It was conceived as a plan to draw Germany together, a 500-mile (800km) energy highway that would link the gale-beaten windfarms of the north with the energy-hungry south. But with resistance growing in Bavaria, the project looks more likely to divide the country that unite it.
Renewables produced almost 25% of Germany’s energy in 2013. But production is uneven and expected to get even more so: while windfarms in the northern flatlands are forecast to eventually outstrip the area’s power needs, the highly industrialised south is still heavily reliant on nuclear energy. Solar power, though more prevalent in the south, is still too unreliable to compensate for the planned phasing out of five nuclear power stations in the southern half of the country.
The new energy highway is meant to even out this imbalance. Hailed as the “aorta of the energy revolution” by the companies behind the plans, the new high-voltage power line would start in Wilster in Schleswig-Holstein and end in Grafenrheinfeld in Bavaria. Currently, most of the line will be carried on masts up to 70 metres high, but TransnetBW said parts of the line may run underground near built-up areas.
In addition to the main energy highway, there are also plans for corridors branching out east and west, totalling 1,700 miles (2,800km) in length. Energy companies hope the project, which they say will cost under €10bn (£8.3bn), will be green-lighted in 2015 and finished by 2022.
But particularly in the south of the country, a protest movement is forming in opposition to the plans. In Franconia in northern Bavaria, an initiative against the south-east energy corridor called Citizens against Monster Pylons has already amassed over 1,000 members.
As well as voicing concerns about health risks and dropping property values for those living near high-voltage lines, they argue that the south’s energy needs would be more easily met through new gas power stations, or even wind farms, in southern Bavaria.
Last summer, the German parliament passed a law that paved the way for the new energy highway. But in the light of the current protests, a number of local politicians are making objections to the project. Horst Seehofer, the head of the Bavarian CSU – sister party to Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats – has already called for a freeze on plans for further energy lines. “It is possible to both be massively in support of the nuclear phaseout and put up a massive fight if we are going about the wrong way of achieving it,” Seehofer said.
But politicians in the north are accusing the CSU of trying to sabotage the entire Energiewende (energy transition).
“When we switch off the last nuclear power station, we also need renewable energy in Bavaria,” said Robert Habeck, Schleswig-Holstein’s energy minister.
“That was the decision we made after Fukushima. Those who now attack plans for extending the energy network are in fact dismissing the entire phaseout.”
Currently, public support for Energiewende is still high: a survey in October last year showed 84% of Germans back the nuclear phaseout. But the rising cost has become a growing concern, and last month the new energy minister, Sigmar Gabriel, vowed to cut subsidies for wind, solar and other renewables – a move criticised in the north and cheered in the south.
Unless the new government manages to reconcile national priorities with the dynamics of its federal system, the mood could quickly turn against Germany’s green revolution.