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Dispute over the Wind Turbine – How Civic Participation Influences Germany’s Energy Transition

The researchers analyze how authorities and enterprises put energy projects into practice and the way people respond to them. Picture: Pixelio

Picture: Pixelio

The goal is ambitious: By 2025 renewable energy should make up at least 40% of the German power mix and at least 55% by 2035. Wind parks, solar fields, biogas plants, and electrical grids are being built on the path towards the German energy transition (Energiewende) but often face fierce opposition from the local population. Public administration researchers from the University of Potsdam examine how communities and stakeholders put such projects into practice and how citizens are being involved.

Their names are “Gegenwind” (Headwind), “Landschaftsschützer” (Landscape Guardians) or “Rette deinen Wald” (Save Your Forest) – local citizen initiatives are often established at places where the ‘Energiewende’ has become visible. Their members protest against the destruction of the landscape’s aesthetic qualities, noise pollution, and the risk wind turbines pose to birds. They sometimes also generally question the sense and implementation of the ‘Energiewende’ or deny anthropogenic climate change. While the energy transition is widely approved of by the population, there are groups, mainly at the local level, who rebel against its implementation.

Why are projects for an energy transition met with unease or even rage in many places? Is it just a case of “NIMBY Syndrome” (“not in my backyard”) – fear of personal disadvantage – that moves the opponents of wind power plants, electrical grids, or solar fields? Are there perhaps more complex motives behind these protests? What conditions would change the adversaries’ attitudes? How important is civic participation during the planning and implementation phase? Political, climate, and social researchers are looking for answers to these questions in their project “Energy Conflicts – Criteria of Acceptance and Conceptions of Justice in the German Energiewende”. It is one of 33 subprojects within the “Research for Sustainable Development” Program of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Its socio-ecological research focuses on key issues of energy and raw material supply of the near future.

The four project partners are analyzing “energy conflicts” from different perspectives and focusing on three regions in Germany: Brandenburg-Berlin, Schleswig-Holstein, and Baden-Württemberg. In addition to the University of Potsdam, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Kiel University, Raum & Energie | Institut für Planung, Kommunikation und Prozessmanagement GmbH are participating in the project.

Jochen Franzke, Professor of Public Administration at the University of Potsdam, heads the research area “Planning Processes and Participatory Models”. The researchers analyze how authorities and enterprises put energy projects into practice and the way people respond to them. The town of Beelitz is a clear example of the problems that arise even during the planning phase: 15 wind turbines are to be built in the immediate vicinity of this town in Brandenburg. The application to get a license for these plants is underway. Several citizen initiatives protesting the plans have already consolidated themselves into an association. “We are researching how the conflict manifests itself and how the protagonists behave,” explains project team member Thomas Ludewig.

To find this out, the researchers directly approach the parties involved in the dispute. Opponents of the project, authorities, and enterprises present their respective views. The researchers often learn from the media about the looming conflicts and can then investigate them systematically. At present, they are observing ten projects. How do they assess the statutory framework? What is the “planning culture” – how is the statutory scope for action is interpreted and implemented? The researchers want to get answers to these questions from all opposing parties. When Ludewig talks to the different parties, it becomes clear that “the actors often argue on different levels.” On one side are the authorities, who have to reject or approve an application within the statutory framework, on the other the concerned and directly affected citizens, who often question the projects across the board.

The bone of contention, according to the researchers’ initial impressions, is often that residents and citizens feel insufficiently informed. The authorities do fulfill their obligation of informing the people by publishing construction projects in the official gazette or displaying abstruse application documents in their offices but Ludewig asks, “Who really reads these things?” More modern means of information that exceed the legal obligation to inform have to be used to prevent those affected from feeling blindsided. The transmission system operator 50Hertz demonstrates how this can be done: The Berlin-based company signed an agreement with the Brandenburg government on civil dialog. 50Hertz pledges to integrate the local population into grid development project at an early stage. The grid operator understands that information is key to the acceptance of energy transition projects. In its mobile information office or at local info stands 50Hertz informs citizens about the state of planning, the location of line construction projects, the technology, and compensation measures.

The operator also takes the wind out of the sails of self-appointed experts who rant against the energy transition and fuel the conflict. Ludewig is observing an increasing tendency of citizen initiatives linking up on platforms where lobbyists sometimes voice hair-raising arguments against the energy transition. “They stoke fears and spread untruth.” The media also play a rather negative role in this discourse. “Very few people are directly affected, but their impact on media is very strong,” Franzke explains. “The reports in the local press are often very emotional and poorly researched,” Ludewig adds. We must nevertheless not forget that there are also well-founded, critical positions that should be carefully discussed during the decision-making process, emphasizes Ludewig.

Franzke and Ludewig will use their findings to prepare specific recommendations for local public authorities. “Our task is to find out where you can improve or introduce citizen participation,” says Franzke. “The prevailing mood in society favors more citizen participation– it is a very positive term,” the administrative researcher explains. “We are discussing how this can be done in practice – during the planning and approval procedures.” At the same time, the researchers always keep an eye on the result. “In the end, the power lines have to be built,” Franzke emphasizes. “Citizen participation is not an end in itself.”

The Project

The research project 'Energy Conflicts – Criteria of Acceptance and Conceptions of Justice in the German Energiewende' is one of 33 subprojects within the “Research for Sustainable Development” Program of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Three scientific institutions and an external project partner are analyzing concrete cases of conflict resulting from the energy transition policy. 

Participants: University of Potsdam, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Kiel University, Raum & Energie | Institut für Planung, Kommunikation und Prozessmanagement GmbH

Funded by: Federal Ministry of Education and Research
Funding period: 2013–2016
Website: www.energiekonflikte.de 

The Researchers

Apl. Prof. Dr. Jochen Franzke studied foreign policy in Potsdam. Since 2008 he has been Professor of Public Administration. His research interests are reforms of public administration at the regional level and the development of local democracy as well as transformations within the European Union and in Central and Eastern Europe. 

Contact

Universität Potsdam
Wirtschafts- und Sozialwissenschaftliche Fakultät
August-Bebel-Str. 89
14482 Potsdam
E-Mail: franzke@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de 

Thomas Ludewig studied regional research at the University of Potsdam and is writing his doctoral theses at the Chair Public Administration.

Contact

E-Mail: tludewig@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de

Text: Heike Kampe
Online-Editing: Agnes Bressa
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