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.
Saving Birds and Bats from the Power Lines
Species protection and nature conservation are, in a sense, the main natural enemies of all infrastructure planning. Although local politicians have in the past often had little sympathy for environmental issues, opponents of the new power-line projects have seized upon former EU bird protection regulation 79/409/EWG. This directive, which came into effect in 1979, was aimed at putting an end to bird hunting, primarily in Belgium, France and Italy. Thanks to diverse exemptions, birds are still hunted in these countries today, but much to the delight of citizens' initiatives and local communities in Germany, the new guideline from 2009 also provides special protection for 190 European species living in the wild.
Now, a number of communities have reported lapwing resting grounds that were hitherto totally unknown. Others have insisted that ornithologists conduct more detailed studies in their areas. After all, just because no information has been gathered on protected species doesn't necessarily mean that none are present.
In the case of the black storks, there is another problem. The birds can perish if they fly headlong into the overhead ground wires that are attached to the tops of the power masts. Yet the birds have to fly up to 20 kilometers in search of frogs and fish. This often leads to "visual observations" that are now excitedly reported where the power lines are to be built. One can only imagine the dangers faced by roaming young storks when they venture too close to power lines.
When it comes to birds of prey, the red kite's eyesight is apparently highly overestimated. This species unfortunately has significant difficulties with "binocular vision," according to a statement released by Germany's Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU). The environmental organization says that since the coordination between the red kite's right and left eye is less developed than in humans, the birds have problems calculating distances "to non-natural horizontal structures." Despite being able to spot tiny mice at great distances, the birds apparently struggle to cope with massive power lines.
Finally, the migratory routes of cranes remain a great mystery. Every year, the birds fly in a corridor between 200 and 400 kilometers wide over central Europe, at an altitude that is much higher than the tallest power masts, which are usually 60 meters high but can be as tall as 80 meters. But what happens when the birds encounter fog or headwinds? In that case, the animals like to make a stopover, usually on a plateau in the district of Staufenberg, as NABU has discovered. The problem is that the new power lines may end up being built precisely at this location.
Basically everything that flies is threatened, even if it isn't a bird. This is just as true for the barbastelle bat as it is for its cousin, the greater mouse-eared bat. Both species are protected by 92/43 EWG, the EU's Habitats Directive. Although bats are extremely agile in the air and have a natural echolocation system that keeps them from colliding with objects, these nocturnal flyers unfortunately tend to switch off this warning system to save energy if they don't expect an obstacle at great heights. That's bad news for supporters of power lines.
But it is not just wildlife that stands in the way of the transmission lines. The forestry industry is also putting up opposition. Although trees will also be able to grow under the overhead lines, they will not be allowed to exceed a certain height. Under Lower Saxony's forestry law, such an area no longer qualifies as a forest, despite being full of trees, complained a forestry agency representative who is concerned about possible economic losses.
There is no way to avoid cutting down trees, either, even when plans call for the power line to follow an existing route, as is the case in an area southwest of the city of Göttingen. The old power line, which may now be dismantled, was built back in 1929. At the time, it was possible to extend it straight across the landscape.
In the meantime, this overhead line has to pass at least 400 meters (1,300 feet) away from residential areas. Indeed, when the newly-built line goes through urban areas, it meanders like a wild stream through the forest. This creates additional conflicts. In the small town of Sichelnstein, for example, just north of the Hesse state border, there is an airfield for gliders that was built back in 1964. Plans call for the new power line to be built a good distance from the airstrip.
Nevertheless, there is a problem. The airfield has an approach zone that pilots normally circle after takeoff and before landing, said a representative of the Lower Saxony Transport Ministry. According to the regulations, there can be no power masts there, either. Moreover, since the airfield counts as a "sports facility of regional importance," no power lines can be built within a certain radius.
The airfield is used by the members of the Münden-Staufenberg Aviation Association. There are exactly 38 of them.
Just a few kilometers to the south, in the town of Staufenberg, it's one renewable energy project against another. The planned power line would pass through a wind park. The rotors have not yet been assembled because the project still lacks an investor. "But who knows?" says a community representative. "If the nuclear power plants are shut down, this could spark renewed interest in the site."
Festival of Bureaucracy
To discuss all the problems once again, the state government of Lower Saxony held a public meeting at the town hall in Northeim in early April.
"Public hearing for the Wahle-Mecklar regional planning process," read a sign on the door. During the winter, the venue normally hosts theater productions with titles such as "The Seven Deadly Sins." But on this particular day, it was putting on a festival of bureaucracy.
Countless file folders were lined up on stage. In front of the stage, there were two rows of tables stacked with papers, computers and maps. To the right, space was reserved for the "project developers," as the grid operators were called in the regional planning process. No less than nine representatives were on hand, including a number of consultants and a lawyer. To the left sat the "process managers," in other words, the state government, represented by three civil servants and four keepers of the minutes. The idea was to meticulously note down every objection.
One possible solution mentioned here was that the power lines could be laid underground. But that would not only be four to seven times more expensive, at least according to Lex Hartman, the director of corporate development at Tennet, but would also entail technical problems with maintenance and repairs.
In any case, it would involve an enormous amount of extra work. Just burying the lines some 1.5 meters underground would require large cable transfer stations. Difficulties could also arise in water conservation areas and wetlands, and things still remain somewhat problematic on the surface. The soil dries out above the wide transmission lines, causing plants to wither. Indeed, many farmers are resisting underground cables just as vehemently as citizens' initiatives are fighting the overhead lines.
In Northeim, which is in Lower Saxony, it became clear that the biggest obstacle to the entire planning process may be Germany's federalist system. The conclusion of the brainstorming session in the town hall was that the future power line should run south from Göttingen toward the state of Hesse via the most direct route.
But a similar public hearing held in Hesse the previous day had come to an entirely different conclusion. The state government there favors a variant that calls for the power line to cross the border 40 kilometers further southwest. If no agreement is reached, both transmission lines will end at the state line -- in no man's land.