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May 30, 2023

Make the transition community led

The challenge of how to decarbonise our economy is complex enough from a technical standpoint but when it’s resisted by consumers and communities that’s when it really begins to become unstuck. Just witness some of the local reaction to the introduction of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods – a (relatively) benign attempt to get us out of our cars. Decarbonising the energy system is, by comparison, a much greater challenge and so it makes sense to place community benefit at the front and centre of its implementation. Germany seems to have embraced that concept. Why can’t we?

Susanti Sarkar and Lynn Liu

RAA-BESENBEK, Germany—A two-hour drive from Hamburg, the small village of Raa-Besenbek is easily spotted from afar, its towering windmills casting long shadows across the grassy terrain. As you get closer, the turbines’ giant blades come into view, slicing through the air and hissing as they slowly turn wind into energy. 

These community-funded turbines and thousands like them are helping Germany weather the energy crisis brought about by a cutoff of natural gas from Russia after the invasion of Ukraine last year. 

Raa-Basenbeck, a community of 600 people in the northern Schleswig-Holstein region, has been sold on wind for years. Last year it warmly welcomed an expansion of its 24-year-old wind operation, opening a new turbine farm in October. Four wind turbines were commissioned in 2022, and together, they produce 50 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year. 

The aim is to speed a national transition to clean energy, enabling Germany to reach its target of meeting 80 percent of its electricity needs with renewable power sources including wind and solar by 2030.

“It’s difficult to convince people otherwise who are very strongly against wind energy,’’ said Johann Koeling, a one-time farmer who with his wife, Maren, was one of the 39 original investors in the village’s first wind farm in 1999. “It’s a lot easier when you live in a small community like this and can all talk about it.”

As an early adopter, Raa-Baebeck serves as a model of sorts for other communities in Germany that are considering taking the plunge, said Kristina Clemens, a spokesperson for the German Wind Energy Association. “It’s very much the idea of an energy democracy where people are in power to build this together.” Some analysts view such wind ventures as a beacon to people in other countries who object to big energy companies’ calling the shots.

With its recently added capacity, Raa-Besenbek now boasts eight turbines, powering up to 16,000 households as the energy flows into a sprawling European grid.

The center-left national government formed after Germany’s 2021 elections has taken significant steps to improve public acceptance of wind farms. Last year it won legislative passage of a revised Renewable Energy Act, which eliminated feed-in tariffs on wind power. The tariffs, which had been in place for 20 years, had provided producers—those who own the land on which a wind farm was built—with a fixed above-market price.

The new law emphasizes a more market-oriented model. Nonetheless, residents who invest in a local wind park are guaranteed a share of its income amounting to 0.2 cents per kilowatt hour for 20 years. Additionally, the majority of taxes on the income now have to be paid to the municipality where the turbines are installed. That means that most of the tax revenue stays in the community, along with the profits going to resident stakeholders. 

“It’s not that an outside company is coming in” and taking the profit, said Hans-Hermann Magens, a former pig farmer who is managing director of Raa-Besenbeck’s wind project. “That changes the attitude toward these wind farms, because the wind turbines are their own—they belong to the people and to the village.”

Polls conducted last year showed that Germany’s four-decade-old renewable energy initiative, known as Energiewende, or “energy transition,” had major support, with more than 85 percent viewing it as important or extremely important. The longtime goal of the effort is to propel the country toward a carbon- and nuclear-free energy system by 2045. 

Germany’s broadening embrace of wind energy has complicated roots. After the Arab oil embargo and oil price shocks of the 1970s, the nation embarked on an ambitious campaign to build nuclear power plants in the 1980s. 

Then skepticism set in. When the Chernobyl power plant exploded in 1986 in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, the Koelings’ daughter was six months old. Radioactive particles borne by the wind traveled as far as Sweden. The Koeligs were afraid to even eat locally grown vegetables, and a distrust of nuclear energy remains potent among many Germans to this day. 

By the time the couple invested in Raa-Baebeck’s wind farm in 1999, they had developed a fierce aversion to nuclear power, while also being eager to turn away from oil and gas to play their part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. “You saw what happened in Chernobyl,” Johann Koelig said. “The cows weren’t allowed to go out and roam because the milk could have been contaminated, and there was a lot of anxiety.” 

When four nuclear power plants were proposed later in the region, violent protests broke out. Magens was among the demonstrators. “I swallowed enough tear gas when I was protesting that it launched me into my interest in renewable energy,” he recalls.

For many, the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan proved the defining moment, however: Angela Markel, the trained scientist who was Germany’s chancellor, resolved to phase out nuclear power altogether. On April 15, the country’s last three reactors shut down, officially ending an era of nuclear dependence even as the loss of Russian gas prompts some European neighbors to contemplate adding more nuclear plants today.

When residents of Raa-Baebeck set up their first community wind operation in 1999, participants bought shares for 5,000 Deutsche marks apiece, which would amount to 2,500 euros today. The wind farm was able to produce 13 million kilowatt hours per year, less than a quarter of what the wind park generates today. 

For Farmers, a Second Source of Income

The meadows on which wind turbines are built in Raa-Besenbeck mostly belong to farmers. For families like the Koelings, who have found it increasingly hard to keep up their farm operations amid rising prices for fertilizer, fuel and other basics, wind power is a second source of income. It allows them not only to make ends meet but also shrug off the fear of losing land that has been in their families for generations.

“Oftentimes, farmers would have to close their businesses if it wasn’t for renewables,” Koeling said. Of the village’s 600 residents, 125 now hold shares in the wind park. 

Today, the region of Schleswig-Holstein declares itself an “energy transition trailblazer.” But Magens said he understood the leeriness of people in other parts of Germany about living near a hulking wind farm. “Everyone wants wind energy, but nobody wants a wind turbine in their garden,” he said. “Everybody wants to drive their car, but nobody wants a highway running through their city.” 

Even people who are passionate about reining in climate change may take a “not in my backyard” attitude, fearful of the sound of whirring blades and the shadows cast by the wind turbines, Magens noted.

Michael Ruddat, a research associate at the University of Stuttgart who has researched public participation in climate-friendly behaviors, found that the key elements in local acceptance of a wind park include a fair decision-making process, individual and community benefits, ownership in the venture and attachment to the land. 

In Wind, Germany Ranks No. 3

When it comes to wind power, Germany has been a pathbreaker: Last year, it had the world’s third largest onshore wind capacity, after China and the United States, according to the Global Wind Energy Council, a Brussels-based industry association. Most of Germany’s windmills are in the north, where the wind is stronger, while solar panels are in the relatively sunnier south. 

Today there are around 30,000 wind turbines in Germany generating up to 130 gigawatt hours annually—enough for 43 million households, the German Wind Energy Association reports. Katharina Grave, a spokesperson for the German Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Action, said that proposals for community-owned wind parks are often proving more popular than projects initiated by big companies. “There is an incentive for the communities’’ because the income is funneled back to them, she said.

Last year, the German government secured passage of the Onshore Wind Energy Act, in line with a goal that 2 percent of Germany’s land area be designated for onshore power generation by the end of 2032. After a lull in wind construction in recent years, renewable energy advocates predict that this will lead to a wave of new projects.

“Things were a bit on hold, especially in the field of onshore wind,” said Astrid Dose, deputy managing director of the industry alliance Renewable Energy Hamburg. She predicts a spurt of wind activity as a result of the energy policies introduced since the country’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, took office in December 2021. 

Yet even with government support, Clemens of the German Wind Energy Association observes,  onshore wind developers face significant local and federal hurdles. Biodiversity experts must be called in to assess the probability of birds and bats’ colliding with the turbine blades. State forestry laws requiring that wind farm owners plant new trees to replace any that have been cut down to make way for turbines must also be taken into account. 

Germany is known for operating one of the world’s most stable electricity grids, but Clemens says it still “needs a lot of work” to adjust to renewable energy generation. More lines need to be built so that wind turbines don’t need to be switched off to avoid overloading the grid on especially windy days in northern Germany, she said. 

Clemens views the extensive permitting process for new wind projects, which currently can take up to five years, as another major barrier. Projects must meet stringent requirements under licensing and building laws and address the concerns of environmental organizations. By contrast, she notes that even some members of Germany’s Green Party rapidly approved floating terminals for processing imported liquefied natural gas in response to the cutoff in natural gas from Russia. The first offshore terminal went online in December.

“It’s not helpful to [just] say, ‘We’ve set aside 2 percent of Germany’s land area for the use of wind energy,’” Clemens said. “Accelerated approval procedures are really important because LNG terminals showed how fast the permit process can be, if everyone wants it.”

Some point out that the German public is more open to wind power than many communities in the United States, where turbines are routinely denounced in Facebook groups and other social media forums as ugly bird-killing machines that can cause health problems,  with the claims ranging from cancer to ear-splitting noise that damages people’s hearing to “turbine sickness.” 

Some experts suggest that Americans could gain a different perspective by adopting an “energy democracy model’’ in which they have the option of taking a financial stake in local wind projects.

“The idea behind these community energy projects is, ‘What if you actually make people gain from these as well, rather than only have an ugly big white pole in your backyard?’” said Mareike Moraal, the Washington, D.C.-based energy and environment program director for the Heinrich-Böll Foundation, a think tank focusing on energy and policy reform in Germany. “What if you give them a stake in how it’s running?”

Frank Goetzke, a professor of urban economics, sustainability and governance at the University of Louisville, notes that Germany’s environmental movement got its start earlier and generally has more clout than its American counterpart. 

Add in the deeper political divide in the U.S., which complicates efforts to gain support for climate action there, he says, and the reasons for hesitation about wind power become clearer. “It’s an identity issue,” Goetzke said. ”In America, there’s an idea that the companies will do the job.  It’s not as community-oriented as Germany.” 

But for people seeking a say in their energy future, in Germany or elsewhere, Moraal says, locally run wind parks like the one in Raa-Besenbeck “are a fantastic answer.”

“Energy doesn’t have to be this source of conflict,” she said.