The uproar -- reported widely in the German press -- follows the quiet passage through parliament on June 23 of an amendment to the Building Statute Book. The change in the law gives single wind turbines privileged status anywhere in non built-up areas, whether or not they are "attached" to a farm. This reverses the basic presumption against wind turbines in greenbelts and means that a concrete reason has to be given for refusing planning permission for single installations. Construction in greenbelts in Germany is severely limited and usually only allowed in connection with agricultural usage. Until now single turbines have had no special status; they have been merely tolerated when they supplied power to a farm, provided they did not conflict with the broad public interest.
The German wind association, the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Windenergie (DGW), welcomes the amendment, pushed through parliament by three MPs from the ruling Conservative parties, Dietrich Austermann and Werner Dörflinger of the CDU and Bavarian CSU MP, Peter Ramsauer. "Now at last, after several decades, renewable energy power plant are privileged in the same way as nuclear plant," says DGW.
But reaction in the press and from some Social Democrat politicians, normally staunch supporters of wind energy, has been far from positive. This has taken DGW by surprise since the same politicians have been supporting the wind association's demands for turbines to be privileged in building law for over three years. But there are now claims that the floodgates have been opened to more or less anyone wanting to put up wind turbines in Germany.
In Schleswig Holstein -- where some 730 wind turbines comprising about 180 MW are now installed -- opposition has been particularly vehement. The press has widely interpreted the amendment as a virtual guarantee that planning permission for all single turbines proposed for greenbelt sites will be granted. Many are claiming that this gives speculators a unique opportunity to propose plans for a rash of single turbines, with the certainty that they will go ahead. In North Friesland, the district government says its tourist industry will be seriously threatened if the landscape is suddenly packed with huge turbines "plantation-style," as one protest group puts it. Even Schleswig-Holstein energy minister, Socialist Claus Möller, whose policy is to have 1200 MW of wind power installed in his Länder by 2010, is opposed to the amendment in its present form -- saying he will not support it if it goes to the vote in the Upper House of Länder representatives. "The proposed change in the law does not take into account the whole range of justified interests, but simply undermines the sovereignty of the Länder," he claims. Along with Schleswig-Holstein, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is also against the amendment, but Lower Saxony is in favour of it.
As one of the three proposers of the amendment, Dietrich Austermann, Christian Democrat federal MP for Itzehoe in Schleswig-Holstein, contradicts Möller: "The sovereignty of the Länder is not undermined. They still have the final say through the normal planning and landscape protection regulations. They can also draw up regional plans with sites specifically earmarked as being suitable or unsuitable for wind turbines; in which case this amendment will not apply." The building law amendment is specifically directed at greenbelts where a regional plan with provision for wind turbine siting has not yet been drawn up.
Austermann has been under heavy attack for his prominent role in supporting the amendment -- tacked onto a law linked to set-aside regulations in support of farmers. He stresses: "There is no widespread opposition to the amendment in northern Germany. There is an attack from just a few people whose real concern is to score points in the run up to the federal election." Countering the criticism he says correct parliamentary procedures were followed and that the amendment was accepted by all parliamentary parties. He considers the negative reaction as "hysterical and absurd."
But independent wind consultant, Horst Wollmerath, describes the amendment as a two-edged sword: "It certainly benefits wind energy. But on the other hand it could lead to an uncoordinated expansion of wind energy regardless of the wishes of those living close to any particular development." His view is shared by local politicians at district council level in North Friesland and Dithmarschen who say a "wild growth " of wind turbines will ensue in Schleswig-Holstein.
DGW says such fears are groundless. As before, planning permission applications will be weighed on their merits within existing planning law and regional plans, with provision for and against wind turbines, are on their way. "The decisive point of progress is that projects and regional plans can no longer be delayed and prevented for years on end as has often been the case before," states the association.
DGW Chairman Uwe Carstensen says: "There will be no wild growth. Regional plans, including provision for wind turbine siting, will take a year to 18 months to complete so more likely there will be delays during this limited period. But then an ordered development can resume. Even better, the Länder have a free hand to give priority to development by local people, thus keeping outsiders at bay." He also points out that once wind turbine siting is an integral part of regional plans it will more difficult for local district councils to go against the Länder, strengthening the relative position of the provincial governments.
Pressure for wind zones
This new power in planning matters that regional plans give the Länder could hold the key to why protests by district authorities, a level below the Länder, have been so vociferous. The fear of losing ground to the Länder -- and not fear of wind turbines -- is just as likely to be driving their complaints. The change in building law puts considerable pressure on the Länder to draw up their regional plans so they include provision for an ordered development of wind energy. The district councils can either block these efforts or assist them. So far they seem to be choosing to be awkward. The Federal Building Ministry agrees with DGW that the amendment does not give carte blanche to renewables development in greenbelts, but simply sheds light on a grey area in the old legislation. By making the issues clearer, the amendment contributes to streamlining the whole application process, reducing months of delay.
Yet despite these efforts to make the law easier to interpret, planning officials fear the result. They say they are ill-prepared for a deluge of applications for single turbines in greenbelt areas. In North Friesland alone, the 137 parishes are expecting a flood of some 1000 requests. Planners fear that the resulting building licences, granted under pressure at great speed, could lead to a rash of ill conceived installations in the windiest areas, threatening tourism and turning local people against wind power. But wind proponents argue that they are well aware of these dangers and that existing planning laws adequately protect the countryside.