Eco-Blowback: Mutiny in the Land of Wind Turbines

PHOTO: Dark thunderclouds move over a field with wind turbines

Germany plans to build 60,000 new wind turbines -- in forests, in the foothills of the Alps and even in protected environmental areas. But local residents are up in arms, costs are skyrocketing and Germany's determination to phase out nuclear power is in danger.

The German village of Husarenhof, just north of Stuttgart, nestles picturesquely between orchards and vineyards. Peter Hitzker's house stands on a sharp bend in the road. "Sometimes I get up in the morning and find a couple of totaled cars in the front yard," he says. "But I guess nowhere's perfect."

Still, he finds the wind turbine behind his garden fence harder to cope with. The tower is 180 meters (590 feet) high, and the whirr of the blades and grinding of the actuators are clearly audible.

"When I leave my local bar in Heilbronn, 15 kilometers from here, I find my way home by heading for the turbine," he quips.

But he can't think of anything else positive to say about the turbine. "It's dreadful," he says. "And it's split the village. It's war here."

The wind turbine, an Enercon E-82, has been there for over a year. When it was inaugurated, the local shooting club, the "Black Hunters", fired their guns in celebration, and the local priest delivered a sermon on protecting God's creation.

But not everyone is happy. Some are angry at the way the landscape, celebrated by German Romantic poets such as Hölderlin and Mörike, is being butchered. The opponents protest with images of the Grim Reaper holding a wind turbine rather than his traditional scythe.

The situation in Husarenhof can be found across Germany. After the nuclear disaster in Fukushima and Germany's swift decision to abandon nuclear energy and embrace renewable energy as part of its so-called Energiewende, the country's 16 federal states reacted with a sort of excessive zeal. The northeastern state of Brandenburg plans to set aside 2 percent of its land for wind farms. The western state of Rhineland-Palatinate intends to more than double the amount of wind power it generates. North Rhine-Westphalia, its neighbor to the north, is planning an increase of more than 300 percent.

The winds of change are blowing in Germany -- and hard. Flat-bed trucks laden with tower segments make their way slowly across boggy fields. Cranes crawl up narrow forest paths to set up outsized wind turbines on the tops of mountains. Germany aims to increase its production of wind power from 31,000 to 45,000 megawatts over the next seven years. By the middle of the century, it hopes to be generating 85,000 megawatts in wind power

With the prime coastal locations already taken, operators are increasingly turning their attention to areas further inland. Even valuable tourist regions -- such as the Moselle valley, the Allgäu and the foothills of the Alps -- are to be sacrificed. Sites have even been earmarked by Lake Constance and near Starnberg, where the Bavarian King Ludwig II drowned.

At the moment, things are still in the planning, reporting and application stage. Local authorities' filing cabinets are overflowing with authorization documents and wind strength measurements. Plans call for some 60,000 new turbines to be erected in Germany -- and completely alter its appearance.

The Backer-Opponent Divide

But what's really going on? Are politicians wisely creating the tools needed to prevent the end of the world as we know it? Or are they simply marring the countryside?

More than 700 citizens' initiatives have been founded in Germany to campaign against what they describe as "forests of masts", "visual emissions" and the "widespread devastation of our highland summits."

The opponents carry coffins symbolizing the death of environmental protection. They organize petitions on an almost daily basis. Local residents by Lake Starnberg have even filed a legal complaint alleging that the wind turbines violate Germany's constitution.

The underlying divide is basic and irreconcilable. On one side stand environmentalists and animal rights activists passionate about protecting the tranquility of nature. On the other are progressively minded champions of renewable energy and climate activists determined to secure the long-term survival of the planet.

The question is: How many forests must be sacrificed, how many horizons dotted with wind turbines, to meet Germany's new energy targets? Where is the line between thoughtful activism and excessive zeal? At what point is taxpayer money simply being thrown away?

The wrangling over these issues has led many in Germany's Green Party to question what their party really stands for. Enoch zu Guttenberg, a founding member of Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND), noisily left the association last year because of its support for wind power. Since then, he has felt a "panicky need" to warn humanity about the "giant totems of the cult of unlimited energy."

Michael Succow, a prominent German environmentalist and winner of the Alternative Nobel Prize, is also threatening to abandon ship. He fears soulless stretches of land and lost tranquility.

And his fears are not unfounded. Back in the 1980s, tree-huggers put up Aeroman wind turbines in their front yards -- but those days are long gone. Just the masts of today's wind turbines can reach up to 160 meters high. When active, they kill so many insects that the sticky mass slows the rotors down.

The sweeping blades of the Enercon E-126 cover an area of seven football fields. The rotors of modern wind turbines weigh up to 320 metric tons. There are 83 such three-armed bandits in Germany's largest wind farm, near the village of Ribbeck, northwest of Berlin.

As they drive their SUVs through these turbine forests, tolerantly minded city-dwellers sometimes comment on how ugly eastern Germany has become. Others find them attractive -- as they speed past.

But local Nimbies ("Nimby" = Not In My Back Yard) are indignant. Apart from everything else, the value of their homes has plummeted.

Even sparsely populated areas are beginning to take action. Take, for example, the campaign "Rettet Brandenburg" ("Save Brandenburg"). This eastern state surrounding Berlin is already home to more than 3,100 wind turbines, more than any other federal state. Now, however, the powers-that-be want to build 3,000 more turbines, but state residents are up in arms and have launched a citizen's initiative. At a protest day held in late May, its members railed against "wind-grubbers" and "monster mills."

Maxing Out Turbine Size

Nevertheless, their protests will do little to stop wind-turbine manufacturers from eagerly building taller and taller models. For the relatively weak inland winds to generate sufficient energy and profits, Germany's wind farmers need to reach higher and higher into the skies.

The goal is to get away from the turbulence found near the ground and to climb up into the Ekman layer, above 100 meters high, where the wind blows continuously. Up there, the forces of nature rage freely, creating enough terawatts to meet the energy needs of the global population hundreds of times over. Or at least that's the theory.

Inland, the "technical trend" toward bigger wind turbines "continues unabated," according to a study recently published by the Fraunhofer Institute for Wind Energy and Energy System Technology (IWES).

A visit to the IWES test center in the northern port city of Bremerhaven reveals what lies in store. The center is home to a next-generation rotary blade: flexible, wobbly even, weighing 30 metric tons and stretching 83.5 meters across.

The mammoth prototype blade is currently at the testing stage. Hydraulic presses and cables bend and buffet the blade millions of times over, simulating the stress exerted by storms and gusts of wind.

IWES meteorologist Paul Kühn thinks that the mast themselves, without the blades, could grow to up to 200 meters high. Anything taller would be unprofitable due to the "square-cube law."

Growing Intolerance

So, might we one day see wind turbines with blades stretching up almost 300 meters into the clouds -- a somber memorial to Germany's nuclear phase-out? Even hip urban fans of renewable energy think that would take some getting used to.

Recent studies by bird protectors reveal how the giant blades chop up the air in brutal fashion. "Golden plovers avoid the wind turbines," says Potsdam-based ornithologist Jörg Lippert. Swallows and storks, on the other hand, fly straight into them. The barbastelle bat's lungs collapse as it flies by. A "terrible future" awaits the lesser spotted eagle and red kite, Lippert says.

German citizens are also having to make sacrifices to meet the ambitious goals of the new energy policy. In England, large wind turbines must be situated at least 3,000 meters away from houses in residential areas. In Germany, which is more densely populated, local planners place turbines much closer to homes. In the southern state of Bavaria, for example, the minimum separation is 500 meters, while it's just 300 meters in the eastern state of Saxony.

In the early days, when everyone was still very excited about clean wind power, some farmers in northerly coastal areas allowed turbines to be erected even 250 meters from their cottages. And then they received large compensation payments when the noise from the rotors triggered stampedes in their pigsties.

But now even those in northern Germany are grumbling. Many old wind turbines are being replaced with new, more powerful ones in a process known as "repowering." Instead of 50 meters tall, these new turbines are more than 150 meters high, have flashing lights on them to prevent aircraft from hitting them and make a lot of noise as they rotate.

The result? Complaints about the noise everywhere.

Legal Turbulence The victims of this "sound pollution" typically have bags under their eyes and a tremor in their voices. They are the movement's martyrs. Klaus Zeltwanger is one such victim. He lives just 370 meters from the turbine in Husarenhof. "It whirrs and it hisses," he says, "and then it drones like an airplane about to take off."

To date, the courts have rejected such complaints. Since wind turbines enjoy special rights, fighting them in court is an uphill battle.

But one woman brought a successful case in the northwestern city of Münster back in 2006. She lived just 270 meters away from a wind turbine. She based her plea on the "requirement to be considerate," under which technical equipment and machines cannot be located so close to a residential property that they become "visually oppressive." The experts talk of a "feeling of being dwarfed."

After a long battle, she won the case -- and the giant turbine was torn down.

Other legal grounds can also apply. According to the German Emission Control Act, noise levels in mixed-use residential areas may not exceed 45 decibels at night. For a long time, no one knew what that meant exactly in terms of distance in meters.

Now the courts have ruled on this, too, in a case that might just upset Germany's entire energy revolution. A woman from Marxheim, a town in western Bavaria, brought a case in the Munich Higher Regional Court. Her typical farmer's house, decorated with flowers, was situated 850 meters from an Enercon E-82. She claimed that the sound waves boomed "across field and forest" to where she lived.

The case documents talk of "hissing," "whizzing" and "puffing noises." A specialist in acoustics recorded a volume of 42.8 decibels, adding a further 3 decibels to this because of what is known as the "impulsiveness" of the noise.

The result? The wind turbine now has to operate at a reduced speed between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., which renders it unprofitable.

Enercon is appealing to the Federal Administrative Court. But its chances of winning look slim. Hundreds of propellers are located in the zone that has now been deemed forbidden. Could a large-scale thinning out of turbines now be in the cards?

Attorney Armin Brauns from Diessen, in Bavaria, is predicting a "wave of cases," and his office is overflowing with case files. "Some local authorities behave unfairly with respect to protecting the countryside, circumventing existing laws," he says.

Bloated Capacity and Costs

These disputes come at a very awkward time for the wind-power industry. The country is expecting to see many thousands of new wind turbines up and running in the near future. But, at the moment, orders are few and far between.

For a long time, the companies grew fat on feed-in tariffs, which provide guaranteed prices for green energy at above-market prices subsidized by the government via surcharges on consumers' power bills. Indeed, an entire industrial sector developed into a subsidy giant. The result? Bloated firms with excess capacity.

International markets are also collapsing, which makes things even worse for the industry. The two most important countries for wind power have both reigned in further construction projects. The United States is instead going for cheaper "fracking," the controversial method of using hydraulic fracturing to extract shale gas. China, on the other hand, has problems with its power grids, which is dampening its enthusiasm for wind turbines.

Stephan Weil, the governor of the northwestern state of Lower Saxony, recently warned that 10,000 jobs in the state's wind industry were at risk. The Danish manufacturer Vestas has already been forced to cut some 1,400 positions.

The mood is correspondingly tense. The CEO of WeserWind says that a "regulating hand" is nowhere to be found, leaving everything in "total chaos."

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.

People are beginning to have second thoughts. The eastern state of Saxony has already downscaled its expansion plans. And the state of Thuringia to its west doesn't want any wind turbines located in its forests.

Overall, however, the ranks of fearless politicians whose goal is to build an environmental utopia in Germany remain by and large unbroken.

Robert Habeck, a member of the Green Party who serves as environment minister for the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, sees himself as an agent in the "undertaking of the century." To underline his determination, he even calls himself the "Minister for the Energiewende." Today, we are building the infrastructure that will ensure that energy is "as good as free for our children," he says.

It's hard to see exactly what he bases his calculation on. Consumers are currently paying more and more for power, while others are making a killing. Members of community-owned wind farms are being tempted with returns of between 6 and 9 percent. These profits are fed primarily by subsidies that have previously been hijacked from citizens.

Farmers are also making good money on the shift to wind power. Desirable locations for wind turbines can bring in more than €50,000 ($65,000) a year in rent in Bavaria. With prices like that, who wouldn't want to help promote the cause of clean energy?

Baron Götz von Berlichingen, from the village of Jagsthausen in Baden-Württemberg, is a direct descendant of the knight celebrated by Goethe. Together with the power company EnBW, he is building 11 wind farms on his property. Used for farming, the land generated at the most €700 per hectare (2.5 acres) -- a fraction of what it earns as a site for wind turbines.

According to opponents of wind power, that's why permits to build wind farms are being handed out like there's no tomorrow. They complain about "brainwashed climate apostles," "traitors of the countryside" and "greedy power gamblers" who are prepared to sacrifice every last inch of the country to the Energiewende.

Sacrificing the Forests

They are right in claiming that growth is rampant. The German government wants to have renewable sources supply 35 percent of Germany's energy by 2020. And, in their excessive zeal, the federal states have already designated enough land for green infrastructure capable of lifting this figure to 80 percent within the same period.

Instead of banishing the noise-makers to industrial wastelands or erecting them along freeways, they are scattering them across graceful mountain landscapes and areas full of lakes.

These plans have admittedly not been properly thought through. But it is the large-scale attack on forests that wind-turbine opponents find the most appalling. The Nordic pine forests, which formed the magical, emotion-filled realm of the German Romantics, as well as the homes of the ash and the oak, are all threatened by the relaxing of the laws.

From the Odenwald mountain range stretching across southwest Germany to the birch forests of Mecklenburg in the northeast, giant trucks are pushing their way into the woodlands. Johannes Remmel, a member of the Green Party who serves as environment minister for the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, has announced that he would like to put up around 2,000 wind turbines in the region's forests. The state of Hesse also wants to cut down thousands of hectares of trees.

Some pioneering projects are already underway, such as that in Ellern, a small town in the low mountain range of Hunsrück in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate. Ellern has recently become home to a record-breaking wind turbine some 200 meters tall, or far above the treetops.

Semi-trailers pulled nacelles, the enormous housings for wind turbine engines, and transformer stations up the narrow forest roads. A 1,000-ton crane made its way up the slippery slopes to the peak; trees were felled at the side of the road to make way for it. At the top, the forest was cleared to nothing with chainsaws so that concrete foundations could be laid for the turbines.

No one knows what the impact of such activities will be on the flora and fauna. The offensive into this mountain range took place "without checks," protests Germany's Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU). In any case, the group says, the idea of generating wind power in the forest should be "rejected on principle."

Lies and Deception

The decision to not build offshore wind farms turns out to be misguided not just for environmental reasons, but also for economic ones. At sea, turbines can achieve 4,500 full-load hours a year. By the coast, the figure is 3,000. Inland, a site is considered good if it produces 1,800 hours.

The turbines currently being built across Germany, from the Ore Mountains in the east to Lake Constance in the west, are weaker still. Statistics show that the turbines in the south of the country are generating significantly less power than was predicted. The biggest wind farm in Baden-Württemberg, at a height of 850 meters in the Northern Black Forest, has been a flop for years.

"It's all an enormous swindle," says Besigheim-based auditor Walter Müller, 65, whose former job involved calculating the value of bankrupt East German factories. Today, he takes the same hard-as-nails approach to examining the books of wind farm companies.

His verdict? A fabric of lies and deception. The experts commissioned by the operators of the wind farms sometimes describe areas with weak breezes as top "wind-intensive" sites to make them appear more attractive, he says. "Small-scale investors are promised profits to attract them into closed funds for wind farms that do not generate enough energy," he says. "Ultimately, all the capital is eaten up."

The wind turbines, whose job it was to protect the environment, are not running smoothly. Germany's biggest infrastructure project is a mess. Everyone wants to get away from nuclear. But at what price?

Even Winfried Kretschmann, the governor of Baden-Württemberg and the first Green Party member to govern any German state, is sounding contrite. But his resolve remains as firm as ever: "There is simply no alternative to disfiguring the countryside like this," he insists.

The question is: Is he right?

Translated from the German by Nick Ukiah

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