30 Oct 2017, 00:00

COP23 - See the energy transition in Germany's industrial centre

Germany’s coal mining state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) hosts the United Nations’ COP23 climate summit in Bonn. The epicentre of Germany’s industrialisation, this region is responsible for almost one percent of global CO2 emissions, and is strongly affected by the country’s shift to renewables. It also boasts numerous projects within easy reach of the conference that showcase Germany’s transition to a low-carbon future. This factsheet lists some suggestions for journalists interested in gaining first-hand experience of Germany’s Energiewende.

Its fossil legacy and industrial structure make the state of North Rhine-Westphalia a crucial testbed for the energy transition’s future. For journalists covering COP23, the region provides a wealth of research opportunities on the impact of decarbonisation on a highly industrialised economy.

Whatever happens in this region will have substantial implications for self-proclaimed climate protection pioneer Germany – and COP23 will put that image under intense scrutiny.

The federal environment ministry and NRW’s state government have teamed up to showcase the headway Germany has made in transforming its energy sector and integrating renewables by presenting various projects in North-Rhine Westphalia to journalists during COP23.

In 2016, the Clean Energy Wire organised a study tour for journalists focused on the decarbonisation of Europe’s industrial heartland. The programme of this tour provides useful research tips and background.

General contacts

This region with almost 18 million inhabitants is Germany’s most populous state. NRW was the first in the country to introduce a Climate Protection Law in 2013, which set binding greenhouse gas reduction targets. It aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25 percent by 2020, and at least 80 percent by 2050, compared to 1990 levels.

At present, the region still generates around three quarters of gross power from coal, while renewables account for about 10 percent – far below the national average of about 30 percent. This is one reason why NRW is responsible for more than a third of Germany’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

NRW is one of the regions involved in the Energy Transition Platform, which is designed to support highly industrialised and carbon-intensive states and regional governments all over the world in developing and implementing innovative clean energy policies. A local contact is NRW’s Energy Agency, which is also involved in the project.

There are numerous institutions in the region that can provide valuable insights into the energy transition and its local impact.

The Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy is a think tank specialising in the transition towards a low-carbon economy. The institute also organises a series of talks and debates near the Bonn conference centre together with the NRW energy acency.

For a strictly business-oriented view, contact economic think tank RWI Essen and the Cologne Institute for Economic Research (IW Köln). If you are interested in the opinion of an environmental NGO, contact the local branch of Friends of the Earth .


Germany's ascent as an industrial power would not have been possible without NRW, its largest coal-mining heartland, which sits on Europe's largest lignite reserves.

The open pit coal mines and associated power plants located between the cities of Aachen, Cologne, and Mönchengladbach can be observed from a number of viewing platforms installed by operating utility RWE. The view from the ’skywalk‘ in Jackerath is particularly impressive. RWE has a visitor service hotline.

While the mining of lignite continues unabated, the end of hard coal mining in 2018 was agreed for economic rather than environmental reasons, based on a broad social consensus. Chancellor Angela Merkel has called the agreement a possible blueprint for a lignite phase-out.

The central player to contact on the end of hard coal mining is the RAG foundation, which was established to ensure a socially acceptable phase-out. The Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex in Essen, once one of Europe’s largest hard coal mines, is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and hosts a museum.



The Energiewende has a particularly strong effect on the region also because it is home to some of Germany's most important heavy industries, such as steelmaker thyssenkrupp, as well as leading utilities RWE and E.ON, both of which have split themselves in two in response to the country’s shift from fossil to renewable energy sources.

E.ON's fossil spin-off Uniper is based in Düsseldorf, while E.ON, now focused on renewables, is headquartered in Essen. After the carve-out of renewables company innogy, RWE focuses on conventional power generation. Both are also based in Essen. The companies provide important lessons on the Energiewende’s impact on big utilities.

A rapidly growing new energy company challenging established business models is the Cologne-based NextKraftwerke, an operator of a renewable ’virtual power plant’.

Green mobility

‘Car nation’ Germany has not managed to reduce emissions in the transport sector, prompting critics to argue that BMW, Daimler, and VW are too hesitant to embrace e-mobility.

Since established carmakers did not want to produce a purpose-built and emission-free delivery van, Deutsche Post DHL has launched its own electric model, Streetscooter, turning the logistics group from a car industry client into a competitor. Streetscooter is a remarkable success story. It is manufactured in Aachen, where new budget e-car maker e.GO is also based. Both have their roots in Aachen University projects.

But the shift to a low-carbon transport system is not only about cars. For example, the New Emscher Mobility (NEMO) project integrates new mobility concepts into the renaturation of the Emscher river, a tributary of the Rhine. 

Another good point of contact is the Center for Transformation Research and Sustainability (TransZent) at Wuppertal University, which is involved in mobility-related projects.

All texts created by the Clean Energy Wire are available under a “Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Licence (CC BY 4.0)” . They can be copied, shared and made publicly accessible by users so long as they give appropriate credit, provide a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made.


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