Eco-Blowback Mutiny in the Land of Wind Turbines
Part 2: Legal Turbulence
The victims of this "sound pollution" typically have bags under their eyes and a tremor in their voices. They are the movement's martyrs. Klaus Zeltwanger is one such victim. He lives just 370 meters from the turbine in Husarenhof. "It whirrs and it hisses," he says, "and then it drones like an airplane about to take off."
To date, the courts have rejected such complaints. Since wind turbines enjoy special rights, fighting them in court is an uphill battle.
But one woman brought a successful case in the northwestern city of Münster back in 2006. She lived just 270 meters away from a wind turbine. She based her plea on the "requirement to be considerate," under which technical equipment and machines cannot be located so close to a residential property that they become "visually oppressive." The experts talk of a "feeling of being dwarfed."
After a long battle, she won the case -- and the giant turbine was torn down.
Other legal grounds can also apply. According to the German Emission Control Act, noise levels in mixed-use residential areas may not exceed 45 decibels at night. For a long time, no one knew what that meant exactly in terms of distance in meters.
Now the courts have ruled on this, too, in a case that might just upset Germany's entire energy revolution. A woman from Marxheim, a town in western Bavaria, brought a case in the Munich Higher Regional Court. Her typical farmer's house, decorated with flowers, was situated 850 meters from an Enercon E-82. She claimed that the sound waves boomed "across field and forest" to where she lived.
The case documents talk of "hissing," "whizzing" and "puffing noises." A specialist in acoustics recorded a volume of 42.8 decibels, adding a further 3 decibels to this because of what is known as the "impulsiveness" of the noise.
The result? The wind turbine now has to operate at a reduced speed between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., which renders it unprofitable.
Enercon is appealing to the Federal Administrative Court. But its chances of winning look slim. Hundreds of propellers are located in the zone that has now been deemed forbidden. Could a large-scale thinning out of turbines now be in the cards?
Attorney Armin Brauns from Diessen, in Bavaria, is predicting a "wave of cases," and his office is overflowing with case files. "Some local authorities behave unfairly with respect to protecting the countryside, circumventing existing laws," he says.
Bloated Capacity and Costs
These disputes come at a very awkward time for the wind-power industry. The country is expecting to see many thousands of new wind turbines up and running in the near future. But, at the moment, orders are few and far between.
For a long time, the companies grew fat on feed-in tariffs, which provide guaranteed prices for green energy at above-market prices subsidized by the government via surcharges on consumers' power bills. Indeed, an entire industrial sector developed into a subsidy giant. The result? Bloated firms with excess capacity.
International markets are also collapsing, which makes things even worse for the industry. The two most important countries for wind power have both reined in further construction projects. The United States is instead going for cheaper "fracking," the controversial method of using hydraulic fracturing to extract shale gas. China, on the other hand, has problems with its power grids, which is dampening its enthusiasm for wind turbines.
Stephan Weil, the governor of the northwestern state of Lower Saxony, recently warned that 10,000 jobs in the state's wind industry were at risk. The Danish manufacturer Vestas has already been forced to cut some 1,400 positions.
The mood is correspondingly tense. The CEO of WeserWind says that a "regulating hand" is nowhere to be found, leaving everything in "total chaos."
Cem Özdemir, the national chairman of Germany's Green Party, claims that environmental protection "is a great opportunity for our country -- economically, too." But, in reality, everything is getting more expensive. At the European Energy Exchange in Leipzig, electricity costs less than 3.5 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh). But consumers currently pay 27 cents for each kWh because the price is overloaded with taxes and environmental fees.
There are many reasons for this. For example, all the electrical work involved in setting up offshore wind turbines and connecting them to the onshore grid is much more costly than was originally thought. The acrobats on the high seas are doing pioneering work, and the risks of failure are high.
Rather than calmly developing elegant offshore technology, German politicians have put themselves under pressure by setting the deadline for ending the production of nuclear power in Germany at early in the next decade. Everyone is in a rush. So when costs go up at sea, the wind turbines immediately swarm inland.
But that leaves just one more problem: Things aren't much cheaper on land, either. Giant electricity highways are needed to transport the energy southward from the turbines along the northern coastline. And that necessitates a complete restructuring of the national power grid.
"We're planning nothing less than a technical revolution," says a spokesman for the environment ministry of Lower Saxony, in Hanover. "In the past, villages in the middle of nowhere were connected (to the grid) using the thinnest cables possible. Today, we need the thickest cables there because the wind farms are in the outback."
Around 2,800 kilometers (1,740 miles) of new extra-high voltage lines are needed, plus 7,000 kilometers of distribution networks. Cost estimates put the figure at between 10 billion and 20 billion.
Delays and Demands
It's a massive undertaking. To get things moving, Germany's federal government introduced the Infrastructure Planning Acceleration Act back in 2006. This was followed in 2009 by the Power Grid Expansion Act. And, just five weeks ago, Germany's federal parliament passed the Federal Requirement Plan Act.
But despite the legislation, the actual amount of new electricity grid infrastructure that has been constructed is surprisingly small: Just 268 kilometers of the planned grid expansion is currently up and running.
Why the delay? One reason is the many thousands of hysterical "electrosmog" campaigners who fight every new section of 110-kilovolt line as if it were the work of the devil. And the wind farms are always accompanied by their ugly step-sister: the overhead power masts carrying the power lines.
What about underground cables, then? This is what the protestors are demanding. What they forget is that 380-kilovolt lines laid underground require copper strands as thick as your arm to avoid overheating. And they are incredibly expensive: All in all, underground cables can cost up to 10 times as much as overhead cables.
Often, the bottlenecks in the grid are already so big that the wind turbines are turning for no reason. When there is a stiff breeze, they have to be held back. This led to 127 gigawatt hours of power being wasted in 2010, or enough to meet the annual energy requirements of 100,000 residents.