Chancellor Angela Merkel’s plan to replace nuclear power plants across Germany with renewables requires an energy superhighway that will run over Valerie Grill’s back yard.
The 43-year-old mother of two is one of thousands of citizens objecting to the 21 billion-euro ($23 billion) program to erect high-voltage electricity lines linking offshore wind farms in the North Sea to factories in the south. It includes a 500-mile cable from Wilster on the north coast to Grafenrheinfeld in Bavaria, known as Suedlink.
“I’m used to power lines near our town,” said Grill, pointing to 40-meter (131 feet) high masts visible from her farmhouse in the western town of Muenchehagen near Hanover. “But the Suedlink towers will be almost double in height and surround our town from three sides. You’ll always see them, no matter where you are, and we don’t know anything about the health implications. It’s just too much.”
As EON SE prepares to shut its 1.3-gigawatt nuclear plant in Grafenrheinfeld on Saturday, the clock is ticking for Germany to expand the grid to add more wind and solar power before authorities take the country’s remaining eight reactors offline by 2022. It’s the first closure since Germany shuttered eight atomic plants in the wake of the March 2011 disaster in Fukushima that prompted Merkel’s decision to abandon nuclear energy.
Grill and fellow protesters are threatening to hold up the expansion, casting doubt about whether Germany can maintain electricity supplies without turning to the fossil fuels blamed for global warming.
“The government has underestimated the grid issue,” said Patrick Graichen, head of Agora Energiewende, a Berlin-based research organization that monitors and conducts regular studies on the energy shift.
TenneT TSO GmbH and EnBW Energie Baden-Wuerttemberg AG’s TransnetBW, the companies overseeing the project, say the power highway is vital because southern Germany will have to import about one-third of its electricity by 2023 as reactors close and power generation shifts to wind farms in the north.
“Expanding the grid is the biggest bottleneck in the energy shift,” said Jochen Homann, who heads the Bundesnetzagentur regulator overseeing the expansion. “We’re already experiencing delays.”
The agency fielded about 30,000 complaints from citizens, local authorities and protest groups in the three months through mid-May, the Bundesnetzagentur said.
Projects like the reconstruction of the central station of the southern city of Stuttgart to create a European rail hub or the dredging of the River Elbe in Hamburg to allow fully loaded container ships into the port at low tides show how public opposition has thwarted major infrastructure plans in Germany in recent years, delaying work and adding to costs.
Grill has attracted more than 70 supporters since starting her campaign in April. Dozens of similar action groups have mushroomed along the Suedlink route.
“This huge line is built by lobbyists to sell electricity and we don’t need it to keep the lights on,” she said.
The companies and Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel have pledged to build parts of the line underground to ease local concerns.
The row is also proving contentious for Merkel’s coalition government, of which Gabriel is the vice chancellor.
Horst Seehofer, the prime minister of Bavaria and a powerful Merkel ally, has revoked his support for the grid project amid protests from Bavarian voters.
In response, Gabriel threatened to divide Germany into two price zones that would force companies in Bavaria, including Bayerische Motoren Werke AG and Siemens AG, and other parts of the south to pay more for electricity than their northern counterparts.
The Bundesnetzagentur estimates that more cables will be placed underground as the technology gets cheaper, and that masts will probably end up shorter than initially anticipated.
That’s unlikely to calm the skeptics in Muenchehagen, which has turned to tourism in recent years for revenue. The main attraction is a dinosaur park with life-sized models and about 250 fossilized dinosaur tracks going back 140 million years, when the area was a tropical lagoon.
“We’re finally ready to market ourselves touristically, and now these power poles threaten to destroy that potential,” Renate Braselmann, Muenchehagen’s mayor, said in an interview. “We support the energy shift but not like that.”
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