As windmills spread, some Germans balk at 'asparagus fields'
BERLIN — They call him the Don Quixote of the Uckermark.
But unlike the Spanish literary figure, Hans-Joachim Mengel, a professor of political science at Berlin's Free University, isn't attacking imaginary "giants" in the Iberian hinterland. Rather, he is taking aim at the 400-foot windmills that blanket the German countryside.
Mr. Mengel is not alone. Hundreds of citizens' groups have sprung up in Germany to battle "Verspargelung der Landschaft" - a new phrase in the German lexicon - meaning "the transformation of the German landscape into an asparagus field."
While an overwhelming majority of Germans supports wind power as a step away from atomic and coal-generated electricity, a growing number of critics are railing against noise and visual pollution, inefficiency, and costliness. They say wind power does little to reduce carbon dioxide emissions while lowering property values near wind parks.
Aggravation is particularly high in the Uckermark - where Mengel is from - along the Baltic Sea coast. The northern German region boasts the largest concentration of wind farms in the country. Mengel, an activist turned local politician, ran in local elections there with his "Save the Uckermark" party, solely on an antiwindmill platform. The party came in second place, trailing only the Christian Democratic Union.
"The destruction of the landscape needs to be entered in on the cost side of any cost-benefit analysis of wind power," says Mengel. "The landscape here in the Uckermark is an economic asset - and when that is destroyed, the region's economy will also be destroyed."
There has been a dramatic increase in the number of windmills installed throughout the country since the Renewable Energy Act was passed in 2000. The law, which requires energy companies to buy all energy produced by windmills at a price fixed higher than the going rate, essentially guarantees profits for wind energy investors. The law also boosts Germany's goal of being the world leader in "green" energy production.
The results can be seen from the hills of the Black Forest in the south to the beaches of the Baltic Sea in the north. Germany is now home to over 16,000 windmills and produces 39 percent of all global wind power - more than all other European Union countries combined - according to government statistics.
The boom in wind energy is not limited to Germany. Denmark now covers 27 percent of its energy needs through wind power, higher than any other country in the world, although it is now scaling back subsidies for wind energy because they are deemed too costly. The US has doubled the amount of energy produced through wind power since 2000, using a similar fixed price system as Germany. In Cape Cod, Massachusetts, controversial plans that would make the coastal region home to the world's second-largest offshore wind park are being discussed.
In Germany, which passed a 2002 law to phase out all nuclear production by 2020, officials are hoping that windmills generate 12.5 percent of the country's energy needs by 2010. According to recent surveys, close to 80 percent of Germans support the government's strategy of promoting renewable energy sources. Some 35,000 jobs have been created by the industry thus far, and the cost to the consumer is low: The average rise in electricity bill per household as a result of wind power is one euro.
Yet as wind power has grown in Germany, so too have questions surrounding its efficiency. A report recently released by the German Ministry of the Economy has proved damaging, questioning the energy source's effectiveness in reducing CO2 production worldwide. The report concludes that the trade in CO2 emission licenses - as called for by the Kyoto Protocol - will mean that German companies that use wind energy will be able to sell their CO2 emission permits, effectively exporting CO2 production out of Germany without contributing to an overall reduction.
Many experts have criticized the report, but it has given momentum to the anti-windmill movement. Additional studies pointing to the inconsistency of windy weather in Germany and a general reduction in windy days overall in recent years have also fueled resistance.
"The Renewable Energy Act is a very blunt instrument to promote wind energy," says Marcus Peek, a scientist at the University of Cologne Energy Institute. "It doesn't take into account where investors are building windmills and if they are building them in spots that make sense."
Many close to the industry admit that mistakes have been made - especially in terms of marketing. "Acceptance of windmills is still a point where more work needs to be done," says Peter Ahmels, president of the German Wind Energy Association. "We need to do more public relations work to increase tolerance."
Wind energy's antagonists, meanwhile, are hoping that through petitioning, legal challenges, and political influence their voices will be heard. It is the local issues - the hum of the turbines, the flashing red lights on blades that creates a "disco effect" - that have most activists riled.
"Imagine you live in an area that is completely changed into an industrial region - and in the end, wind farms are industrial installations," says Mengel. "People would accept that if they saw a benefit to it. A few people make money from it, but everybody else gets nothing. Why should I sacrifice my landscape so that Herr Müller down the road can make money by leasing out his land for a wind park?"