'German Nimbyism is a perverse problem that really shouldn’t exist'

A clear road map for wind-power expansion is the best defense against the Engiewende-slowing 'reactance', writes Heike Winkler

It is a perverse problem that really shouldn’t exist. Germany enjoys a high level of social acceptance for its energy transition, yet public opposition to wind and grid expansion has contributed to the unprecedented slump in the country’s onshore wind build-out — with just 287MW added in the first half of 2019, the lowest figure since 2000.

The rise of not-in-my-backyard (Nimby) protests is a failure of government strategy and implementation, which has resulted in a phenomenon described by social psychologists as “reactance”.

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Reactance occurs when people feel that their individual freedoms are being restricted (or threatened with restriction), which leads to the psychological need to restore this freedom — and a fightback against the cause of the reactance.

If the government wants to foster acceptance for onshore wind projects and grid expansion, it will have to put itself in the shoes of local stakeholders and ask what is acceptable from their point of view.

The first step is more open dialogue between a project’s backers and would-be opponents at an early stage.

When I was recently asked to respond to a citizens’ initiative against the construction of a new wind farm, it turned out their lack of knowledge about further expansion planning and their lack of involvement prompted their resistance, rather than a fundamental criticism of wind energy.

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Their concerns and worries were easy to understand and could have been alleviated with a number of simple measures.

Providing transparent information from credible sources — the when, where, why, how, what; early communication of the benefits to the community (such as jobs and increased local investment); and a sense of joint decision-making will all help prevent reactance.

The lack of a clear, transparent road map for wind-power expansion has paved the way for reactance, with news of a local wind farm or grid expansion often coming abruptly and without any indication of local benefits. Opposition is thus a good way to restore people’s sense of control and freedom.

The federal government needs to embrace a more holistic, co-operative approach to communities to align wind-power expansion with the positive general attitude of the population towards Germany’s energy transition.

The road map for further expansion of the grid and onshore wind must be visible on a long-term basis, with the advantages for the individual and the group being communicated in a credible, comprehensible manner. Doing so will reduce Nimby opposition, which will, in turn, speed up the energy transition and reduce its costs. 

· Heike Winkler, managing director of WAB, the wind-power trade body in northwest Germany, has a masters degree in psychology

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