From Grey to Green

Essen in North Rhine-Westphalia was once the epicenter of the coal and steel industries in Germany. Today, the Ruhr region is powering Germany’s energy revolution, and Essen’s green energy cluster has become a hotspot for innovative energy solutions.

May 2020

Back in 1985: Clouds of steam billow up from the giant fire-quenching water tanks at a coking plant at Zollverein, in the industrial Ruhr region of North Rhine-Westphalia. The factory was operational until 1993. © Jochen Eckel/SZ Photo/laif

Traces of the coal and steel industry can be found everywhere in North Rhine-Westphalia. Heavy industry shaped the state’s character for around 200 years, until the great coal crisis at the end of the 1950s. In subsequent decades, dozens of mines and collieries closed their doors, especially in the Ruhr area. Disused mines, steelworks and old workers’ settlements lay derelict for many years, but today they are museums, cultural centers and offices. Lignite continues to be mined between the cities of Cologne, Aachen and Mönchengladbach over an area of 2,500km2. However, the end is in sight for the industry: The German Government is committed to shifting the country’s energy supply away from nuclear and fossil fuels and toward renewable energies by 2038. The phasing out of coal is a central plank of the Energy Transition.

Essen’s green energy cluster

Structural change is particularly evident in Essen, a city in the Ruhr area with 590,000 inhabitants. Environmental protection and green tech play a particularly important role in the city which was awarded the title of “European Green Capital” in 2017. “When it comes to developing new ways of energy production or technologies for improved energy efficiency and storage, you can’t beat Essen,” says Andre Boschem, managing director of the local economic development agency (EWG).

Essen is home to the listed power utilities RWE, E.ON and Innogy – companies that were heavily impacted by the Energy Transition. They are all working hard on their future positioning. Innogy, for example, has set up a real-world laboratory for energy system transformation in Essen and is aiming to make a neighborhood fossil- fuel-free. They are joined by SMEs from the energy sector and renowned research institutions who are all driving the development of new technologies and working on solutions for sustainable energy production. This energy cluster offers a vibrant ecosystem for investors. One outstanding example is the joint venture between the German electricity producer STEAG and the Swedish energy digitalization expert NODA, which was launched in 2018 with a remit to use district heating more efficiently. The Ruhr region also hosts the important “E-world energy & water” trade fair every year.

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