Electrical Resistance NIMBY Protests Threaten Germany's Energy Revolution

In the aftermath of Fukushima, Germany is pushing ahead with a transition to renewable energy. The energy revolution will only work if massive new power lines are built across the country, but the "energy autobahns" are facing resistance from all sides.


The black stork, ciconia nigra, is very shy, especially during the spring. Nobody can say with certainty whether it will return to the same place, safe and sound, after wintering in Africa. For example, it is impossible to tell whether it will build its nest in a particular tree in Germany's Münden Nature Park in the state of Lower Saxony, near the town of Laubach. Neither can it be predicted whether a female will be there, nor whether there will be offspring as during the previous year.

Forester Jörg Behling would rather not even go and check. The precise location of the stork's nest remains his secret anyway. He is afraid that a visit -- even by an expert like him -- could disturb the animals, causing them to abandon their brood. If the birds were to disappear, it would be a major setback for nature conservation efforts. In the state of Lower Saxony, there are only 45 breeding pairs of black storks.

This wary animal may be rare, but it also represents a threat to Germany's energy infrastructure. All it takes is for its nest to lie within a 5 kilometer (3 mile) radius of the planned high-voltage power lines that will soon distribute renewable energy throughout the country. It is very possible that the storks will prevent power masts from ever being built in this area.

To make matters worse, it is not just the black stork in the Münden Nature Park that is standing in the way of Germany's transition to more environmentally friendly sources of energy. There are obstacles everywhere. Either the landscape is so densely populated that it is poorly suited for big infrastructure projects, or it is so devoid of people that it should be preserved precisely for this reason.

Plans to Expand Power Grid

When German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced an "energy revolution" last fall in Berlin, she presumably had no idea that one of the battlefields of this revolution would be in this rural corner of Lower Saxony or in the nearby state of Hesse. And she probably little suspected that the black stork would be one of the combatants. Nevertheless, the question of whether Merkel can keep her promise will ultimately be decided in towns like Laubach. This will also have a deciding influence on whether, over the next four decades, four-fifths of Germany's electricity will come from wind and water power, solar energy and biomass.

Such an ambitious objective will not be possible without huge new power lines, running primarily from the north of Germany to large conurbations in the south. According to calculations made back in 2005 by the German Energy Agency (DENA), 850 kilometers of high-voltage transmission lines will have to be built by the year 2015. Only 100 kilometers of this extended grid has been built so far. In its latest study, DENA anticipates that an additional 3,600 kilometers will be required by 2020.

Now, after the nuclear accident in Fukushima, German politicians are pushing for everything to go faster. Last Friday, the chancellor negotiated with state governors on expanding Germany's green energy sector. There are plans to invest billions of euros.

Last week, German Economics Minister Rainer Brüderle of the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) and Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen, a member of Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union, presented a six-point plan for an accelerated energy transition. Brüderle wants to spur on expansion of the power grid through new legislation and the introduction of a centralized nation-wide planning procedure for new power lines.

This would come in addition to the 2009 Energy Line Extension Act, which includes four pilot projects that are to proceed at a particularly rapid pace. As it happens, Behling the forester and his feathered friends may play a key role in one of these projects.

Moving at a Snail's Pace

The grid operator Tennet wants to invest €300 million to build high-capacity power lines to connect Wahle in the state of Lower Saxony with the town of Mecklar in Hesse, 190 kilometers further south (see graphic). But a visit to the scenic region of Solling, located between the towns of Holzminden and Northeim, shows why Germany's nationwide "energy revolution" is moving at a snail's pace.

Five years ago, a subsidiary of German power company E.on commissioned a study to determine which route could ideally link the two substations. The company was under time pressure. In late 2006, the German government obliged grid operators to connect planned offshore wind parks in the North Sea to their networks.

The experts examined an area roughly 100 kilometers wide and 170 kilometers long. On a "regional resistance map" they highlighted in pink all areas with a wide range of problems, in orange all areas with a marked tendency toward problems, in yellow all moderately problematic areas and in green all areas that present virtually no problems. When the map was finished, it glowed pink, orange and yellow nearly everywhere. The experts unfortunately found that there were "no contiguous low-conflict corridors available."

Four years later, the process has reached stage two -- and will probably be followed by additional stages that could take years to complete. Today, seven different power line routes are under consideration. It still remains unclear whether and where the line will be built, but the state governments in Lower Saxony and Hesse aim to decide on at least the rough route by this summer.

Thousands of Signatures

Although there is a long way to go before construction can begin on the high-voltage transmission lines, the "regional resistance" that the experts colored on their map has already begun to materialize. There are now 19 citizens' initiatives against what are being dubbed "monster masts" and "mega power lines." A total of 137 different communities, agencies and initiatives in Lower Saxony alone registered their opposition to the project during the review process. Thousands of people have signed petitions. Just the summary of the objections is nearly 2,100 pages long.

The tactics of the power-line opponents are simple and perfectly understandable. The more arguments that can be presented against the project, the more likely it is that the future route will run further away from one's own community and closer to the neighboring village instead. Fortunately for the opponents, German law offers plenty of ways to keep the power masts at a good distance. Indeed, there are countless categories of "protection targets" that must be affected as little as possible, including people, animals, plants, soil, water and air. Even traces of past inhabitants are protected. After all, archaeological sites have to be preserved.

The agricultural association in Klein Rhüden, for instance, fears that its fields could be contaminated by weathering of zinc and protective coatings on the masts. The community of Nordstemmen is concerned about its children's health during school sports activities. The athletic field is located near the planned route and dangerous electromagnetic radiation cannot be completely ruled out.

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