Today, only two hard coal mines remain, and in 2018 they’ll both be shut down. Germany continues to import hard coal from other countries for a substantial portion of its energy production—another habit it’s trying to kick, in line with its 2050 renewable energy target. The country also still extracts soft brown coal called lignite from hundreds of open-pit mines across the country. However, with the federal elections coming up in September, the phaseout of lignite is on the political agenda. Such a move would cost another several thousand jobs in the Ruhr alone—forcing the government to consider how to achieve a fair and final phaseout, and the role of renewable energy in that.
The move away from hard coal has left a lingering legacy in some cities, where unemployment can exceed 10 percent. Still, overall it “was really a soft and just transition,” says Stefanie Groll, head of Environmental Policy and Sustainability at the Heinrich Boll Foundation in Berlin. “In the Ruhr area, union representatives and local politicians worked out a plan to compensate and requalify people who worked in the coal industry,” she says. For families like Spahn’s, it was a success: under pressure from the labor unions, the mines where his sons worked launched a proactive campaign in 1994 to train employees for different careers. “My one son is now a professional security guard and the other is a landscaper,” he says.
At Zollverein, the viewing platform offers a 360-degree view of the physical change the transformation has brought about. The Ruhr’s low-built cities intermingle with lush forests and parks. Amid smokestacks stand the spires of wind turbines. Zollverein’s 55-meter- (180-foot-) high winding tower, perched above the underground mine shaft, itself makes a striking contribution to the landscape: Since the mine’s revival it has been dubbed “the Eiffel Tower of the Ruhr,” highlighting an important trend: the cultural rebranding of the Ruhr’s industrial history.