Taking local concerns seriously

Privatly owned wind farm Hollich in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany

Local residents are being afforded more of a voice in the German wind industry. At night, for example, the constantly flashing lights for aeroplanes could soon be a thing of the past.

According to representative studies carried out several times across the country, 86 to 93 % of Germans (depending on the specific question) were in favour of the expansion of renewables and the energy transition. These figures have remained stable for many years. And when people experience wind farms and solar installations through concrete plans, acceptance for these kinds of power plants tends to rise. People who already have experience of wind and solar farms are generally less worried about them than those who are completely unfamiliar with renewables (see figure). This is also down to the fact that the approval process for wind turbines closely monitors the effects they would have on local residents and whether the "burden" would be "reasonable" from a legal point of view.

It is also clear that wind turbines bring about visible changes to the landscape, like most construction projects, and this can lead to concerns. According to Gundula Hübner, Professor of Social Psychology at Medical School Hamburg and Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, when it comes to wind power, people are mostly concerned about their impact on the landscape and any potential noise.

Regional planning authorities normally try to minimise the impact on the landscape by introducing special concentration zones. In German states, wind turbines can often only be built in specific areas that tend to make up 1 to 2 % of the total area of the state. And in order to make the turbines less visible against the backdrop of the local landscape, especially in conditions of average visibility, manufacturers have been using exclusively non-reflective colours on the rotors for several years.

The noise emissions of wind turbines are also being reduced by making the rear edges of the rotor blades sharper. Wind turbine manufacturers are currently focusing on this as one of the key characteristics of their new series and models. Especially considering that "noise" is also a problem in terms of the energy balance, as noise is a form of energy loss, reducing the turbines' yield.

There has also been a radical change as regards the visibility of wind farms at night. Radar systems are now available for detecting approaching aircraft, which means that the signal lights required for flight safety will no longer be needed. The red warning lights will only be switched on if a pilot really needs to be warned about the obstruction. The turbines will remain completely dark for around 90 % of the night.

After the states of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Schleswig-Holstein required this kind of demand-based lighting for new installations built since 2016, in early 2017 the Conference of Environmental Ministers called for a uniform solution to be introduced across Germany. In Uckermark, a local wind farm planner announced in early 2017 that a radar system would be installed for all the wind turbines in the region (i.e. several hundred) and the night signal would therefore be switched off. This would appease one of the sharpest criticisms against the wind industry.

Beyond technical advancements, the German Wind Energy Association (BWE) also advises its members to inform local residents about any planned wind projects in their early stages and to involve them in the process. The actual level of participation is determined by local opportunities and the wishes of the locals. Ranging from basic information to financial involvement, there are dozens of models currently in place, which are increasingly also required of wind farm planners by states and municipalities.