Steffen Kirsch is an early riser. His day starts at half past four, when he has a quick cup of coffee and leaps onto his bike. He has been travelling the same route for 31 years – ten kilometres from his home in the Berlin district of Köpenick to the Klingenberg combined heat and power plant (CHP), and ten kilometres back. "That's my daily exercise quota, my way of keeping fit," Kirsch says.
And this quota is even set to increase soon. Logistics expert Kirsch is one of the employees at the Klingenberg site who, as a result of the plant’s fuel switch from lignite to gas and the accompanying reduction in the number of operating staff at the site, are being given not just a new task but also a new place of work. He is moving to Marzahn, where Vattenfall is currently building an ultra-modern gas and steam turbine plant which will, together with Klingenberg, supply the east of Berlin with district heating.
The ground-breaking ceremony at Marzahn power plant took place early June – at almost exactly the same time as the shutdown of the lignite plant at Klingenberg. Kirsch is already spending one day a week at Marzahn, familiarising himself with the site. The rest of the time, he is winding down his old workplace.
"At the moment I'm in 'transitional operation', so to speak. I won't be moving to Marzahn completely until all plant components that are no longer needed have been cleaned and the waste materials have been disposed of correctly." That will probably be at the beginning of 2018.
Is he looking forward to it? "Of course! How often do you get the chance to see the construction of one of the most modern gas and steam turbine plants from the laying of the foundation stone to the commissioning?”
A new era with new challenges
Until the end of May this year, Steffen was responsible for the logistics of supplies and waste disposal at Klingenberg. "My daily work above all involved the care and servicing of the plant components, waste disposal, ordering of chemicals and the sale or loading of sulphur dioxide (SO2), a waste product from lignite combustion which is extremely poisonous in large quantities. The loading needed a lot of care and sensitivity. You couldn't do anything without a breathing mask."
Ordering lignite as a fuel was also part of his remit. Gas is different. Natural gas is traded on the market and comes via pipelines from western and eastern Europe directly to the sites where it is used. "With gas, you don't need to order anything," Steffen explains. "It's calculated according to consumption."
As a logistics expert at Marzahn, he will also have a basic responsibility for dealing with predominantly external companies that handle waste disposal. But there will be different products with new challenges. For his coming task as Facility Manager, Kirsch has already taken various further training courses, especially in the area of IT. "Marzahn will be an ultra-modern plant, so additional knowledge is needed."
And suddenly the Wall was gone
When Kirsch started his training as a machine operator, the Klingenberg CHP plant was still in a different country, the former East Germany (GDR). That was in 1986, three years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. "I actually missed the fall!" he laughs. "In the morning, we suddenly heard on the radio that the Wall was gone! We just couldn't believe it. So I went to the plant, just like any other day – and just like my colleagues. Everybody was there. Around midday, the plant director sent us home. And so it went on for a few days. In the mornings we carried on as normally as we could, and in the afternoons we gradually started to explore the west, but only after a few days, when we could be sure that they weren't going to close the border behind us again. Because there was a persistent rumour that the fall of the Wall was just a test, and that people with a western stamp in their passports wouldn't be allowed home again. Nobody wanted to risk that. But fortunately it was really just a rumour."
In the team Kirsch worked with at the time, everyone stayed in the east. "Not one of them went over to the west, which was really unusual. After all, there was quite a lot of migration at other sites."
Although he is looking forward to the new tasks awaiting him at Marzahn, he also feels a certain wistfulness. "I've always enjoyed working here, and all the unavoidable changes there have been over the course of more than 30 years have always seemed to me to be a step in the right direction. Including the move away from lignite. Whenever asked, I admit openly that I'm looking forward to the transition from coal to gas. Not only for political reasons, but because it's simply the logical next step for our company."
New Year's Eve with protective suit and breathing mask
So did everything really run so smoothly throughout those 31 years? "No, of course not! Is that ever the case?” The 47-year-old still remembers one experience very clearly. "It was New Year's Eve 2003. It proved impossible to separate a wagon with 56 tonnes of corrosive sulphur dioxide from the pipeline. The tank car vents didn't close fully. This had never happened before. Equipped with compressed air breathing apparatus and protective suits, together with a team of experts, we spent hours repairing the wagon and got it back on track. It all went well, nobody came to harm, and we even managed to celebrate New Year's Eve at home with our families," says Kirsch.
Mr Kirsch with the green thumb
Steffen Kirsch loves to spend his free time with his family, preferably in their own garden. "There's no place else where I can relax and recharge my batteries so well. We're real allotment enthusiasts," he beams. When he talks about his garden, his eyes light up, and it becomes obvious: the surname Kirsch ('Kirsche' means 'cherry') is a manifesto. He uses every free minute to nurture the 450 square metre parcel of land near his flat in Köpenick, where he cultivates flowers, fruit and vegetables. "Since we've had the garden, I don't need to go on holiday any more. We used to do lots of travelling, which was great as well, but now it only takes me five minutes to get to the garden. And then I'm where I want to be."
In the coming weeks and months, while he is still at Klingenberg, he will also be putting his green fingers to use for official work purposes. Together with a number of his colleagues, Steffen is preparing the site of the third Vattenfall community garden in Berlin. "The garden is intended primarily as a retreat for young families who have been attracted to the Rummelsburger Bucht district of Berlin in recent years. The terraced houses often only have tiny gardens or balconies which don't offer much space for gardening or playing. The idea of the garden at the Klingenberg CHP plant is to change that, just as has already been done at the Mitte CHP plant and in Neue Grünstraße. And who knows, maybe one day in Marzahn as well? That would be great!"