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The power economy in the German Democratic Republic (GDR)

Reparations and a command economy were the challenges facing the power supplies of the GDR. While the production of consumer goods flourished and the welfare of the workers was the focus as never before, investments in new plants had to take a back seat.

The power economy in the Soviet Occupation Zone (SOZ) faced a herculean task after 1945; the problem was not just the installations destroyed in the war. After the division of Germany, the SOZ was cut off from its former sources of hard coal in the Ruhr district and Silesia. But the USSR also dismantled 15 briquette factories, approximately 4,000 MW of power plant capacity as well as the technical equipment from at least eleven open-cast mines as reparations for damage suffered in the war, and transported them to the Soviet Union. Not until 1955 was the pre-war output of almost 60 million tonnes reached again.

Soldiers
Soldiers
Coal and energy presented an ongoing problem for the command economy right up to the end of the GDR. The situation became more critical from the mid-1970s, when the Soviet Union began to charge its German ally market prices for crude oil instead of relatively favourable tariffs. As the country lying between the Baltic Sea and the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains) had almost no significant deposits of hard coal, gas or oil, and hard currency was scarce, only one path remained: lignite rose to become the number one energy source. The GDR became the world’s largest lignite producer by a wide margin (approximately 300 million tonnes extracted annually). The state combine for lignite-fired power supplied two thirds of the country’s needs.

Power plants and open-cast mines: more than electricity and coal 

Cola and mineral water from Schwarze Pumpe, lamps and carp from Jänschwalde, model railways from Boxberg: in the GDR it was quite usual for large industrial combines to manufacture goods for the local population as well – indeed, their economic plan actually obliged them to produce consumer goods. Thus the Lübenau power plant was the sole manufacturer of foot-operated air pumps in the country.

Refining groundbreaking
Refining groundbreaking
Carp cooling tower in PP Jänschwalde
Carp cooling tower in PP Jänschwalde

But the plants were also concerned with the welfare of the workers and their children. They ran children’s holiday camps, holiday homes, restaurants, vocational colleges as well as residential accommodation, company housing, saunas and well-stocked libraries, workers’ homes, and even a large football stadium in Cottbus. All of these were financed from a special cultural and social fund.

Brigades of power workers and miners were deployed to create allotments and connect whole sections of roads in rural areas to the public drinking water supply. Almost every brigade acted as a patron to a school class or kindergarten group. That meant taking part in hiking days, and in return the children came to marvel at the works.

But at times it seemed as if the 'people’s enterprises' of the time did not have a lot left for themselves. Plants were increasingly run down, and necessary repair and redevelopment jobs were postponed. Nevertheless, the engineers managed to notch up many notable achievements in research and development. These included the development of the Vetschau process for flue gas desulphurisation and a coal-dust ignition burner that saved heating oil.

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