Eco-Blowback Mutiny in the Land of Wind Turbines
Germany plans to build 60,000 new wind turbines -- in forests, in the foothills of the Alps and even in protected environmental areas. But local residents are up in arms, costs are skyrocketing and Germany's determination to phase out nuclear power is in danger.
The German village of Husarenhof, just north of Stuttgart, nestles picturesquely between orchards and vineyards. Peter Hitzker's house stands on a sharp bend in the road. "Sometimes I get up in the morning and find a couple of totaled cars in the front yard," he says. "But I guess nowhere's perfect."
Still, he finds the wind turbine behind his garden fence harder to cope with. The tower is 180 meters (590 feet) high, and the whirr of the blades and grinding of the actuators are clearly audible.
"When I leave my local bar in Heilbronn, 15 kilometers from here, I find my way home by heading for the turbine," he quips.
But he can't think of anything else positive to say about the turbine. "It's dreadful," he says. "And it's split the village. It's war here."
The wind turbine, an Enercon E-82, has been there for over a year. When it was inaugurated, the local shooting club, the "Black Hunters", fired their guns in celebration, and the local priest delivered a sermon on protecting God's creation.
But not everyone is happy. Some are angry at the way the landscape, celebrated by German Romantic poets such as Hölderlin and Mörike, is being butchered. The opponents protest with images of the Grim Reaper holding a wind turbine rather than his traditional scythe.
The situation in Husarenhof can be found across Germany. After the nuclear disaster in Fukushima and Germany's swift decision to abandon nuclear energy and embrace renewable energy as part of its so-called Energiewende, the country's 16 federal states reacted with a sort of excessive zeal. The northeastern state of Brandenburg plans to set aside 2 percent of its land for wind farms. The western state of Rhineland-Palatinate intends to more than double the amount of wind power it generates. North Rhine-Westphalia, its neighbor to the north, is planning an increase of more than 300 percent.
The winds of change are blowing in Germany -- and hard. Flat-bed trucks laden with tower segments make their way slowly across boggy fields. Cranes crawl up narrow forest paths to set up outsized wind turbines on the tops of mountains. Germany aims to increase its production of wind power from 31,000 to 45,000 megawatts over the next seven years. By the middle of the century, it hopes to be generating 85,000 megawatts in wind power
With the prime coastal locations already taken, operators are increasingly turning their attention to areas further inland. Even valuable tourist regions -- such as the Moselle valley, the Allgäu and the foothills of the Alps -- are to be sacrificed. Sites have even been earmarked by Lake Constance and near Starnberg, where the Bavarian King Ludwig II drowned.
At the moment, things are still in the planning, reporting and application stage. Local authorities' filing cabinets are overflowing with authorization documents and wind strength measurements. Plans call for some 60,000 new turbines to be erected in Germany -- and completely alter its appearance.
The Backer-Opponent Divide
But what's really going on? Are politicians wisely creating the tools needed to prevent the end of the world as we know it? Or are they simply marring the countryside?
More than 700 citizens' initiatives have been founded in Germany to campaign against what they describe as "forests of masts", "visual emissions" and the "widespread devastation of our highland summits."
The opponents carry coffins symbolizing the death of environmental protection. They organize petitions on an almost daily basis. Local residents by Lake Starnberg have even filed a legal complaint alleging that the wind turbines violate Germany's constitution.
The underlying divide is basic and irreconcilable. On one side stand environmentalists and animal rights activists passionate about protecting the tranquility of nature. On the other are progressively minded champions of renewable energy and climate activists determined to secure the long-term survival of the planet.
The question is: How many forests must be sacrificed, how many horizons dotted with wind turbines, to meet Germany's new energy targets? Where is the line between thoughtful activism and excessive zeal? At what point is taxpayer money simply being thrown away?
The wrangling over these issues has led many in Germany's Green Party to question what their party really stands for. Enoch zu Guttenberg, a founding member of Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND), noisily left the association last year because of its support for wind power. Since then, he has felt a "panicky need" to warn humanity about the "giant totems of the cult of unlimited energy."
Michael Succow, a prominent German environmentalist and winner of the Alternative Nobel Prize, is also threatening to abandon ship. He fears soulless stretches of land and lost tranquility.
And his fears are not unfounded. Back in the 1980s, tree-huggers put up Aeroman wind turbines in their front yards -- but those days are long gone. Just the masts of today's wind turbines can reach up to 160 meters high. When active, they kill so many insects that the sticky mass slows the rotors down.
The sweeping blades of the Enercon E-126 cover an area of seven football fields. The rotors of modern wind turbines weigh up to 320 metric tons. There are 83 such three-armed bandits in Germany's largest wind farm, near the village of Ribbeck, northwest of Berlin.
As they drive their SUVs through these turbine forests, tolerantly minded city-dwellers sometimes comment on how ugly eastern Germany has become. Others find them attractive -- as they speed past.
But local Nimbies ("Nimby" = Not In My Back Yard) are indignant. Apart from everything else, the value of their homes has plummeted.
Even sparsely populated areas are beginning to take action. Take, for example, the campaign "Rettet Brandenburg" ("Save Brandenburg"). This eastern state surrounding Berlin is already home to more than 3,100 wind turbines, more than any other federal state. Now, however, the powers-that-be want to build 3,000 more turbines, but state residents are up in arms and have launched a citizen's initiative. At a protest day held in late May, its members railed against "wind-grubbers" and "monster mills."
Maxing Out Turbine Size
Nevertheless, their protests will do little to stop wind-turbine manufacturers from eagerly building taller and taller models. For the relatively weak inland winds to generate sufficient energy and profits, Germany's wind farmers need to reach higher and higher into the skies.
The goal is to get away from the turbulence found near the ground and to climb up into the Ekman layer, above 100 meters high, where the wind blows continuously. Up there, the forces of nature rage freely, creating enough terawatts to meet the energy needs of the global population hundreds of times over. Or at least that's the theory.
Inland, the "technical trend" toward bigger wind turbines "continues unabated," according to a study recently published by the Fraunhofer Institute for Wind Energy and Energy System Technology (IWES).
A visit to the IWES test center in the northern port city of Bremerhaven reveals what lies in store. The center is home to a next-generation rotary blade: flexible, wobbly even, weighing 30 metric tons and stretching 83.5 meters across.
The mammoth prototype blade is currently at the testing stage. Hydraulic presses and cables bend and buffet the blade millions of times over, simulating the stress exerted by storms and gusts of wind.
IWES meteorologist Paul Kühn thinks that the mast themselves, without the blades, could grow to up to 200 meters high. Anything taller would be unprofitable due to the "square-cube law."
So, might we one day see wind turbines with blades stretching up almost 300 meters into the clouds -- a somber memorial to Germany's nuclear phase-out? Even hip urban fans of renewable energy think that would take some getting used to.
Recent studies by bird protectors reveal how the giant blades chop up the air in brutal fashion. "Golden plovers avoid the wind turbines," says Potsdam-based ornithologist Jörg Lippert. Swallows and storks, on the other hand, fly straight into them. The barbastelle bat's lungs collapse as it flies by. A "terrible future" awaits the lesser spotted eagle and red kite, Lippert says.
German citizens are also having to make sacrifices to meet the ambitious goals of the new energy policy. In England, large wind turbines must be situated at least 3,000 meters away from houses in residential areas. In Germany, which is more densely populated, local planners place turbines much closer to homes. In the southern state of Bavaria, for example, the minimum separation is 500 meters, while it's just 300 meters in the eastern state of Saxony.
In the early days, when everyone was still very excited about clean wind power, some farmers in northerly coastal areas allowed turbines to be erected even 250 meters from their cottages. And then they received large compensation payments when the noise from the rotors triggered stampedes in their pigsties.
But now even those in northern Germany are grumbling. Many old wind turbines are being replaced with new, more powerful ones in a process known as "repowering." Instead of 50 meters tall, these new turbines are more than 150 meters high, have flashing lights on them to prevent aircraft from hitting them and make a lot of noise as they rotate.
The result? Complaints about the noise everywhere.
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