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The Price of Green Energy: Is Germany Killing the Environment to Save It?
The German government is carrying out a rapid expansion of renewable energies like wind, solar and biogas, yet the process is taking a toll on nature conservation. The issue is causing a rift in the environmental movement, pitting “green energy” supporters against ecologists.
The Bagpipe, a woody knoll in northern Hesse, can only be recommended to hikers with reservations. This here is lumberjack country. Broad, clear-cut lanes crisscross the area. The tracks of heavy vehicles can be seen in the snow. And there is a vast clearing full of the stumps of recently felled trees.
Martin Kaiser, a forest expert with Greenpeace, gets up on a thick stump and points in a circle. “Mighty, old beech trees used to stand all over here,” he says. Now the branches of the felled giants lie in large piles on the ground. Here and there, lone bare-branch survivors project into the sky.
Kaiser says this is “a climate-policy disaster” and estimates that this clear-cutting alone will release more than 1,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Forests are important for lowering levels of greenhouse gases, as large quantities of carbon dioxide are trapped in wood — especially the wood of ancient beech trees like these. Less than two years ago, UNESCO added the “Ancient Beech Forests of Germany” to its list of World Natural Heritage Sites.
It wasn’t any private forest magnate who cleared these woods out. Rather, it was Hessen-Forst, a forestry company owned by the western German state of Hesse. For some years now, wood has enjoyed a reputation for being an excellent source of energy — one that is eco-friendly and presumably climate neutral. At the moment, more than half of the lumber felled in Germany makes into way into biomass power plants or wood-pellet heating systems. The result has been an increase in prices for wood and the related profit expectations. The prospect of making a quick buck, Kaiser says, “has led to a downright brutalization of the forestry business.”
The Costs of Going Green
One would assume that ecology and the Energiewende, Germany’s plans to phase out nuclear energy and increase its reliance on renewable sources, were natural allies. But in reality, the two goals have been coming into greater and greater conflict. “With the use of wood, especially,” Kaiser says, “the limits of sustainability have already been exceeded several times.” To understand what this really means, one needs to know Kaiser’s background: For several years, he has been the head of the climate division at Greenpeace Germany’s headquarters in Hamburg.
Things have changed in Germany since Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government launched its energy transition policy in June 2011, prompted by the Fukushima nuclear power plant catastrophe in Japan. The decision to hastily shut down all German nuclear power plants by 2022 has shifted the political fronts. Old coalitions have been shattered and replaced by new ones. In an ironic twist, members of the environmentalist Green Party have suddenly mutated into advocates of an unprecedented industrialization of large areas of land, while Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats have been advocating for more measures to protect nature.
Merkel’s energy policies have driven a deep wedge into the environmental movement. While it celebrates the success of renewable energies as one of its greatest victories, it is profoundly unsettled by the effects of the energy transition, which can be seen everywhere across the country.
Indeed, this is not just about cleared forests. Grasslands and fields are being transformed into oceans of energy-producing corn that stretch beyond the horizon. Farmers are using digestate, a by-product of biogas production, to fertilize their fields as soon as they thaw from the winter. And entire tracts of land are being put to industrial use — converted into enormous solar power plants, wind farms or highways of power lines, which will soon stretch from northern to southern Germany.
The public discourse about the energy transition plan is still dominated by its supporters, including many environmentalists who want to see the expansion of renewable energies at any price. They set the tone in government agencies, functioning as advisors to renewable energy firms and policymakers alike. But then there are those feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the way things are going. Out of fear of environmental destruction, they no longer want to remain silent.
Greens in Awkward Position
Although this conflict touches all political parties, none is more affected than the Greens. Since the party’s founding in 1980, it has championed a nuclear phaseout and fought for clean energy. But now that this phaseout is underway, the Greens are realizing a large part of their dream — the utopian idea of a society operating on “good” power — is vanishing into thin air. Green energy, they have found, comes at an enormous cost. And the environment will also pay a price if things keep going as they have been.
Within the Greens’ parliamentary group in the Bundestag, politicians focused on energy policy are facing off against those who champion environmental conservation, fighting over how much support the party should throw behind Merkel’s energy transition. Those who prioritize the environment face a stiff challenge, given that Jürgen Trittin — co-chairman of the parliamentary group who long served as environment minister — is clearly more concerned with energy issues.
In debates, members of the pro-environmental camp have occasionally even been hissed at for supposedly playing into the hands of the nuclear lobby. “We should overcome the temptation to sacrifice environmental protection for the sake of fighting climate change,” says Undine Kurth, a Green parliamentarian from the eastern city of Magdeburg. “Preserving a stable natural environment is just as important.”
“Of course there is friction between environment and climate protection advocates, even in my party,” says Robert Habeck, a leader of the Greens in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein who became its “Energiewende minister” in June 2012 — the first person in Germany to hold that title. “We Greens have suddenly also become an infrastructure party that pushes energy projects forward, while on the other side the classic CDU clientele is taking to the barricades. It’s just like it was 30 years ago, only with reversed roles.”
This role is an unfamiliar one for environmentalists. For a long time, they were the good guys, and the others were the bad guys. But now they’re suddenly on the defensive. They used to be the ones who stood before administrative courts to fight highway and railway projects to protect Northern Shoveler ducks, Great Bustards or rare frog species. But now they are forced to defend massive high-voltage power lines while being careful not to scare off their core environmentalist clientele.
Bärbel Höhn, a former environment minister of the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, has a reputation for being a bridge-builder between the blocs. She concedes that there have been mistakes, like with using corn for energy. But these are just teething problems that must be overcome, she adds reassuringly.
Encroaching on Nature Reserves
The opposition in Berlin has so far contented itself with criticizing Merkel, believing that her climate policies have failed and that she has steered Germany’s most important infrastructure project into a wall. Granted, neither the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) nor the Greens are part of the ruling coalition at the federal level, but they do jointly govern a number of Germany’s 16 federal states. And, when forced to choose between nature and renewable energies, it is usually nature that take a back seat in those states.
It was in this way that, in 2009, Germany’s largest solar park to date arose right in the middle of the Lieberoser Heide, a bird sanctuary about a 100 kilometers (62 miles) southeast of Berlin. Since German reunification in 1990, more than 200 endangered species have settled in the former military training grounds. But that didn’t seem to matter. In spite of all the protests by environmentalists, huge areas of ancient pine trees were clear cut in order to make room for solar collectors bigger than soccer fields.
A similar thing happened in Baden-Württemberg, even though the southwestern state has been led for almost two years by Winfried Kretschmann, the first state governor in Germany belonging to the Green Party. In 2012, it was the Greens there who passed a wind-energy decree that aims to boost the number of wind turbines in the state from 400 to roughly 2,500 by 2020. And in the party’s reckoning, nature is standing in the way.
The decree includes an exemption that makes it easier to erect huge windmills in nature conservations areas, where they are otherwise forbidden. But now this exception threatens to become the rule: In many regions of the state, including Stuttgart, Esslingen and Göppingen, district administrators are reporting that they plan to permit wind farms to be erected in several nature reserves.
But apparently even that isn’t enough for Claus Schmiedel, the SPD leader in the state parliament. Two weeks ago, he wrote a letter to Kretschmann recommending that he put the bothersome conservationists back into line. Schmiedel claimed that investors in renewable energies were being “serially harassed by the low-level regional nature-conservation authorities” — and complained that the state government wasn’t doing enough to combat this.
Fears of Magnetic Fields
Just as controversial as the wind farms are the massive electricity masts of the power lines, which bring wind energy from the north to large urban areas in the south. This has led the Greens to favor cables laid underground over the huge overhead lines for some time now. Trittin, the party’s co-leader, believes that using buried cables offers an opportunity “to expand the grid with the backing of the people.”
Ironically, however, there is growing resistance to this supposedly eco- and citizen-friendly form of power transition on the western edge of Göttingen, a university town in central Germany that lies in Trittin’s electoral district.
Harald Wiedemann, of the local citizens’ initiative opposed to underground cables, has already sent to the printers a poster that reads: “Stop! You are now leaving the radiation-free sector.” Plans call for laying 12 cables as thick as an arm 1.5 meters (5 feet) below ground. Wiedemann warns that the planned high-voltage lines will create dangerous magnetic fields.
He and some other locals have marked out the planned course of the lines with barrier tape. It veers away from the highway north of the village, cuts through the fields, runs right next to an elementary school and through a drinking water protection area.
Wiedemann is also the head of the city organization of the Greens, who are generally known as Energiewende backers. “But why do things have to be done so slapdash?” he asks. The planning seems “fragmented,” he says, and those behind them have forgotten “nature conservation, health and agriculture.”
Indeed, underground cables are anything but gentle on the landscape. Twelve thick metal cables laid out in a path 20 meters wide are required to transmit 380,000 volts. No trees are allowed to grow above this strip lest the roots interfere with the cables. The cables warm the earth, and the magnetic fields created by the alternating current power cables also terrify many.
Many nature conservationists believe that Germany’s Energiewende is throwing the baby out with the bath water. For example, last week, Germany’s Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN) hosted a meeting of scientists and representatives from nature conservation organizations and energy associations in the eastern city of Leipzig.
Kathrin Ammermann, who heads the organization’s unit responsible for renewable energy, is troubled by recent developments. “Increased production of biogas, in particular, has intensified corn monoculture,” she says, noting that this has harmed numerous plant and animal species. Wind turbines also kill birds and bats. “The expansion of renewable energies must not only be carried out in a way that makes the most economic sense, but also in a way that is as friendly as possible to nature and the environment,” she says.
As Germany’s environment minister, it is Peter Altmaier’s job to balance the interests of both sides. But the CDU politician spent his first months in office singing the praises of renewable energies only to then turn around and warn with increasingly grim forecasts of an explosion in electricity prices that can no longer be controlled. Indeed, nature conservation doesn’t exactly top his list of priorities.
Last summer, when he presented his personal 10-point renewable-energy plan, it occurred to him, just in knick of time, that he was also responsible for environmental protection. He then pulled out a few meager words on nature and water protection, which have yet to be followed up with deeds. Nor has any progress been made on a noise-control plan relating to the building of offshore wind farms that had been announced with much fanfare.
At least Norbert Röttgen, Altmaier’s predecessor and fellow CDU member, conceded during his time in office that nature protection might ultimately risk getting put on the back burner as a result of the nuclear phaseout. He even set up a Nature Conservation and Energy division within the ministry to address the issue. Nevertheless, it is the champions of renewable energies who are increasingly dominating the ministry’s policy line, with the traditional advocates of nature and environmental protection just standing back and watching in astonishment. “In decision-making processes, we either get listened to too late or not at all,” says one ministry official. “Nature protection just isn’t an issue the minister has taken up.”