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Germans balk at plan for wind power lines

Wind power station, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany
De Agostini | Getty Images
Wind power station, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany

FULDA, Germany — Germans have welcomed solar panels glinting on their rooftops and windmills looming over their fields, and they have even put up with a doubling of their electric bills. But enthusiasm for all things green appears to have reached a limit with a plan to string high-voltage transmission lines along the outskirts of cities like Fulda in the center of the country.

Dozens of protest groups have sprung up over the past year along the 500-mile path of the project, SuedLink, one of four high-voltage direct current lines that are to carry wind-generated power from north to south.

The lines are described as essential to the success of the country's pivot away from nuclear and coal power and toward mostly renewable energy. But nearly a year into the plans, the SuedLink project has set off an outbreak of not-in-my-backyard syndrome that threatens to disrupt a linchpin of Germany's commitment to a lower-carbon future.

People like Johannes Lange, who said he had supported Germany's green efforts for decades, have sprung into action.

"I have been following energy policy for 30 years and have gone along with everything," said Mr. Lange, a self-employed music teacher from Fulda's eastern Kämmerzell district. "The moment that I heard they wanted to build this behind my house, I thought, enough!"

Germany has embraced environmental protection policies since the 1970s, and has been a leader in efforts to move away from fossil fuels toward an energy system that will reduce its carbon emissions — its contribution to a global effort to slow the rise in temperatures that scientists say is already affecting the planet.

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Businesses have been wary of the growing costs that the policies have imposed on them, but citizens have been largely stoic. They have protested when the government seemed to waver in its commitment, even as the cost of power for an average family of three has climbed to 85 euros a month, about $103, from 41 euros since 2000, according to government statistics.

While the accelerated shutdown of Germany's nuclear plants in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan in 2011 has inched the country back toward a greater reliance on coal, Germany already draws nearly a quarter of its annual power from renewable sources. It remains on track to reach more than 40 percent renewable power by 2025, part of an adaptation and efficiency program known as Energiewende.

That power is largely produced in the north, while most of Germany's industry is in the south. The new power lines are supposed to address that problem, allowing the energy program to remain on track and Germany to remain the economic powerhouse of Europe.

But citizens living in the areas proposed for the half-mile-wide transmission lines say they worry that the magnetic fields from the lines could harm their health. (So far, most scientific studies have not found a significant threat. In 2006, the World Health Organization said static electric and magnetic fields had no adverse health impact, but public fears persist.)

More acutely, they worry about the effect on the value of their property.

"For the general public, the fear is a little bit irrational," said Philipp Gerbert, who works for the Boston Consulting Group, which provides information on energy for its clients. "But for those particular individuals actually affected, the presence of a transmission line means the value of their property goes down."

Mr. Lange said he had embraced the green energy plan from the start. But when he heard that 200-foot-tall transmission towers carrying the high-voltage direct current power lines were to be planted across the lush river valley and over his home, he joined the movement to stop them.

Two months ago, he and his neighbor, Harald Hossfeld, formed the BI Fuldatal citizens' movement, which is dedicated to stopping Suedlink, known here as the Monster Line. Within a week membership had swelled to 400 from five.

On Monday, several hundred people, including many families with children, marched through Fulda blowing whistles and demanding that the government consider alternatives to the transmission lines.

Mr. Hossfeld, who runs a business that rents canoes and kayaks and organizes tours along the Fulda River, said he worried that not only his home, but also his livelihood would be at risk if the line were strung along the river that runs behind Kämmerzell.

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Drawing on his training as an electrical engineer, he has been helping citizens and local leaders understand the project, and what the alternatives could look like. "The government has to recognize they made a mistake," Mr. Hossfeld said. "The question is how do we get them to do that?"

The government, in legislation speeding up the lines' construction, said the public would have a part in the planning process. Last spring, citizens and organizations had a six-week window to lodge complaints, or propose alternative routes for the line. Residents of Petersberg, along a proposed power line path, did just that.

In response, Tennet, the company constructing the transmission line, suggested running the lines to the west of Fulda. Now residents along that route are demanding a chance to have their say.

At a recent information session in Grossenlüder, Christoph Thiel, project leader for SuedLink, was asked about the height of the towers. Other residents wanted to know why the line could not be run through the former "death strip" along the Cold War border between East and West Germany — now a protected nature reserve.

Still others asked why the cables could not be buried, instead of strung from towers spaced a quarter-mile apart. Mr. Hossfeld said he had raised that point during meetings with Fulda's state and federal representatives. "We would prefer not to have SuedLink at all, but if we have to have it, then underground," he said.

Tennet representatives said the law allowed for sections of the transmission line to be buried, and recognized that it would make the project more acceptable to many affected places. But the technology for buried cables is still developing, they said, and burying them would be more costly.

Many citizens questioned whether transmission lines from the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein to Bavaria in the south are really necessary at all — the most frequent question raised since the planning began in October 2013, Tennet said.

"It is up to politicians to decide whether the grid needs to be expanded; as a network provider we only suggest how" it should be done, said Ulrike Hörchens, a spokeswoman for Tennet. "The ultimate decision of where the line will run is made by the approving authority."

The first of those decisions is to be made by 2017. Once a route is selected, work could begin the following year, with an eye toward completing the project by the time the last of Germany's nuclear generators is to be shut down in 2022.

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If the lines are not built, supporters said, the stress on the existing power grid will be enormous. Already it is strained by the swings in power between sunny, windy days when renewable energy surges, and dark, still winter days when it is all but absent. The country could be pushed back toward more coal or nuclear power.

"It might become a very difficult discussion if the power lines would have a direct impact on whether the nuclear plants can be shut down on schedule," said Mr. Gerbert, the consultant.

Werner Dietrich, mayor of Grossenlüder, said his tolerance was running out. During the information meeting in his town, he drew on a traditional German expression to explain his frustration with the stream of energy projects.

"Every few years we are chasing another pig through the village," Mr. Dietrich said, to resounding applause.