When Günter Raake steps out of his house on the island of Rügen, he imagines the Cologne Cathedral towering before him. He envisages a colossus, 150 meters high, on a field just a few hundred meters from his new house. Because that is the height of “the monsters,” as Mr. Raake calls the five wind power turbines that an investor wants to set up near his home.
In 2015, the former music manager moved from Hamburg to Wittow, on the northernmost peninsula of Rügen. Pine woods, sandy beaches, a steep coastline: Mr. Raake’s new home sat in the midst of all this as if it were in a painting. In the tiny village of Altenkirchen, the 53-year-old bought a house with two adjoining vacation apartments. The garden has fruit trees and a fishing pond; the Baltic sea is just a short walk away. “A dream come true,” Mr. Raake says. “And a nest egg for my old age.”
But ever since Mr. Raake learned in July 2016 of the plans for windmills outside his door, that dream has become somewhat feverish. He has been consumed by Rügen’s Wind Turbine Madness, a citizens’ initiative opposing wind turbines of which Mr. Raake serves as spokesperson.
In Wittow, one in four inhabitants supports the anti-wind-turbine lobby, who have gathered more than a thousand signatures and taken their complaints to the governmental, as far as the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in fact. Her parliamentary district includes Rügen.
In the meantime, the controversy has caused deep divisions among the local populace. Mr. Raake says there are couples who stopped speaking to one another for a while over the wind turbines. Local politicians have been harshly criticized; some are afraid their tires will be slashed in revenge for their position, whether for or against.
And this is far from a small local tiff. An estimated 630 citizens’ initiatives are fighting wind turbines in Germany. There are even lawyers specializing in it; one advertises their own “wind power defense team.” The federal government has now set up a Competence Center for Nature Conservation and Energy Transition in Berlin, which provides “a neutral, established and skilled contact for all parties involved in energy transition,” according to their website. The center is supposed to help solve problems like those in Wittow which are arising throughout the country.
At the end of 2015, some 26,000 wind power turbines were generating electricity on the German mainland. Last year, around 1,600 additional turbines were built, and the industry expects further growth in 2017.
On an evening in Altenkirchen, where Mr. Raake lives, a few weeks ago the township had issued invitations to an info session at the local school, insisted upon by wind turbine opponents. But instead of the debate they had wanted, the 50 or so locals in attendance were met with a bazaar across three classrooms. One has been assigned to the citizens’ initiative hung with the banner, “Keep Wind Monsters off Rügen!”
In the other rooms, the energy company Enercon and the participating planning office put up posters and laid out brochures. In a brief welcoming speech, the mayor made a plea for the new windmills. But she refused to answer questions: “We’re here as volunteers and we have no expertise in this area.”
Thomas Sternberg walked through the schoolrooms, seeking support for his project. The investor from Bargteheide says that he has built 75 wind turbines since the 1990s. And he presents himself as a benefactor, promising that through his efforts, everyone in the locality will have less expensive electricity.
Mr. Raake also came to the school. He wanted to present the mayor with his list of signatures. When he did, there was chaos. “Who are you anyway?” yelled a pro-win power local. “And who are you?” hissed someone from the other side. “This man has lived in Wittow a few days longer than you have,” growled the investor.
The same kinds of controversies come up time and time again around wind turbines in Germany. Mr. Raake and his fellow campaigners say they are worried about their health, the value of their homes and whether their vacation apartments are viable.
The investor, Mr. Sternberg, presents arguments in favor of his project. The northern reaches of Rügen are “the best site,” he says. “The wind comes mostly from the sea. Not wild, but smooth – that’s ideal for generating electricity.”
Mayor Jutta Sill also supports the turbines. Already they have brought in around €25,000 in business taxes. She says that this is the only way the municipality keeps its kindergarten and volunteer fire department.
There is hardly any chance of a compromising solution. Yet ever since the nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima in Japan, almost all German political parties and, according to surveys, more than 90 percent of Germans, agree on the necessity of a transition to greener power.
Even many of Mr. Raake’s fellow turbine haters are not bothered by wind power. For 25 years, most of the island’s inhabitants have lived peacefully with it. But the windmills that have stood at the edge of the municipality until now are only 50 meters high. The operator wants to tear down the last five and replace them with windmills three times as high, that generate 10 times more electricity at up to 3,200 kilowatts per hour.
The investors say that this means fewer turbines will be needed. But their opponents say that such large windmills will threaten the beauty of the coastline. And the large rotor blades are located on an important flight corridor for migrating birds, adds Mr. Raake.
“Do we want to become famous here on Rügen because huge numbers of birds from Sweden are hacked to death?” he posits.
Meanwhile in several German states, windmills may only be built at a certain distance from residential areas in order to reduce any disturbance from noise, sound or shadows. For this reason, they are increasingly constructed in open landscape – often to the great annoyance of the defenders of black storks and red kites.
Indeed the gulf between climate protection and nature conservation continues to widen. Wind power has even caused divisions within environmental associations, pitting greens against greens. For example, Enoch zu Guttenberg, one of the founders of the nature conservation organization BUND, recently published a book, “Sacrificial Landscapes”. It is a polemic against former colleagues and fellow campaigners.
Other groupings utilize the same arguments as wildlife preservationists for their own motives. Right-wing populists, for example, those from the Alternative for Germany party, have tried to boost their following with a denunciation of the “bird-shredding eco-crucifixes.”
A parliamentarian from the Christian Socialist Union party, Josef Göppel, observes: “The right wing is really going for it, with the issue. Often the same people who fear refugees are also afraid of wind power. And these are people with no previous interest in nature or the landscape.”
The conflict is a communication issue. German law says that “early participation by the public” is required for such projects. But in Altenkirchen, there was never a genuine dialogue about the wind turbines. The municipal authorities announced the plans with a relatively small notice in the local newspaper and an inconspicuous placard in the village. Instead of speaking openly and assertively with citizens, municipalities often shift responsibility to their superiors.
Approval procedures are often also complex, even incomprehensible. This angers many citizens, or causes them to panic. “Amid all the uproar and outrage, many residents fail to realize how much influence they can actually exercise,” says conservation expert Klaus-Dieter Feige.
The top ornithologist in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania was summoned by the investor to Altenkirchen to evaluate the situation. He is supposed to deliver his assessment by the end of March.
In order to put the conflict about nature preservation “on a more objective level,” Germany’s Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks, a Social Democrat, ordered the new competency center in Berlin set up, with an annual budget of €4 million. It is supposed to be a “neutral mediator.” It is not sponsored by the state, but by an environmental foundation based in Hamburg. Sitting on its advisory board are representatives from science, the energy industry, nature conservation and municipalities.
One division is tasked with vetting research. This is because citizens and municipalities often lose an overview in the face of contradictory experts, nor are they familiar with the options for specific cases such as the protection of gray sea eagles or bats.
Another division offers mediators for hire in conflict situations. They are currently being trained at the European University Viadrina in the state of Brandenburg, and will also learn about planning procedures and conservation issues. Of course, their presence is no guarantee that every conflict can be resolved, says mediator trainer Markus Troja. However he did help to resolve a particularly complex situation with wind turbines in the lowlands of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
There more than 250 windmills had already been erected when, in 2004, the state government declared the area a bird sanctuary. The operators wanted to modernize the wind turbines while environmentalists wanted to leave the birds undisturbed.
It took an entire year and the mediator says he spoke with those involved in both individual and group gatherings. Finally a compromise was found: The bird conservationists would support the wind turbine upgrades if that meant fewer of them. Additionally all participants promised to attend regular meetings on an ongoing basis.
For Mr. Raake on Rügen though, no such happy ending is in sight. His citizens’ initiative still hopes that the construction plans for the wind turbines will be scrapped altogether. If that happens, Mr. Raake plans to set up a 100-meter-long table in his garden and invite the entire village to a barbecue. “Then we’ll all start talking with each other again,” he concludes.
This story first appeared in weekly newspaper Die Zeit.
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