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Renewable energy hits a roadblock with ugly power lines

With the German government’s phaseout of nuclear energy, renewable sources like wind power are expected to fill the void. But new power lines are desperately needed to keep up with demand, and no one wants them around.

Since the beginning of May, the first offshore wind farm has been running on the Baltic coast. On a good day, “Baltic 1” can produce 50 megawatts of power from its 21 turbines.

Over the next 20 years, the German government has big plans for energy production from the North and Baltic seas, wanting to see more turbines built along the coastline. There is, however, one major snag – the existing power lines are not sufficient to transfer this green electricity away from the coast. On some days, the power grids are overloaded.

In the eastern state of Brandenburg, Gunnar Hemme lives not far from the Schorfheide-Chorin biosphere reserve. Running through part of the 1,300-square kilometer-(500 square mile) protected area is a 220-kilovolt (kV) high voltage power line.

Hemme regularly conducts experiments testing the electromagnetic radiation coming from the power lines. When he holds up two long fluorescent tubes and points them in the direction of the electricity lines, they start to glow in seconds.

The tests are for the citizens’ initiative “Biosphere Under Power,” for which he is a spokesman.

‘We’re not unreasonable’

For several years now, Hemme and a hundred others have been fighting against the planned construction of another above-ground power line. He can rattle through the facts and numbers relating to the project with ease:

According to the Power Line Development Act of 2009, 24 new 380-kV high-tension power lines are planned for construction. Only four pilot projects have tested underground cables – three in Lower Saxony and one in Thuringia – but none in Brandenburg, where Hemme lives. This, he said, is a mistake.

“I want to make clear that we’re not unreasonable,” he said. “We’re not saying that we don’t want the lines at all. We all support the transition out of nuclear energy – that’s our goal, and it was even before the disaster in Japan happened.”

Go underground

What Hemme wants is for the government to build underground cables. The currently planned lines are 115 kilometers (71 miles) long and 30 meters wide. The 70-meter high poles are twice as tall as the local forest. All this destroys the pristine natural setting of the biological reserve.

Beyond the rural blight, Hemme said the electromagnetic current is a risk to human health. Local businesses that make their money off eco-friendly products, eco-tourism and the natural landscape are at risk of going broke.

Hemme said he too fears for the image of his company. He comes from a line of dairy farmers in Lower Saxony, and for 13 years he has managed a dairy farm in the Uckermark region, near the border with Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.

Rapid development needed

In the middle of the dispute between the citizens’ initiative and government planners is 50 Hertz, the Berlin-based company commissioned for the development of eastern Germany’s electric grid.

Volker Kamm, spokesman for the company, said he understands the worries and opposition to the above-ground power lines – he too finds them “not very sexy.”

“We’re not trying to cover all of Germany with high-tension power lines – that’s not our wish,” he said.

Rather, Kamm said his company can only build what parliament hires it to build.

“In essence, we’re the service providers for society,” he said. “And if society decides to build underground cables, then that’s what we’ll do.”

But underground cables are more expensive and often delicate, Kamm said. One cable operated by 50 Hertz exploded and took a year to repair.

Whether over- or underground, Kamm said the development of the network of power lines has to come quickly. The Baltic 1 offshore wind farm has been operating for a month, and 13 others are soon to follow. All together they are to deliver as much electricity as three nuclear power plants – but they can only do so if more power lines are built.

“Last year we had to take green power generators offline for six days,” Kamm said. “No one can really want that.”