Grimm Choices: How Energy Transition Threatens A Fairy Tale Forest
Wind power has its drawbacks, especially in central German region of Hesse, where developers want to erect generators in wooded areas like the Reinhardswald, of Brothers Grimm fame.
KASSEL — It's a mystical place full of giant, gnarled, centuries-old trees, rare animals and fabulous castles. It's also the home of the Brothers Grimm's fairy tales, and the oldest nature reserve in Germany.
The Reinhardswald forest in northern Hesse is something very special, and not only because it's the largest in the state. One of its characteristics is that it belongs to the general public. But that could be its downfall, because the coalition state government (consisting of the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Green Party) is planning to build industrial areas right in the middle of it.
The reason is the government's ambitious goal of reserving 2% of the state's land area for wind energy. But in Hesse, there's only enough wind — when there's any wind at all — at high altitudes. And since most of the high lands are wooded, almost all new wind turbines are built in forests.
Hesse's economy minister, Tarek Al-Wazir, made a noteworthy promise in 2015: "Important recreational areas and forests in Hesse are out of the question for wind energy use." Three years later, however, it's not clear how much weight those words really wield. The Kassel regional council the state of Hesse is divided into three such regions has designated seven wind priority areas in the Reinhardswald. In each area up to 20 wind turbines can be built.
For nature conservationists, it's disastrous. "The Reinhardswald is one of the last largely unexploited forest areas," says Gabriele Niehaus-Uebel of the Oberweser-Bramwald citizens' initiative. "We don't have many of these anymore. This habitat must be protected as such."
The country's five biggest environmental associations have a similar view and, in their Wilderness in Germany initiative, included proposals for forest protection areas in Hesse. Reinhardswald tops the list. The plan is to more than double the protected surface in the Reinhardswald forest and reduce the amount and kinds of trees that can be cut so as to limit the impact on the local wildlife.
Wind energy is very important for climate protection because we have to achieve the energy transition.
The Reinhardswald's old beech forests are home to many species, but above all to strictly protected bats that only live in forests with very old trees and a high proportion of deadwood. The Kassel regional council insists that protected beech forests are "just as excluded from wind energy use as the areas of the oak primeval forest," and that it's considering locations that are "less sensitive from a nature conservation point of view." And yet, the wind priority areas border directly on the natural habitats of wild fauna and flora, in which bats have found a rare refuge.
Unlike birds of prey, small birds and flying animals such as bats are not killed by the rotors. Instead, their lungs burst due to the vacuum behind the rotors. The planners have placed one of the wind priority areas exactly between the natural forest and the Friedwald, a cemetery in the forest, the first of its kind in Germany. And two wind priority areas even enclose parts of the forest that have long been designated as protected.
"It makes no sense at all," says Niehaus-Uebel. "It's the headlong and forced adoption of wind power in Hesse, no matter the consequences. Nature conservation no longer plays a role. And all this from an environment minister from the Green Party. That's astonishing."
But Hesse's environment minister defends the plans. "Wind energy is very important for climate protection because we have to achieve the energy transition," says Priska Hinz. "We will not conserve the forests if we do not focus on renewable energy and thus on climate protection, because otherwise we will no longer have the forests as we know them in 30 years' time and even less in 50, 100 years."
You could argue that forests serve to protect the climate and biodiversity. Why else would German politicians like to point out the importance of their primeval forests to their colleagues in distant or nearby countries like Poland?
"We haven't planned to build in the entire Reinhardswald." says Hinz. "Just in a small part. This is no way comparable to large-scale deforestation."
Birds and bats
A short drive a few kilometers further south, in the Kaufungen forest, gives us an example of what this means in practice. There are 18 wind turbines at the state border between Hesse and Lower Saxony in the middle of an official natural habitat of wild fauna and flora. It is also a flying route for flocks of common cranes and, partly, a drinking-water protection area. The turbines rise to more than 200 meters into the sky, and for each of them, foundations of about 1,000 cubic meters of concrete were injected into the ground.
Wind turbines of this size can only be installed with gigantic cranes that require one hectare of forest to be razed, not to mention the wide paths that need to be cleared for the transports of such heavy material and for later service transports. Between the installations, the remaining trees are largely bent. The windthrow is the result of storms caused by the clearings.
According to the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation, Kaufung Forest is considered a "hotspot for biodiversity." This also applies to the Reinhardswald. "As a natural area, it's outstanding not only because of its size, but also because of its biological provision," says Jochen Tamm, a biologist from the Hessian Society for Ornithology and Nature Conservation.
The installment of wind turbines is a threat to the Reinhardswald's biodiversity — Photo: reloeh
Tamm has been working in the Upper Nature Conservation Authority of the Kassel Regional Council for 20 years. He also advises citizens' initiatives such as the one led by Gabriele Niehaus-Uebel. The definition of wind priority areas is the responsibility of regional authorities just as Kassel Regional Council and it can help limit the uncontrolled expansion of wind energy. For that, justified objections by nature conservationists are supposed to be taken into account. In practice, though, such objects seem to be increasingly ignored because they endanger the expansion targets.
Many objections concern strictly protected species whose habitat lies in the vicinity of planned wind turbines. Experts estimate that wind turbines kill hundreds of thousands of bats and thousands of birds of prey every year throughout Germany. ABO-Wind, the wind power project development company that is planning to apply for a building permit for the Reinhardswald forest, disagrees. "There's no reliable evidence," it says.
And yet, a "Progress Study" financed by the federal government shows that birds of prey do collide with such installations, and with disproportionate frequency. The further expansion of wind energy could endanger entire stocks, among them red kites. In fact, collisions against wind turbines is "the main cause of death for red kites," says Torsten Langgemach of Brandenburg State's Institute for Bird Protection. In his database, he has countless pictures of dead birds of prey sent by outraged citizens.
The environmental associations must have their reasons.
"The red kite is one of the few large birds that can only be found in Central Europe," says Jochen Tamm. "Germany is home to more than half of the world's population, so it has global responsibility for this bird. And it's precisely in this central habitat where wind turbines are increasingly being installed now."
Conflicts of interest
Companies that apply for a permit must submit expert's reports before their project gets the green light. A key question is whether planned wind turbines would significantly increase the risk of killing animals from protected species. But these reports are commissioned and paid for by the industry. "There's hardly anyone who doesn't write what the client wants to read," Jochen Tamm says. "I have seen numerous reports of this kind. Most of them, to put it bluntly, are sham reports."
The Kassel regional council insists otherwise: "These reports are subjected to intensive scrutiny by the relevant authorities."
In theory, at least. In 2017, the Kassel regional council approved three wind turbines in a forest very close to the Reinhardswald even though citizens had proved that two red kite breeding sites were within the recommended minimum distance. The authorities didn't see any "significantly increased risk of death" because the investor's expert had observed that "the vast majority of flights from the nest to find food weren't made in the direction of the wind turbine."
The German Forest Protection Association (SDW) has filed a lawsuit. The action by the associations is the only sharp weapon against the plans, but the umbrella associations of large environmental NGOs, such as Nabu and BUND, are holding back on this subject, Niehaus-Uebel says. Bernhard Klug from the SDW has also noted this. His association receives support only from the German Wildlife Foundation. "The environmental associations must have their reasons," he says.
The forest conservationists hardly have any support from state politicians. In the state parliament, only the Free Democratic Party has positioned itself as critics of wind energy. For example, the FDP's inquiries deal with illegal deforestation, oil spills and well-paid lectures given by employees of the licensing authority to the wind lobby. The topic of one such lecture was: "Practical tips for speeding up licensing procedures."
Mario Klotzsche of the FDP criticizes the "poor licensing practices' and says structural reasons and conflicts of interest are responsible. There were revelations, for example, that the family of Kassel regional council's president, Walter Lübcke (CDU), had invested money in a wind farm. "In the end, the only thing left are the courts," says Klotzsche.
Conflicts between the wind industry and nature conservationists aren't happening just in the state of Hesse. More and more wind farms are being built in forests all over southern Germany. The state of Rhineland-Palatinate, for one, has been leading the way under Eveline Lemke a former Green Party minister (2011-2016) who is now on the supervisory board member of ABO-Wind.