Not in My Backyard: Communal Challenges to the Energiewende

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In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster in 2011, pollsters consistently found that a majority of Germans supported the closing of Germany’s remaining nuclear power plants. The anti-atomic sentiment culminated in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s announcement of an Energiewende, energy transformation, which would shift Germany from nuclear to renewable energy. As the project progresses from rhetoric to reality, it is likely to encounter obstacles resulting from the more stringent demands of the latter. Therefore, policymakers should expect protest and delay rather than a smooth transition from fossil fuels currently compensating for the terminated nuclear plants to clean, renewable energy.

With the Fukushima disaster demonstrating the violent potential inherent in nuclear power and a public all but clamoring for a fundamental shift in energy supply, Angela Merkel announced the Energiewende with a compelling mandate for reform. However, it is possible that the Chancellor overestimated Germans’ support for an immediate transition to renewable energy. One year after Fukushima, pollsters have found that Germans’ support for closing the nuclear plants far outpaces their willingness to pay higher prices for the transition to renewable energy. Additionally, Ernst & Young and the Deutsche Energie-Agentur GmbH’s index measuring German businesses’ feelings towards the Energiewende reveal an underwhelming ambivalence toward the reform outside of the political sector.

These results reflect a reality quickly catching up to the idealism of the Energiewende. If Germans truly want the transition – and their long-held, staunch opposition to nuclear power and strong support for renewable energy suggest that they do – then objections of cost will be unable to hold back the fait accompli of the fundamental energy transition.

However, policymakers face a more pragmatic challenge as they plan the energy network connecting Germany’s geographically distant renewable energy hubs. Mass protests against the expansion of Stuttgart’s rail network sparked months of political debate and significant delays. The Stuttgart 21 saga showcased a “not-in-my-backyard” attitude normally reserved for quieter protests for noise protection at expanding airports. In order to build an energy network capable of supplying the rest of Germany with the northern coastline’s wind and wave power, policymakers will be forced to intrude on many more backyards. Inevitably, the development of the expansive infrastructure necessary to enable Germany’s dreams of green energy will ignite protests in the neighborhoods through which power lines must necessarily pass. At the very least, this will mean construction delays, prolonging the country’s awkwardly renewed dependence on fossil fuels. Coupled with legal challenges, these protests could pose a serious threat to the completion of Merkel’s Energiewende.

Ultimately, Germans will probably tolerate paying higher electricity bills in order to attain the treasure of an electricity grid built on renewable energy. It is more difficult to determine whether local interests will accept the additional cost of large, ugly electric lines running through fields and neighborhoods. The Stuttgart 21 protests reminded policymakers of the power of communal interests. They would do well not to underestimate those interests in the upcoming renewal of Germany’s energy grid.