NIMBYs Warm to Renewables in Europe’s Most Polluting Economy

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The Bavarian town of Niederaichbach has long opposed a high-voltage line that is crucial to the transport of renewable energy in Germany. It took a war and warnings of blackouts across the country to quell the resistance of the residents.

The SuedOstLink is one of two major power lines that will bring offshore wind power from Germany’s northern coasts to its industrial sites. Niederaichbach – just a few kilometers from Germany’s largest car manufacturer BMW AG – will mark the southernmost point of the grid.

Its residents recently allowed the plan to go ahead after years of legal action to block it. In 2020, the city sued the construction project – which included a large transformer – because it hoped to use the conservation area, and there were concerns about how it would look.

The city’s recent transformation is good news for Germany’s slow-moving efforts to expand renewable energy, but it’s also a reminder of resistance to renewables across Europe. As the energy crisis looms large in the region, citizens are forced to weigh the political and environmental risks of relying on fossil fuels against the potential benefits of power lines and modern wind turbines.

Germany’s constraints are very high: the threat of industrialization threatens the economy if it cannot guarantee an affordable energy supply. It is also under pressure – as the bloc’s most polluting member – to contribute to Europe’s push to go green and help contain the climate crisis.

“We need transmission lines to increase our self-sufficiency and make the energy transition a success,” Josef Klaus, the mayor of Niederaichbach, told Bloomberg in an interview. In a sign of how quickly sentiment has changed, a city leader was quoted as recently as February saying he was “disappointed” by a court ruling in favor of the power line.

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The energy crisis created after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was important in reducing his and the city’s opposition to the SuedOstLink, and it seems to be melting against projects elsewhere. Germans are facing higher inflation than at any time since the end of World War II, and citizens are wary that a squeeze on a struggling manufacturing economy could spell shutdowns and job losses.

“People see renewable energy as the key to more freedom,” said energy sociologist Katja Witte from the Wuppertal Institute, adding that “energy produced and used locally can provide a sense of control and trust.”

Research suggests that public opinion is growing in favor of green energy, and lawmakers have commented on the changes taking place in the world.

Lisa Badum, a Green Party politician, said that in her home state of Bavaria there has been one wind turbine since 1999, but four to five wind farms are now being planned. Many who were once opposed to wind power – especially conservative energy – are now voting for it, he says.

Similarly, Social Democrat Timon Gremmels said that in the forest near his home, the Reinhardswald in central Germany, anti-spiritualists were very active in the past. But resistance “will clearly be diminishing” since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, he said in an interview.

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That freedom gave the federal government scope to loosen regulations to benefit renewable energy operators. Offshore wind parks are allowed to operate at higher power at night, even if that produces slightly more noise. Biomass plants, which burn plants and other organic matter, have also been given the opportunity to advance to higher production, although they tend to produce unpleasant odors.

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Coalition Chancellor Olaf Scholz raised the nation’s 2030 goal of renewable energy from 65% to 80% and passed 25 electricity-related laws or regulations in the first three quarters of this year – unprecedented by any government before.

The new law that goes into effect in January states that clean energy is “in the public interest and serves public safety.” However, the country is set to miss its climate targets this decade, according to experts advising the government, and environmental performance indicators show Germany is falling behind, largely because of slow progress in clean energy.

Despite signs of improvement, local resistance has not ceased to be a challenge to Germany’s green transition. The town of Oederan – located in the former communist eastern bloc, where the eright Alternative and climate-skeptic Germany is very strong – torpedoing plans to stop nine wind turbines with an annual capacity of 135 kilowatt-hours. Residents, politicians and the local administration argue that the wind park will hinder the impressive view that includes the 13th century church.

Although communities can benefit greatly from community parks on the coast – the law even forces operators to share profits with residents – residents often fear that they could lose out, for example if new development causes property values ​​to fall. They have many ways of resisting new projects.

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Long-term planning processes for renewable energy facilities are also a key issue for companies in this sector. The federal states take between 14 and 58 months to grant permits, which puts Germany well short of the EU’s one-year proposal. Some programs even last three times as long as allowed, according to a survey by Germany’s largest association BDI.

Scholz made a pledge during the recent state election campaign to cut red tape for reform. Approval of wind turbines, for example, should not take six years, but six months, he said at one point.

“In total, the bureaucratic processes around wind, solar and grid expansion can take 15 years,” said Simon Mueller, director of the German energy think tank Agora Energiewende. Although the federal government is aware of the problem, it has limited ability to change it because such decision-making is mainly in the hands of the authorities.

If districts and communities also want to have a say, this quickly leads to so many documents “that three wind turbines can fill 70 folders”, CEO of RWE AG Wind Onshore Katja Wuenschel said during a recent panel discussion. RWE, the renewable energy giant, has repeatedly warned that the delay makes Germany less attractive for investment.

Meanwhile, in Niederaichbach in Bavaria, planners are more optimistic. Despite clearing the hurdle of local opposition, the superhighway is still years away from alleviating Germany’s energy problems, with some construction plans yet to begin. The Federal Regulator expects the full power line to be up and running by 2030.

–Courtesy of Chris Reiter.

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