In the green

The environmental economy is developing into one of the most important sectors of the Metropolis Ruhr.

In the past, walkers were seldom seen along the banks of the Emscher. And it’s no wonder. The sewage from millions of people from the Ruhr region used to flow down these waters for 100 years. Due to mining subsidence, it was not possible to install a modern sewer system. The Emscher has now been gradually renaturalised over the last 30 years. Today, a large part of the wastewater already flows in closed systems with modern treatment systems and pumping stations. The Emscher and its tributaries are thus returning to near-natural waters. ‘Once the work is complete, we will have one of the most modern wastewater systems in the world,’ says Ilias Abawi, spokesperson for the Emschergenossenschaft water management association. The renaturation work has cost €5 billion, the biggest infrastructure project in Europe.

The project shows like no other the scale of change that the Ruhr region has experienced. A region once dominated by mining, furnaces and power plants has now become one of Europe’s largest technology hubs, successfully ridding itself of its abandoned industrial sites. The former coal-mining region has now acquired green expertise, which is put to good use in environmental technology. ‘Resource efficiency has now become one of the most important economic pillars of the region,’ says Börje Wichert, head of location development for Business Metropolis Ruhr (BMR).

The fight against climate change, the increase in global population and the growth of cities will further increase the demand for sustainable technologies and products. The global market volume for environmental technology and resource efficiency was €3.214 trillion in 2016 based on figures from the Federal Ministry for the Environment. According to estimates, this will be almost €6 trillion by 2025, corresponding to a growth of almost seven per cent per year.

The emerging economies in Asia and South America are promoting sustainable mobility and renewable energies. They are looking for new ideas for how to store electricity and use it efficiently. Their metropolitan areas not only require clean air, but also modern drinking water systems and sewers. Used materials must be reused to conserve natural resources. Based on this development, there is an increased demand for sustainable technical solutions and products on the part of corporations, start-ups and medium-sized companies in the Metropolis Ruhr.

Metropolis Ruhr is the environmental hotspot of North Rhine-Westphalia

According to the environmental economic report by the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, around 106,000 people were working in the green-tech industry in 2016 between Duisburg and Dortmund, 8,000 more than in 2010. This makes the Metropolis Ruhr the environmental focal point of the largest federal state in Germany. One in three green-tech jobs is based in the region. The ratio is similar in terms of revenue. Companies in the metropolitan region generated revenue of around €26 billion with green products. The mobility sector is particularly strong with a labour force of 28,000. Another area of focus is water management, in which 16,000 people are involved.


  • 106000
  • 26billion €
    turnover 2017
  • 60%
    green area

Projects such as the renaturation of the Emscher give the companies involved a knowledge edge. However, they can also serve as a blueprint for other countries that are facing similar problems. Experts estimate that 80 per cent of wastewater worldwide flows away untreated. There is a huge need for modern treatment facilities. ‘A delegation from Colombia paid us a visit to learn more about our project,’ says Ilias Abawi from the Emschergenossenschaft. The heavily polluted Bogotá river will be redesigned in the coming decades based on the model of the Emscher. Visitors from China, Korea, Japan and Afghanistan also came to examine the project.

The Emschergenossenschaft municipal water management association has been in existence for over 110 years. During imperial times, its role was to monitor the polluted waters. Earth movements often led to floods, with diseases then spreading.  Over the decades, the associations’ hydraulic engineers regulated the river, acquiring specialist knowledge that is unique throughout the world.

Steag project manager Dennis Pannen

Scientist Dr Christian Marx (left) in her laboratory at the RUB

Dr Uli Paetzel, chairman of the Executive Board of the Emschergenossenschaft

Steag project manager Dennis Pannen

Scientist Dr Christian Marx (left) in her laboratory at the RUB

Dr Uli Paetzel, chairman of the Executive Board of the Emschergenossenschaft

Rhine-Ruhr district heating grid saves 100,000 tonnes of CO2

Past and future lie closely together along the Ruhr. Out of the top 500 German companies, 40 are based in the region. To operate their businesses, they need large quantities of electricity. Coal was previously burned for this purpose. However, the energy industry has been realigning itself for a number of years, with suppliers working on new ideas to enable electricity, gas and heat to be generated more sustainably and used more efficiently. One example is the Rhine-Ruhr district heating grid, Europe’s largest integrated grid system, which will go into operation in 2019. It transports waste heat produced in factories and power plants to consumers by means of insulated pipe networks, spanning over more than 50 kilometres throughout the region. This lighthouse project will save 100,000 tonnes CO2 per year.

Improving the quality of life of the five million inhabitants of the metropolitan region is the focus of numerous initiatives by companies and municipalities. The model city of Bottrop is regarded as a showpiece. In total, there are 125 individual projects which aim to develop the location in a sustainable manner and protect the climate. These include energy-oriented modernisation, battery storage, energy-autonomous sewage treatment plants and rapid-charging stations. A showcase for the environmental economy. Furthermore, paving stones which enable toxic nitrogen oxides to be broken down were laid down over an area of 750 square metres in the city.

Photoment transforms nitrogen oxide into non-toxic nitrate

The material used for this, known as Photoment, was developed by a subsidiary of the Essen-based energy supplier Steag. The idea: the fly ash produced in coal-fired power plants is combined with titanium dioxide. Thanks to the ash particles, the powder is distributed evenly as concrete is added. Exposure to light triggers a photocatalytic reaction, which converts nitrogen oxides into small amounts of non-toxic nitrate. ‘Large cities with high traffic density are very interested in this material,’ says Dennis Pannen, project manager at Steag Power Minerals in Dinslaken. This includes Stuttgart, where nitrogen oxide levels are often dangerously high due to the basin location of the city and high traffic density. A total area of 20,000 square metres in the city centre is now also being developed with Photoment.

A pilot project is also planned in the South Korean capital Seoul, says Pannen. As cities are always looking for ways to keep their air clean, he sees high growth potential over the long term here. The area of innovative materials is one of the most important green-tech foundations in the Metropolis Ruhr. It represents almost 40 per cent of revenue in the region’s environmental economy and 26 per cent of employment numbers.

The second most important sub-market is the environmentally friendly conversion, storage and transportation of energy. It represents ten per cent of employment numbers and 20 per cent of industry revenue on the Ruhr. There are numerous start-ups located here, such as the Dortmund-based Tetraeder Solar. With the aid of aerial images and laser scan data, the company creates solar potential maps for local authorities based on an algorithm. The program calculates solar radiation over the course of the year, taking shadowing and building inclination into account, and using this to draw up an efficiency analysis. Homeowners can then see online on an interactive map whether the construction of a solar system is worthwhile. Over 800 German local authorities are using the map from Tetraeder Solar. ‘We have already fully analysed the Netherlands with 12.4 million buildings,’ says Malte Fichtner, technical director at Tetraeder. Pilot projects are now underway in France, Poland and the United Kingdom. Another project will commence soon in Japan. Collaborations with E.on and Google will provide new impetus.

High density of scientific research institutions

The focus for Julian Bosch, who founded the company Intrapore in 2015, is on an area deep below the earth’s surface. Through the use of nanoparticles, his team helps to remove harmful substances from water in the soil in a cost-effective way. Bosch believes that the Ruhr region offers the best opportunities for his company. He previously lived and worked in Munich. ‘When the technology was developed, we decided to set up the company in Essen rather than in Munich,’ Bosch says. It was important to him to have a central location in the heart of Europe. As the focus has turned more towards green-tech here in recent years, he believes that his company is ideally positioned on the Ruhr.

There is no shortage of skilled workers in the region, due in part to the high density of scientific institutions for which green-tech plays a major role. The Fraunhofer Institute for Environmental, Safety and Energy Technology is based in Oberhausen. Several universities in the Metropolis Ruhr are also leaders in the field of environmental technology. This includes Dortmund, Duisburg-Essen and Bochum.

The dense network of research institutions and close proximity to one another make it easier for the institutes to collaborate together. Researcher Christina Marx has developed the SolarBioproducts Ruhr centre of excellence in the neighbouring city of Herne together with the Ruhr-University Bochum (RUB). ‘We are investigating whether products such as industrially relevant chemicals or hydrogen can be produced based on biochemical processes under exposure to light,’ says Marx. Hydrogen is regarded as the energy source of the future. It can be used to operate fuel cells, for example, without the generation of any harmful substances. The main focus of SolarBioproducts Ruhr is on research into freshwater algae that carry out photosynthesis. The Institute for Bioenergy and Biotechnology from Qingdao in China is involved in a collaborative project.

The long-term objective is to one day produce energy from freshwater algae. These living entities are also widespread here. They are found in aquariums, ponds and rivers, including in the Emscher.

Heimo Fischer

Autor: Heimo Fischer

Heimo Fischer is a business journalist and writes for popular newspapers, magazines and corporate publications. He is very familiar with the business of media : He was a founding member of the Financial Times Germany, for which he reported over 7 year as a correspondent from Paris and London.