FORST, Germany, June 19 (Reuters) - Eastern Germany's historic mining belt could get a new lease of life thanks to plans to build the country's largest battery park at the site of Boxberg, a communist-era coal-fired power plant on the Polish border.
The project, unveiled by the Czech-owned mining and power company LEAG last week, involves building a 200 million euro ($218 million) facility to store for wind and solar energy that will gradually replace the sprawling coal pits of the Lusatia region.
It follows on from plans announced last year by LEAG to build solar and wind plants with a capacity of up to 7 gigawatts, which the company expects to involve more than 1,000 employees directly or indirectly.
They are to be built on some of the 33,000 hectares (330 square km) of former coal mines in Lusatia by 2030.
The plans are emblematic of the drive by Chancellor Olaf Scholz's government to accelerate the phase-out of coal power towards a carbon neutral economy by as early as 2030 versus the agreed target of 2038.
But the transition, and efforts to accelerate it, gets a mixed welcome in a region that remains sceptical about its social and ecological impact and the technical challenges to be overcome.
The mood in Lusatia reflects a broader unease with green policies in Germany that is fuelling support for the anti-establishment AfD party to record highs, especially in the east where it is on track to win three state votes next year.
Ute Liebsch, the head of Lusatia's IG BCE workers union, fears a rapid coal exit without enough other industries to hire workers will prompt more young people to leave, comparing it to the ructions that followed Germany's reunification in 1990.
"That hurt then, this would hurt twice as much. We want to keep people here," Liebsch said.
A campaign using the slogan "Awesome Lusatia" has been launched in a bid to attract young professionals to the region, which spreads across the states of Brandenburg and Saxony and where incomes are typically lower than the national average.
"We need to work on Lusatia's image massively ... We have to contend with extreme prejudices of the rest of Germany," said Knut Abraham, a conservative politician from the region, citing negative stereotypes of unemployment and substance abuse.
"The probability that the AfD will win this constituency is 93% ... Any uncertainty among people helps the AfD," Abraham said, adding he felt the AfD's anti-immigration, Eurosceptic agenda could hurt the region's ability to attract the investors, students and specialists it so desperately needs.
What happens to the thousands of mining jobs that will eventually disappear is also a concern. Many of LEAG's 8,000 coal workers are expected to retire by 2030 or retrain in renewable energy.
But that retraining is not happening fast enough, Liebsch said.
Only 18% of locals believe politicians are doing enough to counteract the consequences of the coal phase-out, a survey published in May by broadcaster rbb showed, while 70% worry electricity could become expensive.
So while Green activists have held regular protests in Lusatia demanding an exit from coal, and advocates urge a 2030 phaseout citing rising global temperatures, local politicians are pushing back against the pace of change.
"It is fundamentally unrealistic that the coal phase-out can be achieved in 2030," Christine Herntier, mayor of the town of Spremberg, told Reuters.
Herntier and dozens of other Lusatian mayors have formed an alliance to press further demands in case of a rapid coal exit.
LEAG argues the battery project is a blueprint for a green transition.
"The Gigawatt Factory is designed to replace coal-fired power generation in the future and with the project we want to show that this transformation from coal to renewables is technically possible," Rainer Schiller, head of large-scale energy storage for LEAG, told Reuters.
However, technical challenges remain and Schiller called the start of the battery project "more or less an experiment" to ensure that energy loads are kept stable while switching from coal to renewable energy.
Another hurdle in phasing out coal production involves water supply, with the move set to reduce the amount of groundwater pumped in the area, which would hit supply to a budding green hydrogen industry and flows to Berlin via the Spree river.
In Lusatia's Schwarze Industrial Park, engineers are working on a pilot project for a green hydrogen plant with a planned annual output of 1,000 tonnes that will depend on reliable water supply.
"The question is how quickly do you shut down the pumps so that the Spree is still sufficiently supplied," Ben Schueppel, head of the Reflau hydrogen project, told Reuters.
In the worst case scenario, the coal exit could reduce water supplies to Berlin by 75%, according to a report by the federal environment agency published in June.
"In long periods of drought, the Spree could become a trickle in sections, with serious consequences for the ecology, the Spreewald and Berlin's drinking water supply," said Ingolf Arnold, head of management association Lusatia Water Cluster.
($1 = 0.9160 euros)
Editing by Matthias Williams
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.
Riham Alkousaa is the energy and climate change correspondent for Reuters in Germany, covering Europe’s biggest economy's green transition and Europe’s energy crisis. Alkousaa is a Columbia University Journalism School graduate and has 10 years of experience as a journalist covering Europe’s refugee crisis and the Syrian civil war for publications such Der Spiegel Magazine, USA Today and the Washington Times. Alkousaa was on two teams that won Reuters Journalist of the year awards in 2022 for her coverage of Europe’s energy crisis and the Ukraine war. She has also won the Foreign Press Association Award in 2017 in New York and the White House Correspondent Association Scholarship that year.