The Coal File A journey on coal, energy and landscape in Europe

In 1951, after World War II, the idea of Europe begins with the birth of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). Today the European Union (EU) is a completely different institution, but the importance and the impact of the coal in the european energy production is still strong, despite new technologies and many alternatives. Worldwide, even now the 44% of the world CO2 emissions are related to coal burning processes.

(Cover image: Cottbuser Ostsee, observation tower, Cottbus, Germany, 2018)

Elbe river, Wedel, Hamburg, 2017

Germany is the 7th major importer of coal in the world, Poland produce the great majority of his energy from thermal coal plants, and in Italy the coal burning processes grew together with renewable energies. The acceleration of decarbonisation however is changing the shape of the coal economy.

TCF is an ongoing long term project, started in Italy in 2015. It depicts the coal burning industry today, trough an exploration of Europe.

Ratcliffe-on-Soar Power Station, Nottinghamshire, England, 2018

Divided in chapters, I’m covering one country at a time, in a mix of critic and contemplative observation of landscape and human interactions, with the aid of a 4x5 large format camera. A selection of the first three chapters is here on display.



Vado Ligure, Italy, 2015

Brindisi, Civitavecchia, La Spezia, Vado Ligure: these four cities host the biggest and most problematic thermal coal plants in Italy.

The area of the big plants is explored, dismantled, observed in order to understand the impact and the permanent presence of the coal energy production on the italian territory, focusing on landscape, environment, and geopolitical issues.

Federico II coal plant, Cerano (Brindisi), Italy, 2014

Federico II, few kilometres from the city and the harbour of Brindisi, is the biggest thermal plant in Italy. Enel, the company owning the factory, expects to convert the plant to gas fuel and renewable technologies before 2025.

It's the worst climate polluting power station in Italy.

Cerano, Brindisi, Italy, 2015 - 2014

In Brindisi, the farms in the area are highly damaged by the impact of the coal plant. Coal ashes and leakage transformed the local agriculture. A 12 km long conveyor belt links the plant to the port, where the coal arrives by sea from other countries, and cross a big farming area, appreciated once as an high quality artichokes cultivation area.

The cooling water spilled from the power plant to the Adriatic sea. Due to the higher temperature of the water, especially during the winter, it became a popular area for fishermen. (Cerano, Brindisi, Italy, 2014)
Cerano, Brindisi, Italy, 2015

Different technologies to reduce coal ashes have been adopted, before and after pollution investigations from the italian authorities.

The tall chimney of the “Eugenio Montale” coal plant, in the industrial zone of La Spezia, Italy (2014)

In La Spezia, especially during the twentieth century, most of the gulf was converted in commercial harbor and shipyards. The city hosts one of the most important naval base of the italian navy.

La Spezia, Italy, 2015 - 2014

In this scenario, one of the biggest coal plants in Italy operates in the city, between a residential area and the industrial sites. The coal stock it is hidden from sight, but the presence of the big coal plant is felt strongly by the local population.

The docks of the Enel power plant in La Spezia, where the bulk cargos dock. (La Spezia, Italy, 2014)

Until the middle of '900 the portion of the coastline called Fossamastra, close to the marshy area called Stagnoni, was used for mussels harvesting (here called "muscoli", literally "muscles"), and bathing.

In Vado Ligure, the coal power station was closed in 2014 for a judicial procedure related to the air pollution in the area of Savona (Liguria). (Vado Ligure, Italy, 2015)

Situated in an highly populated coastline area, Vado Ligure was the first case in Italy (and one of the few worldwide) that a coal plant was forced to close for the direct correlation to public health.

Vado Ligure, Italy, 2015

The little town is still intimidated by the presence of the two big smokestack, just behind the town center, and the big coal conveyor belt.

Civitavecchia, one of the most ancient harbour in Europe. (2015)

"Eugenio Montale" thermal coal plant (Civitavecchia, Italy, 2015)

In Civitavecchia, the impact of the coal arriving by cargo ships is catastrophic for all the flora and fauna of the Tirrenian sea.

Civitavecchia, Italy, 2015



Cottbusser See observation tower. (Cottbus, Germany, 2017)

Germany holds few records related to the coal industry, especially for the use of “brown coal” (lignite), a specific kind of fuel dug just under the surface of the soil, available in different areas of the country, but also imported from abroad.

One of the most relevant area in Europe for the production and the consumption of coal is located in the Rhine Valley, not far from Köln and Dusseldorf. (Garzweiler, 2017)

Endless lignite surface mines makes entire towns to be demolished and built in other areas.

Around Garzweiler, Germany, 2017

Artificial hills covers the old exhausted mines, and are now in use for agriculture and wind power turbines.

(Neurath, 2017)

Big coal plants are disseminated in the area, including one of the most impactful plant in Europe, Neurath. One of the plant chimneys is taller than the famous gothic catedral of Köln, one of the tallest church ever built.

Farming activities around the old (1st photo) and the new Neurath plants (2nd and 3rd photo). The excess heat of the turbines is often used for the nearby greenhouses. The new plant area, operating from 2012, doubled the capacity of the power station, but collides with the german decarbonisation processes. (Neurath, 2017)

The Welcome Point in Wedel, at the entrance of the port of Hamburg. (Hamburg, 2017)

The harbour of Hamburg welcomes every year 8 milion tons of coal, delivered by sea, on huge cargo ships.

The conveyor belt of the Wedel power station, few km outside the city, on the banks of the Elbe river. (Wedel, Hamburg, 2017)

The city produce and use electricity and heating mainly from big coal plants, not far from the city centre.

Moorburg power station, in the harbour area of Hamburg, started it's operations in 2015. Owned by Vattenfall company, it is the second most recent new born coal plant in Germany. (Hamburg, 2017)
On the left, Heizkraftwerk Tiefstack power station, in the outskirts of Hamburg. On the right, Wedel urban area. (Hamburg, 2017)

The River Spree bankside in Berlin. The smokestacks of a former coal plant, now a event and disco venue, mixes with a new generation small gas power station. (Berlin, 2017)

In Berlin it may happen that walking trough Treptower Park, one of the main green area of the capital city, along the Spree river, you can recognise the Klingenberg coal-fired power stations, that, together with a ring of other power plants around the city, produces electricity and heating for the local population and industry.

Klingenberg power station, seen from different perspectives
Kraftwerk Reuter West conveyor belt. Berlin, 2017
A coal bulk carrier, passing trough a canal in the historic borough of Spandau. (Berlin, 2017)

In the past, a belt of coal fired power stations determined the balance of the city. The actual energy production still reflect this former city configuration.

A view of Cottbuser Ostsee. Just outside Cottbus, after 30 years of lignite mining, the Cottbus-Nord opencast mine is being transformed into a lake, trying to gain an hard balance between nature and post-industrial landscape.

The constant landscape engineering and planning in the Lausitz area, in areas related to Leipzig and Cottbus, created one of the biggest lake district in Europe, almost all manufactured, made it possible by flooding the exhausted open pit mines.

Sachsendorf area in Cottbus, 2017

At the edge of Cottbus lies Sachsendorf-Madlow, the largest panel construction development in Brandenburg. Built in a few years for the workers needed by the lignite and energy industry, the development lost 50 per cent of its inhabitants after the german reunification. Now it is part of the IBA-See landscape and reconstruction project.

A tourist port outside Lagovida Resort, on the Störmthaler lake. Leipzig, 2017

Regulating water, flora and fauna endlessly, with the idea to substitute the coal industry with tourism and leisure, is one of the main goal of the IBA-See and other long-term landscape planning projects in the Lausitz area.

Störmthaler See, artificial lake. Leipzig, 2017


2018 - ongoing

Pontefract Castle, 2018

Since 2012, Great Britain has embarked on a rapid phase out from coal, and the few active thermoelectric plants are less and less relevant.

Trent Lock Golf & Country Club, Long Eaton, Nottinghamshire, 2018

For years committed to explorations around coal and energy, during my last trip on the subject, in November 2018, I started the chapter on the British Isles beginning from the peculiar territory of Central England, where in 2016 in North Yorkshire closed the ultimate depth mine. The project is still ongoing.

The Coronavirus lockdown, in 2020, anticipated the planned shutdown of Fiddlers Ferry coal plant, near Liverpool. (The Ferry Tavern, Fiddlers Ferry, Liverpool, 2018)

In 2019, for the first time since the Industrial Revolution, the national electricity grid did not burn any coal for a whole week. The coronavirus pandemic determined another acceleration to the general decarbonisation process, due to the lower request of energy during the partial closures of the economic activities between march and april, that resulted in closing of more plants and facilities.

Two different perspectives of Ratcliffe-on-Soar Power Station, Nottinghamshire, 2018

As of today, 3 out of 4 of the last operating coal power stations in UK are operating in Central England, in the area once called “The Megawatt Valley”.

Two post industrial landscapes on comparison. On the left, Kellingley Colliery, the last England deep mine closed in 2015. On the right, the empty space left by the decommissioned power station of High Marnham. (Kellingley, Pontefract, 2018; High Marnham, Lincoln, 2018)
The entrance of the Underground Tour at the National Coal Mining Museum for England. (Overton, Wakefield, West Yorkshire, England, 2018)

The strong heritage of the coal economy, for the british population and culture, is still visible in many forms around England. At the site the former Caphouse Colliery, for example, you can visit the National Coal Mining Museum for England, one of the mines that stopped his operations in the years of the big miners strikes, in the Thatcher's era. Some miners are still operating to check the security of former deep mines, and as guides for the visitors, in this and other coal mining museums in UK.

The backyard of S., a former miner, in Pontefract. (Pontefract, 2018)

The "South Yorkshire Coalfield" covers most of South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire and a small part of North Yorkshire. In this territory, a huge number of deep mines were active during the last two centuries and linked together, covering a vast territory, whether or not you see the traces on the ground level.



All the photos and texts:


Page updated on November 2020, for the "Zwei Grad Plus" exhibition at Artrmx E.V. in Köln, Germany.


Created By
Pietro Viti