Lack of space

Amprion is expanding the power grid so that renewable energies reach the people. But space for new lines and facilities, such as substations, is at a premium. Suitable sites are a scarce commodity. Urban developer Tim Tröger and communications expert Katrin Schirrmacher are in agreement: this makes it all the more important to communicate with the people on the ground.

Tim Tröger
is a trained architect and since 1997 co-owner of the planning agency StadtLabor based in Leipzig. Urban planning and traffic concepts are among the focal points of his work.

Mr Tröger, how does this stand with regard to land consumption in Germany?

Tim Tröger Over the last 60 years, the amount of land in Germany taken up by settlements and transport infrastructure has more than doubled. Presently, the rate at which land is being turned over to such usages averages 56 hectares per day. This equates to around 78 football pitches, and includes new development land and sites or routes for infrastructure such as roads and power lines. With a view to future generations, this cannot continue, because agricultural land and fertile soil are in limited supply. For this reason, and within the framework of Germany's Sustainability Development Strategy, the Federal Government has set itself a target of reducing new land use for settlements and transport infrastructure to less than 30 hectares per day by 2030.

Ms Schirrmacher, what does this development mean for Amprion?

Katrin Schirrmacher It poses major challenges for us. As a grid operator, we have to find ways of constructing planned power lines that are both legal and take the interests of all those affected into account as much as possible. Legislation stipulates that new power lines may cut across built-up areas or nature conservation areas only in exceptional cases. What's more, technical standards must be complied with so that the future lines can be operated safely. When land becomes scarce, this also leads to conflicts of interest with local communities and authorities. Wherever new settlements or industrial estates are set to be built, there's no way we can plan new power lines. Moreover, farmers want to preserve farmland, because very often the redesignation of land is at the expense of agriculture. In the end, we're often left with very few options for where we can build the power lines that are so urgently needed to realise the energy transition.

Tim Tröger
is a trained architect and since 1997 co-owner of the planning agency StadtLabor based in Leipzig. Urban planning and traffic concepts are among the focal points of his work.

How can infrastructures be planned under these conditions?

TrögerWherever possible, existing infrastructure corridors should be used so that we don't encroach on ever more plots of “virginal” land. High-speed-railway lines or power lines often run alongside motorways for good reason. However, even the decision to renew or upgrade infrastructure along existing corridors often causes problems. Particularly in densely populated Federal states such as North Rhine-Westphalia, settlements, industrial estates, roads, railway lines and power grids have expanded and become more crammed together over decades. A classic conflict: everyone wants the best possible access to the Internet, public transport, roads and electricity. But no one wants the infrastructure necessary to achieve this in their own back yard – the NIMBY phenomenon. Local residents fear that their neighbourhood and living environment will deteriorate due to the proximity of the new infrastructure, that the value of their properties will fall or that their health could be put at risk by noise or emissions

SchirrmacherWe encounter this conflict in many projects. And, as you correctly point out, this conflict had often evolved over time owing to the fact that cities, towns and villages have yearned for and approved new residential and industrial zones throughout the past 60 years. In Moers, for example, the neighbourhood of Utfort has over the last few decades expanded ever closer to the transformer station located there and the power lines that lead to it. This urban development has already been sharply criticised by local politicians, among others. Now, in the course of a project in what is known as the “Rheinschiene” – one of our key north-south arteries – we have to modify the transformer station and upgrade the incoming and outgoing power lines. This has led to massive resistance from the locals. What's more, owing to the lack of space that has arisen as a result of this historical development, there is no alternative site available locally on which to “rehouse” our power infrastructure.

Katrin Schirrmacher
is Head of Project Communication at Amprion. Together with her team, she informs citizens about the company’s grid expansion projects and answers questions from associations, politicians and the press.

How can the various concerns and interests be reconciled?

TrögerTransparency and dialogue are important; they can lead to solutions being found. Nothing is worse than when those affected feel that decisions have been made over their heads. All parties involved should be honest, be open with one another, disclose their interests, take opposing views on board – even above and beyond legally prescribed procedures. Comprehending a zoning plan is an art in itself. Laymen very quickly feel left out of the loop. I always recommend approaching the public with clear images and easy-to-read plans and models. And to continually communicate exactly why our society needs this infrastructure.

SchirrmacherAt Amprion, we fully understand it's all about people's homes and where they live. They are connected with the landscape and the culture. And then we come along and want to change it all. We can only do that if the people on the ground know why we want to do it. Transparency and open discussion are vital to project communication. We respect every perspective on our projects and what we do. Our declared aim is to spell out the framework conditions of every new construction project at as early a stage as possible. During our early public consultations, we provide information before the official approval process even begins. We explain what we plan to do – and why we plan things the way we do. This also provides clarity on where and how citizens can get involved in the subsequent approval procedures.

TrögerThat all adds up to several thousand kilometres on business trips every year ...

Schirrmacher That's for sure. Before Covid-19, we used to organise more than 600 dialogue events in some years. Basically, it's important that we are personally out and about in the respective project regions. It's the only way to build up trust. Last year, it was almost impossible to meet people in person due to the pandemic. That has presented us with completely new challenges. But even under the difficult circumstances, we did the best we could to listen to and understand locals’ concerns. For the most part, we have managed to keep talking with one another online or over the phone. Where possible, we check to see if we can incorporate their comments into our planning. Sometimes there are ways to, for example, optimise the route of an existing line or to use a different type of pylon. However, especially where space is limited, there’s often no option. We also have to communicate this honestly to the locals, however difficult it may be at times.

TextAlexandra Brandt
PhotosMario Kirchner, Hartmut Nägele