Eco-Blowback: Mutiny in the Land of Wind Turbines

Cem Özdemir, the national chairman of Germany's Green Party, claims that environmental protection "is a great opportunity for our country -- economically, too." But, in reality, everything is getting more expensive. At the European Energy Exchange in Leipzig, electricity costs less than 3.5 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh). But consumers currently pay 27 cents for each kWh because the price is overloaded with taxes and environmental fees.

There are many reasons for this. For example, all the electrical work involved in setting up offshore wind turbines and connecting them to the onshore grid is much more costly than was originally thought. The acrobats on the high seas are doing pioneering work, and the risks of failure are high.

Rather than calmly developing elegant offshore technology, German politicians have put themselves under pressure by setting the deadline for ending the production of nuclear power in Germany at early in the next decade. Everyone is in a rush. So when costs go up at sea, the wind turbines immediately swarm inland.

But that leaves just one more problem: Things aren't much cheaper on land, either. Giant electricity highways are needed to transport the energy southward from the turbines along the northern coastline. And that necessitates a complete restructuring of the national power grid.

"We're planning nothing less than a technical revolution," says a spokesman for the environment ministry of Lower Saxony, in Hanover. "In the past, villages in the middle of nowhere were connected (to the grid) using the thinnest cables possible. Today, we need the thickest cables there because the wind farms are in the outback."

Around 2,800 kilometers (1,740 miles) of new extra-high voltage lines are needed, plus 7,000 kilometers of distribution networks. Cost estimates put the figure at between €10 million and €20 million.

Delays and Demands

It's a massive undertaking. To get things moving, Germany's federal government introduced the Infrastructure Planning Acceleration Act back in 2006. This was followed in 2009 by the Power Grid Expansion Act. And, just five weeks ago, Germany's federal parliament passed the Federal Requirement Plan Act.

But despite the legislation, the actual amount of new electricity grid infrastructure that has been constructed is surprisingly small: Just 268 kilometers of the planned grid expansion is currently up and running.

Why the delay? One reason is the many thousands of hysterical "electrosmog" campaigners who fight every new section of 110-kilovolt line as if it were the work of the devil. And the wind farms are always accompanied by their ugly step-sister: the overhead power masts carrying the power lines.

What about underground cables, then? This is what the protestors are demanding. What they forget is that 380-kilovolt lines laid underground require copper strands as thick as your arm to avoid overheating. And they are incredibly expensive: All in all, underground cables can cost up to 10 times as much as overhead cables.

Often, the bottlenecks in the grid are already so big that the wind turbines are turning for no reason. When there is a stiff breeze, they have to be held back. This led to 127 gigawatt hours of power being wasted in 2010, or enough to meet the annual energy requirements of 100,000 residents.

Winners and Losers But scare tactics won't work here. The costs of disposing of nuclear waste are also enormous. And nobody likes the moonscapes left behind by coal mining.

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