible when deciding on the dates and postpone taking exams if it suits their purposes better. The downside is that many do not complete their master's degrees until becoming 26-27 years old.
As the internship had come to an end, Maxim Vorona returned to St. Petersburg to defend his thesis. He thus finished his education at Mining University and thereupon returned to Freiberg to pursue PhD studies. After graduation, Maxim was approached by several companies. He decided to take chances on MIBRAG. Almost ten years ago, the Mining University's graduate joined MIBRAG Consulting as a project manager. By now, he has advanced to the Deputy CEO and Director of Mining Operations.
MIBRAG specialises in extracting and processing brown coal. It operates quarries in Saxony, supplies the commodity to the power stations in Lippendorf and Schkopau and heating stations built around industrial enterprises in central Germany. The company is part of EPH, a Czechia-based energy company, which also holds another asset in Germany - LEAG, Germany's second-largest electricity producer.
MIBRAG Consulting International provides consulting services for both EPH and other mining enterprises operating throughout the world. The entity's primary focus is on the technical audit of mineral assets, which could be coal, lithium or any kinds of deposits, for advising on whether they are worth purchasing and investing in. The company is also involved in reclamation and environmental remediation projects.
"When I took the job, the corporation needed people with a deep understanding of the market, who would know the structure of an individual seam yet also be familiar with trends in the global economy. Now I am responsible for developing the growth strategy of the business. If political and economic changes occur, I have to adapt the company to them. EPH employs 8,500 people in Germany - they work at mines and power plants. MIBRAG is one of the largest employers in Saxony. The level of responsibility given Germany's commitment to phasing out the use of coal as an energy source is enormous," notes Maxim Vorona.
Let us recall here that the last hard coal mine in Germany was closed back in 2018. The law on abandoning lignite has also been passed recently, with a complete phase-out scheduled for 2038.
"Over time, we'll have fewer and fewer mining engineers in Germany since we won't have coal deposits where they could work. It doesn't mean they won't be in demand, but obviously, the market won't be able to accommodate as many of them as there were ten years ago. First, Germany has limestone and gypsum reserves. The possibility of developing deposits of rare-earth metals is currently being considered. Second, companies investing in international projects will always need their own specialists. These are likely to be a few highly qualified experts working at a head office in Germany. Their task will be to monitor how the extraction, processing and transportation of raw materials are carried out abroad. Third, many students who complete their education in Germany leave for work, for instance, to Australia or Canada," argues Maxim Vorona.
An important question is what will happen to specialists who work at mines, quarries, processing and power plants? There is a risk that entire regions solely dependent on the mining industry will fall into decay.
"For example, MIBRAG announced this month that the Deuben Industrial Power Plant will have been shut down by the end of this year. As a result of socially acceptable job cuts, about 400 people will lose their jobs. Employees who will have turned 58 by then, that is, being several years away from retirement, will be dismissed. They will be, however, compensated for leaving early," explains MIBRAG Consulting's Director of Mining Operations.
Those who have not yet reached this age will be offered alternative employment opportunities in other company's units. Therein employees over 58 years old will be retired early and replaced by the workers from the Deuben power plant.
While electricians, mechanics, and automation specialists working at power plants will not be affected by the forthcoming transformation, the same cannot be said about miners. Their area of expertise is a lot more narrow.
"We are not closing plants today or tomorrow. It will happen in 15 to 17 years. Moreover, the cessation of coal mining and coal-fired power generation doesn't mean that quarries and power stations can be abandoned. The lands being in use have to be reclaimed, which will take several more years to complete. We have elaborated the procedure, according to which waste pits are first filled with water, followed by implementing real estate projects. The buildings are situated on the banks of the newly created lakes. The more traditional way of dealing with the problem is building wind farms or installing solar panels wherein waste dumps were located. We are thinking of different ways to restructure the business. But no one can guarantee that our government's approved strategy on stopping the coal power generation will go as planned," adds Maxim Vorona.
2038 is the set deadline on which the energy transition should have been completed. The country's authorities have additionally defined the milestone deadlines. The commission will meet and revise the closing dates for each particular thermal power station within the agreed periods, presumably once every two to three years.
"Discussions on whether it is feasible to stop coal production have been continuing here. I have a feeling Germany has overestimated its capabilities in switching to renewables. Water, air, and the sun are phenomena that humans cannot influence in any way. While nuclear power plants always work at their maximum capacity, it's not how gas and coal-fired power stations function. They can either cover for peaks of energy consumption or, if necessary, operate at reduced capacity. Supporters of renewables tend to forget that more often than not, higher shares of green energy in the energy mix are also due to thermal power stations. We just generate less energy. But what if the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining? Then we have to run at 100% capacity. This is how it happened at the beginning of this year. But if we no longer exist, how will the situation unfold the next time around? Of course, taking care of the environment is crucial, but being logical cannot be forbidden. Eight billion people live on our planet, and the energy consumption is only bound to increase. Next year, Germany will see the remaining nuclear power stations shut down. Several coal-fired power plant will be closed down as well. Altogether they accounted for 20% of energy generation in 2020. Once these closures have been done, we'll have a benchmark based on which we can make more or less accurate forecasts. Regardless, I am sure that giving up on fossil energy sources is not going to happen, not in the next few decades at least," claims Maxim Vorona.
Last year's data on the distribution of energy in Germany is as follows: 50% ensured by renewables and 50% by fossil fuels. Yet this January, the ratio was different, with renewables comprising 37% and hydrocarbon fuels 63%.
The top manager of German MIBRAG rarely visits Russia nowadays. He is making exceptions for the Russian-German Raw Materials Dialogue, though. Since 2014, he regularly comes to St. Petersburg to attend the event.