Outcry over Merkel's new power project

Rising opposition to setting up of high-voltage cables

BERLIN - Chancellor Angela Merkel's plan to replace nuclear power plants across Germany with renewables requires an energy superhighway that will run over Ms Valerie Grill's backyard.

The 43-year-old mother of two is one of thousands of citizens objecting to the €21 billion (S$31.5 billion) programme to erect high-voltage electricity lines linking offshore wind farms in the North Sea to factories in the south. It includes an 800km cable from Wilster on the north coast to Grafenrheinfeld in Bavaria, known as Suedlink.

"I'm used to power lines near our town," said Ms Grill, pointing to 40m-high masts visible from her farmhouse in the western town of Muenchehagen, near Hanover.

"But the Suedlink towers will be almost double in height and surround our town from three sides. You'll always see them no matter where you are, and we don't know anything about the health implications. It's just too much."

With the 1.3GW nuclear plant in Grafenrheinfeld due to close today, the clock is ticking for Germany to expand the grid to add more wind and solar power before the authorities take the country's remaining eight reactors offline by 2022.

It is the first closure since Germany shut down eight atomic plants in the wake of Japan's March 2011 disaster in Fukushima, which prompted Dr Merkel's decision to abandon nuclear energy.

Ms Grill and fellow protesters are threatening to hold up the expansion, casting doubt about whether Germany can maintain electricity supplies without turning to the fossil fuels blamed for global warming.

"Expanding the grid is the biggest bottleneck in the energy shift," said Mr Jochen Homann, who heads the Bundesnetzagentur regulator overseeing the expansion. "We're already experiencing delays."

The agency fielded about 30,000 complaints from citizens, local authorities and protest groups in the three months to mid-May.

Ms Grill has attracted more than 70 supporters since starting her campaign in April. Dozens of similar action groups have mushroomed along the Suedlink route.

"This huge line is built by lobbyists to sell electricity and we don't need it to keep the lights on," she said.

The companies and Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel have pledged to build parts of the line underground to ease local concerns.

The row is also proving contentious for Ms Merkel's coalition government, of which Mr Gabriel is vice-chancellor. Mr Horst Seehofer, the prime minister of Bavaria and a powerful Merkel ally, has revoked his support for the grid project amid protests from Bavarian voters.

The Bundesnetzagentur estimates that more cables will be placed underground as the technology gets cheaper, and that the masts will probably end up shorter than anticipated. That is unlikely to calm the sceptics in Muenchehagen, which has turned to tourism in recent years for revenue.

"We're finally ready to market ourselves touristically, and now these power poles threaten to destroy that potential," Muenchehagen Mayor Renate Braselmann said. "We support the energy shift but not like that."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2015, with the headline 'Outcry over Merkel's new power project'. Print Edition | Subscribe