German conservatives resist wind power, but not for reasons you’d think

Why We Wrote This

In the U.S., resistance to renewable energy sources is often grounded in doubts about climate change. But in Germany, conservative citizens’ groups see wind farms as the wrong solution to a real problem.

Michael Probst/AP
Wind turbines on a hill are surrounded by fog and clouds near Frankfurt, Germany, on Jan. 6, 2020.

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Germany is relying on renewable energy to help meet its goals of ending domestic nuclear power generation by 2022 and coal by 2038. But there is pushback against some alternative energy – wind energy in particular – as nearly 1,000 citizens’ initiatives have sprung up all over Germany to gum up the renewable rollout.

But unlike conservative resistance to alternative energy in the United States, German activists aren’t so much opposed to renewable energy in principle as they are to its current practice. They want to be heard on how sources like wind power are used and deployed in their communities.

Rainer Ebeling, the spokesman for the citizens’ initiative against wind farms in the district of Crussow, feels politicians have ignored communities like his as they negotiated Germany’s energy future. He doesn’t support coal use, which “destroys the environment,” nor is he against wind, he says. He simply feels that wind power is a less than fully effective choice.

Further, Mr. Ebeling says, the energy debate has moved away from the original goal of reducing CO2. “We have around 30,000 wind parks, and so far the CO2 levels have not been reduced.”

The winter cold was biting, the black night illuminated only by flashlight and streetlamp, but still the group gathered at their tiny town square.

They were scientists and engineers, local shopkeepers and retired teachers, all determined to keep wind companies out of a nearby forest. The group shuns the word “activist,” but no word better describes how they’ve been able to slow the progress of wind power in this part of rural Germany for more than a decade.

“Nature is gone. There are no birds to be heard. We cannot eat money,” blares music from a speaker held by Erika Otto, who wrote the lyrics. Illuminated by the orange-yellow glare of a streetlamp, a scientist stepped into the circle and spoke about wind turbines’ “low efficiency.”

“The damage done to the earth by wind parks is irreversible,” announced Waltraud Plarre, an unofficial group leader of this citizens’ initiative, named “Save Brandenburg” after the state in which Schwielowsee lies. Later, Ms. Plarre pointed out that Germany exports most wind power produced, even as energy prices for the consumer have skyrocketed. “It’s insanity.”

Without renewables, Germany will be unable to meet goals set by parliament decreeing no nuclear power generation by 2022, and no coal by 2038. The European Union’s Green New Deal – which aims for net-zero carbon emissions or the world’s second largest economy by 2050 – is more ambitious than the U.S. version. It’s also celebrated as potentially achievable.

But even as concerns about climate change are reaching fever pitch, nearly 1,000 such citizens’ initiatives like “Save Brandenburg” have sprung up all over Germany to gum up the renewable rollout. And unlike conservative resistance to alternative energy in the United States, German activists aren’t so much opposed to renewable energy in principle as they are to its current practice. They want to be heard on how sources like wind power are used and deployed in their communities.

“They didn’t approach the people at all,” says Rainer Ebeling, a fervent anti-wind voice who lives just outside Berlin. “And, the federal government tells us we don’t have alternatives other than wind. But that’s not the case.”

Frustration with the wind

The quest for renewable energy has gotten off to a rocky start in Germany, despite a strong, high-quality supply chain and ambitious policy targets.

It’s not enough to simply declare policy goals pushing fossil fuels out the door; you need renewables to replace it, analysts say.

“We need not only phase-out, but phase in,” said Matthias Zelinger, energy policy spokesperson for VDMA, Europe’s largest engineering industry association. “We have serious problems. We are no longer in the front-runners.”

Germany’s next moves are important for the global energy sector, says energy economist Andreas Löschel, chair of a commission advising the German government on the energy transition. Germany is the first industrial, coal-reliant country to declare it will move out of coal. And German standards – in the construction and auto industries, for example – have a way of setting the standard for industry in Europe, he says, if not the rest of the world.

But wind energy’s regulatory environment has been stifling. Getting permits for wind and solar installations can take three to five years, or even longer when projects draw the attention of local activists such as those in Schwielowsee.

As a result, capacity-building in Germany’s wind industry has stalled. In 2018 only about 750 onshore wind turbines were installed, a drop of about half from the previous year, with installations in 2019 and 2020 expected to notch in even lower. Solar hasn’t proved a reliable alternative, and Germany will shut down its last nuclear power plant in 2022.

That’s compelling investors to apply outside Germany to install projects, says Mr. Zelinger. A rising public sentiment against wind is taking hold, not only via the citizens’ initiatives but also, in some cases, via government.

Last year, a district in the Saale-Orla region of Germany, where the far-right draws significant political power, offered €2,000 ($2,170) per initiative to fund investigations of the environmental effects of wind projects. The highly unusual proposal to scrutinize renewable energy drew national media attention in Germany, and seven applications were made, according to the district administrative office.

“What are the country’s energy goals?”

Renewables might be more acceptable if the people most affected rolled out the welcome mat. It’s about, Mr. Zelinger says, striking the right balance between “the needs of local communities and the global good.” One possible solution to the community issue, he suggests: “Everyone who ‘sees’ a windmill should get electricity for free.”

Mr. Ebeling is one of those. He’s lived in the same house for nearly 40 years. For decades he had a pristine view of the neighboring national park, but now his house is surrounded by windmills. He sees 25 out the east-facing window, and another 10 or so out the other side.

Mr. Ebeling feels politicians have ignored communities like his as they negotiated Germany’s energy future.

He doesn’t support coal use, which “destroys the environment,” nor is he against wind, he says. He simply feels that wind power is a less than fully effective choice, which Germany has embraced without researching its effects – or the alternatives. Further, Mr. Ebeling says, the energy debate has moved away from the original goal of reducing CO2. “We have around 30,000 wind parks, and so far the CO2 levels have not been reduced,” he says.

That brings up the activists’ main point. They want the debate to get back to fundamental questions: What are the country’s energy goals? What’s the best way to get there? “But we’re not breaking through to the politicians with our arguments,” Mr. Ebeling says.

Back in Schwielowsee at the anti-wind protest, the group began to disperse as the black night got even darker. These aren’t the “not in my backyard,” or NIMBY, advocates of yesteryear, who spoke of altered seascapes and turbine blades that failed to turn when the wind idled. This new, anti-wind movement in Germany gathers people of all stripes who speak knowledgeably of topics such as carbon sequestration, groundwater recharge rates, and negative market prices. Their arguments come at wind from all sides, as they rattle off export statistics and efficiency percentages.

Günter Rauhut says other renewables pack more punch. “Hydropower is a small horse, but it has a lot of power. It’s extremely effective,” says the retired engineer, who contends politicians need to examine other options.

Their efforts – town-square protests, lobbying, and meeting with politicians – have paid off in ways big and small. In Schwielowsee, the energy company Prokon’s efforts to build a large wind park failed, a plan for 18 wind turbines had been reduced to seven, and an official two-year wind-power moratorium has gone into effect. Still, says Ms. Plarre, the organizer, there’s more work to do – Notus Energy has submitted an application to build those seven turbines in 2022, and the city council approved the development contract, which is an important first step.

“I am not a lobbyist for nuclear power,” she says. “I’m simply suggesting that there are new methods and alternatives that don’t have the same consequences [as wind parks].”

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