Not In Our Backyard Popular Protests Put Brakes on Renewable Energy
Most Germans are in favor of the expansion of renewable energy -- provided the plants aren't built in their neighborhood. All over the country, local groups are coming together to stop solar, wind and biogas projects. But where can power plants be built if no one wants them in their backyard?
Hans Fliege likes to go for walks, and he loves the view across the Main River, which is why he moved to the village of Obertheres in Bavaria 30 years ago. But he knows that it isn't a strong enough argument against solar energy parks.
After all, the other side can base its arguments on the prospect of impending climate catastrophe. They could accuse Fliege of being prepared to accept rising sea levels, dried-up fields and hurricanes -- all so that his view of the Main River would remain undisturbed.
An investor wants to set up solar modules on two sites in Fliege's village, covering a combined area of 40 hectares (99 acres). Fliege wants to prevent it from happening. He scored an initial victory after recently collecting enough signatures to force a referendum, the first ever in the municipality of Theres, which Obertheres belongs to.
Now Fliege is trying to convince his neighbors to vote against the solar parks in the referendum, which will be held on the last Sunday in February. He is standing in the middle of the assembly room at the Obertheres Gymnastics Association next to his laptop, which he has connected a new projector. "So, from the standpoint of energy production, the issue is complete nonsense for Germany," he says.
The citizens of Theres will not just be voting on the planned solar parks. Instead, they are being asked to decide whether open spaces within the town limits can be used for solar power projects at all.
Fine in Theory
It is a small, local issue, but it relates to some of the world's biggest problems. For instance, it brings to mind the December 2009 United Nations Summit on Climate Change in Copenhagen, which failed when politicians from 192 countries were unable to come to an agreement. This is bad enough, but what happens when citizens are involved in the decision? Are they prepared to adopt a climate-friendly lifestyle? Do they actually want renewable energy?
Hardly anyone opposes it, at least in principle. According to surveys, more than three-quarters of Germans support more green energy. They want to be able to consume energy with a good conscience, preserve their lifestyles and still save the climate -- just not in their own backyards.
Very few Germans live in the vicinity of a conventional large power plant. Renewable energy, however, can be produced anywhere, in every small city or village, using solar panels, wind turbines and biogas plants. But when these energy-producing plants are built close to residential areas, their drawbacks quickly become clear, in the form of noise, stench and changes to the landscape.
This does, in fact, lead to "many reasons for communication" says Björn Klusmann, managing director of the German Renewable Energy Federation (BEE). His choice of words is as smooth as the image of his industry. "In places where things are changing, issues of acceptance arise," he says. But he is also convinced that every dispute is in fact an opportunity for renewable energy.
'People Will Think We're Insane'
Hans Fliege, who is wearing a red cardigan, begins his PowerPoint presentation with a map of the municipality, on which many areas are shaded. These are the potential sites of solar parks, he says.
Fliege, 62, is a retired electrical engineer. Until now, he has kept a relatively low profile, not joining any local clubs and avoiding community events. In fact, he had his first longer conversations with many of his neighbors when he began collecting signatures against the solar parks. He then invited those who seemed the most receptive to his ideas to his meeting at the sports club. Of the roughly two dozen people in the room, most are couples in Fliege's age group, and all are opposed to the solar parks and ready for battle.
"People will think that we're insane," Fliege tells them right off the bat. It will not be easy, he says, to make it clear to people why solar parks in the area are not just ugly, but also a bad idea.
It's warm in the room and the smell of frying grease from the Greek restaurant next door is in the air. Fliege's presentation is getting complicated. He shows his audience tables and diagrams, energy consumption graphs and efficiency figures. He seems to have computed everything possible and has dealt with every conceivable issue.
Does climate change really exist, he asks? Couldn't Germany's nuclear power plants -- which Fliege, who used to vote for the Green Party, generally regards critically because of the question of where to store the nuclear waste -- be kept running for a while longer? Is there even an energy crisis in Germany?
The audience is getting restless. Fliege's wife reminds her husband not to forget about people's emotional reactions to the project. The residents are more concerned about real estate prices in the village than energy consumption figures. Some are probably wondering what solving the radioactive waste storage problem has to do with being against solar parks.
"We don't want those things here. Isn't that enough?" one man asks.
Dieter Rucht from the Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB) has been studying protest movements for years. Establishing a citizens' initiative or collecting signatures against a development project is no longer seen as the work of troublemakers, but as a rational way of defending one's interests, he says. According to Rucht, everyone feels obliged to establish his or her own lobby. People today are self-confident when dealing with authority figures, more capable of voicing their criticism and more articulate.
But this, says Rucht, has also made the situation more confusing. Large numbers of groups calling themselves citizens' initiatives are being set up. Some claim to be promoting the environment, but are in fact sponsored by industry. "The battle lines are all over the place, and it isn't always clear who's behind a particular initiative," Rucht says.