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?
Von Wiebke Hollersen

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.


Photo Gallery: Citizens against Solar

Foto: DDP

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.

Emotional Reaction

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.

Taking on the Power Companies

In the town of Greifswald in northeastern Germany, Oskar Gulla spent three years fighting the construction of a coal-fired power plant, and now he plans to celebrate victory. The Danish energy company Dong, which was to fund the construction of the plant as the principal partner in the venture, withdrew from the project in December.

The coal-fired power plant was to be built in Lubmin, a nearby beach resort, but four citizens' initiatives blocked the project. Gulla heads the one in Greifswald. Instead of disbanding the group, he says, he wants to push for new regulations and a zoning plan that would ban the burning of coal in Lubmin altogether.


Photo Gallery: Citizens against Solar

Foto: DDP

Gulla, 61, is a rotund man with a white beard and many years of protest experience. The student protest movement of the late 1960s, the protests against the Kalkar fast breeder reactor in northwestern Germany, the anti-nuclear power initiatives -- he has been part of them all. He has also been a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) for the past 40 years. Eight years ago, he moved from the industrial Ruhr region to Greifswald, partly because of the better air quality, and partly because of his love of sailing and yacht building. He has been very involved in climate protection efforts in recent years.

The new power plant would emit close to 10 million tons of CO2 every year, says Gulla -- at a time when the world is negotiating over every single ton of reduced CO2 emissions. Climate protection was his best argument. However, the proponents of the power plant also used climate change to support their argument, claiming that new coal-fired power plants are part of the energy revolution, because they are cleaner and more efficient than the old plants. Besides, they argued, coal is a necessary part of the energy mix, because wind and solar energy are not constantly available.

Now a modern power plant will not be built in Lubmin, a plant whose electricity would replace that generated in old, heavily polluting coal plants. Is this a success for the climate cause? Gulla wants to see wind turbines built in Lubmin, and he is already preparing for a conference on the subject.

'Criminal Destruction'

Perhaps he should take up the matter with Thomas Jacob, who lives in the eastern state of Brandenburg. He is opposed to new brown coal (lignite) plants and underground CO2 storage in Brandenburg. He also questions the efficiency of solar plants and whether the corn monoculture that is being developed to supply biogas plants is good for the environment.

Jacob is sitting on a couch in his house in the Märkische Heide region, southeast of Berlin, weighing the pros and cons of the energy debate. He has come up with many arguments against wind power, including their shadows, low-frequency infrasound, irritating noise and dead birds. Wind turbines could also be hazardous to human health, he says, but he wants to conduct a study on the issue first.

What bothers him most about wind turbines is what he calls "the criminal destruction of an entire state." Jacob is worried that a forest of giant wind turbines could soon render Brandenburg unrecognizable. A year-and-a-half ago, he co-founded a citizens' initiative called "Against the Mass Development of Wind Energy Plants in Brandenburg."

Nevertheless, Jacob doesn't want to be called an opponent of wind energy. He says he can imagine wind farms being built on abandoned strip mines or decommissioned military bases. His initiative wants to see regulations put in place that would require a distance of at least 1,500 meters (4,920 feet) between a wind turbine and a residence. "We have nothing against wind energy where it doesn't do any harm," he says. He points out that wind energy production in large offshore wind farms is more efficient and doesn't disturb anyone. (The residents of the North Sea resort island of Sylt who have come together to oppose a planned nearby offshore wind farm would presumably disagree.)

Harmful Shadows

When Jacob's initiative compiled its list of demands, it collected almost 27,000 signatures in Brandenburg. But when his group ran in the 2009 election to the state assembly, it won less than 5,000 votes.

Jacob, a TV film director by trade, filmed wind turbines for his group's campaign ad. The turbines are near houses and, in his view, cast harmful shadows on fields. Since the election, however, he has had to rethink his strategy for the initiative.

But now he has a new, smaller fight on his hands: His own neighborhood could be affected by a planned turbine project.

The proposed site is along the B87 highway, near the town of Biebersdorf, a short drive from his house. As he drives by the site, he points to a meadow where 11 turbines are to be built. Eleven new wind turbines, says Jacob, "yet another industrial wind project."

He points to the other side of the highway, where he says a pair of black storks lives. The birds have long been on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's "red list" of threatened species. In a letter to the district commissioner, in which he listed his objections to the proposed wind turbines, he cited the black storks as one of the arguments against the project. He also wrote: "As we see it, the future operators of this industrial wind park are in no way concerned about the climate issue, but are purely in it for the profit."

Sitting on his couch, Jacob says that he finds the hysteria and fuss of the energy debate annoying. With logs burning in the fireplace and apple trees in the garden -- and with not a wind turbine in sight -- he lives in a quiet, idyllic environment. "Why do we need an indoor ski run in Brandenburg?" Jacob asks. Wouldn't it be better if everyone started by saving electricity and reflecting on energy conservation?

It seems that the energy source of the future hasn't been discovered yet -- the one that doesn't bother anyone, isn't visible, doesn't make any noise, doesn't produce objectionable odors and doesn't generate any waste or toxic emissions.

Darkness on the Edge of Town

The kind of reflection Thomas Jacob is talking about began last fall in Timmaspe, a village in northern Germany near the city of Kiel. Things suddenly became very loud in Timmaspe, when the energy revolution descended on village life.

Suddenly trucks were roaring through the village day and night, disturbing everyone's sleep, says Jörg Bobsien. He is sitting in his living room, which has a view of Timmaspe's main street. Things have quieted down again, and the traffic has all but vanished.


Photo Gallery: Citizens against Solar

Foto: DDP

The trucks were carrying corn waste to a field on the outskirts of town. They eventually left, at which point the farmer who owned the field announced that a biogas plant was going to be built there.

Soon a citizens' initiative was formed in Timmaspe, and Bobsien became its spokesman. The members of the group met, drank wine and produced a flyer. They talked to other residents in the area and discovered that "every community is currently worried about the issue." Biogas plants were in the works all over the area, often sparking protests from local residents.

The Timmaspe citizens' initiative distributed its flyers and collected signatures in the village. Its campaign was a success, at least for the time being. The operator of the planned facility apparently decided to build a new biogas plant in a nearby town, says Bobsien.

No Sensible Policy

"Of course, no one wants a thing like this," Bobsien says. For a spokesman, he tends to be on the taciturn side. He talks about the traffic, the stench and the industrialization of the local economy. A small plant already exists in Timmaspe, at the other end of the village, but Bobsien says he can live with that. But another plant, one that would be at least twice as big, is too much for a village of 1,100 inhabitants, he says.

Bobsien, 46, owns a parquet and interior decorating shop in Hamburg. He lives in a renovated farmhouse in Timmaspe. His windsurfing boards hang in the garage. Bobsien is the kind of person who is sensitive to his immediate environment, and he buys his milk and meat from local farmers. He is worried that farmers will be priced out of the area if local fields are increasingly used to grow corn for the biogas plants.

"And what kind of corn is it, anyway?" asks his wife, who has just walked into the house with the couple's daughters and joins her husband at their long wooden table. "And where does the electricity go?"

Bobsien nods. The traffic, the stench, the industrialization -- these are things he could live with if there were a plan. He is opposed to nuclear power and pollution from coal-fired power plants, But he says that he has the feeling "that no one bothers to think about a sensible energy policy."

Bobsien sounds a lot like Hans Fliege, the man who questions the usefulness of solar parks in Bavaria, and Thomas Jacob, the Brandenburg resident who is convinced that there is no real plan behind all the wind turbines.

Shouldering the Burden

If people have the feeling "that their region is expected to deal with the whole problem on its own," and that they are expected to shoulder the burden without seeing any of the benefits, it's understandable that they would want to fight back, says social scientist Dieter Rucht. One way forward, he suggests, would be if people in each region had to decide for themselves how to provide their electricity.

Perhaps it's a good thing that we now have to think about these things, says Jörn Bobsien, the activist in Timmaspe.

When the members of the Timmaspe citizens' initiative hold their next meeting, they decide that their village should produce its own energy in the future. And to achieve that goal, they say, they would even accept a biogas plant.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.
Speichern Sie Ihre Lieblingsartikel in der persönlichen Merkliste, um sie später zu lesen und einfach wiederzufinden.
Jetzt anmelden
Sie haben noch kein SPIEGEL-Konto? Jetzt registrieren
Mehrfachnutzung erkannt
Bitte beachten Sie: Die zeitgleiche Nutzung von SPIEGEL+-Inhalten ist auf ein Gerät beschränkt. Wir behalten uns vor, die Mehrfachnutzung zukünftig technisch zu unterbinden.
Sie möchten SPIEGEL+ auf mehreren Geräten zeitgleich nutzen? Zu unseren Angeboten