NIMBYs Warm to Renewables in Europe’s Most Polluting Economy

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The Bavarian town of Niederaichbach has long opposed the high-voltage line essential to transport renewable energy in Germany. It required a war and nationwide blackout warnings to quell popular opposition.

SuedOstLink is one of two major power lines that will bring wind power from Germany’s northern coast to industrial areas. Niederaichbach — just a few kilometers from BMW AG’s largest German plant — will mark the southernmost point of the network.

Its residents only recently allowed the plan to go ahead after years of legal action to prevent it. In 2020, the city sued the construction project — which includes a major transformer — because it hoped to use the space for computing, and there were concerns about what that might look like.

The city’s recent shift is good news for slow efforts to expand renewable energy, but it’s also a reminder of resistance bubbling up across Europe. As the region’s energy crisis looms large, citizens are forced to weigh the political and environmental risks of relying on fossil fuels against the potential aesthetics of obstructing power lines and modern windmills.

The stakes for Germany are very high: the threat of deindustrialization looms over the economy if it cannot guarantee a reliable electricity supply. It is also under pressure – as the bloc’s most polluting member – to play its part in Europe’s push to go green and help tackle the climate crisis .

“We need transmission lines to increase energy independence and make the energy transition efficient,” said Josef Klaus, the mayor of Niederaichbach, in an interview with Bloomberg. In a sign of the rapid change in sentiment, the city’s mayor was quoted as recently as February saying he was “disappointed” by the ruling in favor of the cable.

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The energy crisis that followed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been instrumental in reducing opposition to SuedOstLink between them and the city, and appears to be softening opposition to the project elsewhere. also. Germans are facing higher inflation than at any time since the end of the Second World War, and citizens are wary that heavy economic pressures could mean the shutdown of production and the loss of work.

“People see renewable energy as the key to greater independence,” said Katja Witte, an energy expert from the Wuppertal Institute, adding that “energy produced and used in “The area can provide a sense of control and confidence.”

Surveys show that public opinion is in favor of green energy, and MPs also commented on the changes taking place on the ground.

Lisa Badum, a politician from the Green party, said that in her home district of Bavaria there has been only one offshore turbine since 1999, but now four or five are planned. Many who previously opposed wind power – especially conservative forces – are now voting for it, he said.

Similarly, Social Democrat Timon Gremmels said that in the forest near his home, Reinhardswald in central Germany, anti-aircraft activists were once very active. But opposition has been “definitely waning” since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, he said in an interview.

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This flexibility has given the federal government the ability to loosen regulations to benefit renewable energy operators. Offshore wind farms have been allowed to operate at higher power at night, although this produces less noise. Biomass plants, which burn plants and other organic matter, are also allowed to produce high quality, although they tend to produce unpleasant odors.

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Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s coalition raised the target for renewable energy for 2030 from 65% to 80% and passed 25 energy-related laws or regulations during first three months of this year – hardly compared to the previous government.

The new law, which takes effect in January, says that clean energy “overrides the public interest and protects the public.” However, the country is set to miss its climate goals this decade, according to experts advising the government, and its environmental performance ranks shows Germany falling behind, mainly due to slow progress in clean energy.

Despite signs of improvement, local opposition has not ceased to be a challenge to the green transition in Germany. The city of Oederan — in the country’s former communist eastern bloc, where Germany’s far-right and climate-skeptic Alternative for Germany is very strong — is disrupting plans to build nine wind turbines with capacity of 135 kilowatt-hours per year. Residents, politicians and local administrators argue that the wind farm will block the beautiful view of the 13th century church.

Although communities can benefit greatly from local marine parks – laws even force operators to share profits with residents – local residents are often fearful. but they may be lost, for example, if the new development causes a decrease in the value of the property. They have many ways to resist new projects.

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The long-term planning of renewable buildings is also a major issue for companies in the sector. It takes the federal government 14 to 58 months to grant permission, leaving Germany completely outside the EU’s one-year deadline. Some processes take three times as long as they should, according to a study by BDI, Germany’s largest industry association.

Scholz vowed during the country’s last election campaign to crack down on renewables. It should not take six years, for example, to approve wind turbines, but six months, he once said.

“In general, the bureaucratic process around wind, solar and grid expansion can take 15 years,” says Simon Mueller, director of energy management Agora Energiewende. Although the federal government is aware of the problem, its ability to change it is limited because such decisions are in the hands of state officials.

If the district and the community also want to say, this quickly leads to a lot of documents “so that three turbines can fill 70 folders”, says the CEO of RWE AG Wind Onshore Katja Wuenschel during a recent discussion. Renewable energy giant RWE has repeatedly warned that the delays are making Germany unattractive for investment.

Meanwhile, in Niederaichbach in Bavaria, planners expect less. Despite clearing local opposition barriers, the energy superhighway is still years away from easing Germany’s energy woes, with a special construction plan yet to be launched. Federal regulators expect the full power line to be up and running by 2030.

–With help from Chris Reiter.

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