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“Germany has a clear energy transition plan based on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and we want to increase the share of renewable energy” Jürgen Kretschmann: German Economist And University President

This interview is part of the Global Speaker Series. A podcast partnership between the Wyoming Humanities (ThinkWY.org) and the Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs (www.jhcga.org).  With the goal of educating and inspiring listeners, the series interviews global thought leaders on relevant issues impacting Wyoming and the world such as the future of energy, the impacts of climate change, trends in business and entrepreneurship, foreign policy, issues impacting global coal communities, and more.

Jürgen Kretschmann , German economist and university president discusses the future of coal energy in Germany. Born and raised in Gelsenkirchen, His post doctorate research followed, specializing in geo-resources and materials science.

Kretschmann held various management positions at Ruhrkohle AG. RAG AG, formerly Ruhrkohle AG, is the largest German coal mining corporation. The company headquarters are in Essen in the Ruhr area. The company was founded on 27 November 1968, consolidating several coalmining corporations into the Ruhrkohle AG. Jürgen served as personal advisor to the Deputy Chairman of the Executive Board and Labour Director of the RAG.

In 2001, he joined RAG BILDUNG GmbH as a member of the management board. Since 2006, he is chairperson of the management board of DMT-Gesellschaft für Lehre und Bildung GmbH and president of the Technische Hochschule Georg Agricola University in Bochum. DMT-Gesellschaft für Lehre und Bildung mbH (DMT-LB), based in Bochum, is a collective association of the German coal industry and acts as the funding organization of Deutsches Bergbau-Museum Bochum (German Mining Museum) .

Kretschmann is a member of numerous national and international professional bodies, currently (2018/19) President of the Society of Mining Professors.

Here is a sampling of some of the questions we asked Jürgen:

  • Wyoming is the U.S.’s largest producer of coal and in recent years has been on the frontline in grappling with the changing economics of coal.  At one time the Ruhr region that you come from in Germany, was one of Europe’s leading coal producing regions.  Why did mines in Germany close and what was the government response?
  • What are Germany’s current climate goals?  Does Germany plan to continue to use coal as part of its energy mix into the future?
  • What are the main differences between Germany and the US in dealing with these public policy challenges – for example the loss of jobs in coal mining?
  • On the energy front – here in Wyoming there has been a big push to lead the nation in carbon capture technologies.  Are there similar efforts underway in Germany?

Jürgen: Germany has a clear energy transition plan, based on the reduction of greenhouse emissions, and we want to increase the share of renewable energy.

Emy diGrappa: Hello. I'm Emy diGrappa. Each week, we bring you stories asking our guest the question, "why?"

Emy diGrappa: We learn about their passion, why they do what they do, why should we care, and what can we learn? What better place to explore the human landscape than from the state known for it's incredible landscapes, Wyoming. And what better organization than Wyoming Humanities, serving our state for over 45 years. We share stories, ideas, and wisdom about the human experience. This is What's Your Why.

Emy diGrappa: Today, we are talking to Jürgen Kretschmann. He is a German economist, and university president in Germany. What is the university that you are president of?

Jürgen: Yes, I'm the president of a Technical University in particular. This is an old mining school, it's more than 200 years old and it's located in the city of Bochum, which is in the center of the Ruhrgebiet, the Ruhrgebiet is a traditional coal mining region here in Germany.

Emy diGrappa: That is really interesting. Tell me about your background, and particularly as it relates to coal in Germany and how you got into that work?

Jürgen: I'm coming from a traditional coal miner's family. So my grandfather was a coal miner, he worked underground, I have two uncles working in a mine, and my father was a truck driver, supplying coal mines. So I was the first in my family who studied, so after finishing my PhD, it was no surprise that is started to work as a mining manager in a coal mining company.

Jürgen: And that was now, it's now almost 30 years ago.

Emy diGrappa: Wow, so no wonder that is your passion, it's- it's a family tradition. What is the, the current climate of the coal industry in Germany?

Jürgen: Our government has decided to phase out the coal production. The hard coal mining, the production of hard coal mining, already ended last year, end of 2018, and the production of lignite coal, uh, will end in 2038, so in roughly 20 years. So, we are in the phasing out uh, phase, and uh ... well due to the policy of de-carbonization here in Germany.

Emy diGrappa: And how is that affecting your family and other families in that area?

Jürgen: There's a rule in Germany that no coal miner uh, can be unemployed, and that's why since many years we have retraining programs, uh, a person who trains more than 10,000 coal miners in their former job, uh for new jobs. For instance, some of them are really good technicians, and we are an aging- we have an aging population here in Germany, so many former coal miners, technicians, electricians, were trained now for hospitals.

Jürgen: And because hospitals are hi- high tech plants too, there are emergency rooms, etc. so that was a very successful retraining program. And others, could have- we offered them early retirements, so coal miners can retire when then- when they are uh 57 years old. The normal retirement age in Germany is 66, so there were many, many programs for the miners, and still today we are proud that although we lost more than 100,000 jobs in the coal mining industry, no miner was unemployed.

Emy diGrappa: That is a success story for sure, that's incredible.

Jürgen: Absolutely.

Emy diGrappa: What are the differences between Germany and the U.S. in dealing with coal and coal mining?

Jürgen: Germany is- basically, it's a society based on consensus, based on social [inaudible 00:04:23]. So we- even the Green party and the coal mining companies try to find a process that is not only ecological sustainable, a closer process, but um, social sustainable, too. So, and that's why we always- uh we have many round tables, many discussions, it takes a while of course, but it's a common uh policy, that we have a, a, a smooth phase out process now for 20 years. You mi- you might ask why 20 years? Why not faster?

Jürgen: But, the phase out of coal production is integrated in the process we called-the so called, uh, we called structural change, that means we, in this time, in this 20 years, we have to create new jobs, new perspectives for the next generation, and this takes a while. And that's why it's a slow process of decline.

Emy diGrappa: So, you're saying-

Jürgen: I hope this answers the question (laughs).

Emy diGrappa: Well, it does, but I'm- I'm curious, when you were talking about the German society is basically a socialist country, correct?

Jürgen: No, it's a country with, which values social peace very high-

Emy diGrappa: Oh, okay.

Jürgen: Not socialist, but social peace. Maybe this is because of my, my German accent, it was not clear. So we don't like strikes, we don't like riots, we don't, we don't like fights between employer and employees, so we try to avoid this.

Emy diGrappa: So is the coal, uh, mining industry owned by the government? Or is it owned by private companies?

Jürgen: No it's 100 percent owned by private companies. The government has, has no coal mining.

Emy diGrappa: Oh, okay. So the younger generations that are coming up, what is their attitude towards the coal mining industry?

Jürgen: I think they're not really interested in coal mining industry anymore. So when I was young, in our area, just for an example, we had 300,000 coal miners, and our university was the only one, with roughly 1,000 students at that time. So today, we have, in our region, zero coal miners, but more than 200,000 students, so it was  - it was really a change.

Jürgen: So, 50 years ago, except our university, there was no other university in the area. Now we have uh, more than 20 universities, so the next generation h- uh, has better options then the generation of my father and my grandfather had, so they got, basically they got better jobs [inaudible 00:07:03]. A society based on coal mining, now we are a society based on knowledge.

Jürgen: And that is, that's what we call structural change.

Emy diGrappa: And, and so I'm just curious, because your specialty, your interest and expertise has been in the coal mining industry, so, how are you looking into the future about your future of, you know, your- expanding your interests of energy, and energy consumption?

Jürgen: Oh yeah, of course. Okay, Germany has a clear energy transition plan, based on, uh, the reduction of uh, greenhouse gas emissions and, we want to increase the share of renewable energy from, at the moment, 20 percent to 60 percent in 2050, and in our consumption, where we use the lignite coal, we want to increase the sale of renewable energies to 80 percent in 2050.

Jürgen: So this means a clear strategy, even for my university, that we will focus on renewable energies, in electrical engineering, in mechanical engineering ... and in the mining sector of our university, we will focus on post-mining activities.

Emy diGrappa: An- and I guess um, in terms of, you know, your background as an economist-

Jürgen: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emy diGrappa: But, you have worked basically studying the coal industry, it sounds like, mostly.

Jürgen: Yes. Yes, yes that's right. And since I'm working in the coal mining industry since 1990, the coal mining industry was declining. And since that time, the coal mining industry tried to create new jobs, new jobs in uh, different kind of industry. So at that time, we only- the company where I worked for, RAG, they only had coal mines, but they start to develop an area be- today, called the white area, the white side of RAG. The coal is the black side. And this was very successful during the last 30 years.

Jürgen: And this, in this so called white sector, we created, at the moment, we created 30- 33,000 new jobs. I mean, we lost more than 150,000 jobs in coal mining, but still, 33,000 jobs is something. Gives perspective for the next generation.

Emy diGrappa: Right. And, and so, and- and creating those new jobs, and um, moving people into new technologies, and-

Jürgen: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emy diGrappa: Do you follow the coal industry in the United States? Do you follow it and study it?

Jürgen: I'm studying it, of course, but I'm uh, in the U.S. maybe once a year, literally do the conference, doing the conference uh, for, of uh, the Society of Mining, [inaudible 00:09:56], and uh exploration engineers. So, uh because I have a good network with many professors, uh, in mining, I know a little bit about um, the U.S. coal mining industry and, I know that it's stagnating, and I know that the peak of the coal production uh, has been in the past.

Jürgen: So they are- they, they probably the industry shrinks, yeah. During the Obama era, people, pro- professors, miners, spoke about the war on- so called war on coal. Today this war on coal, I do- I think it's over, but still, coal mining is declining. So this means there's a lot to do in the mining regions to create new jobs in different, in other industries.

Emy diGrappa: So do you see this as being a different or a similar challenge to what Germany has gone through?

Jürgen: (Laughs). It's a similar challenge. Phase out process of our coal mining. We were the biggest employer here, by far the biggest employer in Germany. It took 50 years, it took a whole generation, a whole generation of- th- uh, to create the new jobs for the next generation, so it's- you really need a vision and a long-term program to do this, you cannot just close mines, and, and then if you just lose the jobs, the people will move.

Jürgen: The people will move to other states, to other regions where they get new jobs. So, I cannot on the telephone give advice to Wyoming, but, I only can speak from my experience; it takes a really a long-term plan, uh, how the- how a state like Wyoming should be developed.

Emy diGrappa: So, I think that that right there is some really good advice about the long-term vision, that it's not just about the coal mines that are closing, but that they are an energy resource of the past and we have to move forward. And, you've been saying, in this conversation, that Germany has done that successfully.

Emy diGrappa: So, related to your work, more broadly, what keeps you up at night in regards to-

Jürgen: (laughs).

Emy diGrappa: ... what has to happen for Germany to s- to succeed and continue growing their, the future in technology?

Jürgen: Yeah, two things have to be done here. In our region, we closed more than 200 coal mines, and we have still more than 20,000 shafts and, so there's a lot to do in what we called post mining. So we have to, really to analyze, monitor the [inaudible 00:12:36] of, of the mine water, we don't know how the mine water will ... will uh, react in- chemical react in the next years, so we have to monitor them, we have to take care of the ground water.

Jürgen: You know there are some risks for the population, it is- we mined under many cities, so we mined under a population of more than 5,000,000 people, so we have to avoid any risks for them, so there's a lot to do on the post mining side. On the other side, uh, yeah we have to develop new technologies, better technologies to increase the share of renewable energies.

Jürgen: We are not bad, we are work heat and wind energy and, and others, but still- e-especially in battery technology and others uh, we have to do a lot of, uh, a lot in research and development, and so this, this, I think is the biggest challenge, or one of the biggest challenges for our university in the next five or 10 years. So that keeps me awake at night, of course.

Emy diGrappa: (Laughs).

Jürgen: And my granddaughter. My granddaughter Greta, she is now my first granddaughter. She is eight months old, and of course I want to leave her a better planet that's sure, and maybe future grandchildren will come, I hope. And so that keeps me awake at night too, think about my granddaughter Greta and try to do something for her and for that generation.

Emy diGrappa: Oh, that's- that's excellent. And I- I- I love that you're thinking that way when we all need to be thinking about our grandkids and, and their future. So, I really appreciate you talking to me today, thank you so much, Jürgen.

Jürgen: Still, of course, I'm happy to talk to you and hopefully uh, I have the opportunity to visit Wyoming in the future. I really love to do it.

Emy diGrappa: I hope to see you here. Thank you very much.

Jürgen: Okay, Emy thank you so much, bye bye.

Emy diGrappa: Bye bye.

Emy diGrappa: Thank you for joining us for this episode of What's Your Why, a production of Think Why, Wyoming Humanities. This has been executive producer Emy diGrappa. Please subscribe and never miss a show. For more information, go to thinkwy.org.