Lignite has been providing work and bread to the people of Lusatia (Lausitz) for over 200 years. In the early 20th century, the Hirschfelde power plant pointed the way forwards for eastern Germany. Its installed capacity of 25.5 megawatts carried tremendous capacity long distances to the large cities via the new overland grids.
Workers could initially collect the coal jutting up above the earth’s surface with their hoes, spades and wheelbarrows. But these stocks were quickly depleted and underground mining soon became insufficient to satisfy the hunger for energy of fast-developing industries, especially in the urban centres of Berlin and Dresden. This ultimately led to large-scale open-cast mining and the development of a completely new technology: the world’s first conveyor bridge for excavated waste came into operation near Plessa in 1924. By 1931, there were about 70 coalmines or open-cast workings and 56 briquette factories in Lusatia. Some 23,000 people earned their living from coal. The textile, brick and glass industries were initially the main outlets for these briquettes. Lignite was used from 1939 as the starting material for manufacturing synthetic petrol (Schwarzheide), and high-temperature lignite coke was produced in Lauchhammer from 1952.
The 1880s saw the construction of the first coal-fired power plants in the district. They were initially built almost exclusively to supply the mines and processing plants with electrical power and thus to further boost production: lignite power for local use.
ELG Elektrizitäts-Liefergesellschaft (a subsidiary of the AEG Group) decided to build a power plant at Hirschfelde in 1905. The first two 1.6-MW turbines went into operation on 13 April 1911. Large companies such as Siemens and AEG quickly recognised the need for extensive standardised grids, and especially for high-capacity generation plants, to assure a reliable power supply for the country. ELG set an important milestone at an early date with its large power plant at Hirschfelde. By 1916, the plant already had an installed output of 25.5 megawatts, a tremendous capacity for the time. Part of it still exists in its original form and may be visited in the Technical Monument & Museum at the Hirschfelde power plant. The site is located not far from Zittau in the border triangle between Germany, the Czech Republic and Poland.