If the switch to renewables is to succeed, the power grid needs expanding. But who wants transmission routes in their own backyard?

By Luisa Meisel

Burkhard Jäckel has a goal: €20,000. “Twenty thousand would be enough to hire a lawyer and take the case to court,” he says. Jäckel, 60, sports a grey crew cut that shags slightly over his collar at the back and speaks with a north German dialect. By day he works for a port company, and in the evening he plays bass in his rock band Punch and Judy – except for Monday evenings, that is, when he hosts a meeting of the core members of the citizens’ action group Quickborn gegen Riesenmasten. Fuelled by cigarettes and red wine, Jäckel and his two fellow campaigners pore over land use plans and meeting minutes into the early hours of the morning.

Their goal is to prevent the expansion of a transmission route passing next to Quickborn, a town around 20 kilometres north of Hamburg. On the evenings of their meetings, the shellac-coated wooden table in the dining room with its rose-patterned place mats almost disappears under an avalanche of paper. “My wife is in charge of the decoration,” explains Jäckel. Next to the living room, however, Jäckel has a den of his own, with a Bob Dylan poster on the wall and shelves laden with ships in bottles.

From their patio, the couple enjoy a front-row view of the Hamburg Nord – Dollern transmission route. The pylons tower 35 metres above the ground, supporting 220 kilovolt power lines that appear rather like a giant set of musical notes cutting across the sky. That is the voltage of a domestic socket multiplied by a thousand. Plans are in place to increase the pylons’ height to 60 metres and equip them with power lines carrying a maximum voltage of 380 kV. This expansion of the transmission route passing through Quickborn is one more step in Germany’s switch to renewable energy sources.

The theory of land-use plans vs. the reality on the edge of town: grid expansion is unavoidable.

By 2020, at least 35 percent of Germany’s electricity is supposed to come from renewable sources such as wind and solar power. Yet the electricity generated by wind turbines in the north needs to be transported south in order to avoid power shortages. If every nuclear power plant in Germany is to be permanently shut down by 2020, grid expansion is an urgent priority. However, the greater the distance to be covered by the electricity, the higher the voltage required. Lines of 220 kV are no longer enough. That is why the Quickborn route is to be equipped with 380 kV extra-high-voltage lines.

One of the pylons is located around 90 metres from a school sports ground. This pylon is the reason why Jäckel founded the action group and the reason why his Monday evenings are getting longer every week. “There have been times when I just wanted to throw in the towel,” says Jäckel. “The huge amount of time I spend on the project means the less time I spend with my family.” In the beginning, Jäckel was simply worried that large pylons on his doorstep might one day affect the value of his property. “Then at some point I found out that the electromagnetic radiation can cause cancer in children and decided I had to do something before it was too late,” says Jäckel, exhaling cigarette smoke. In spite of the huge effort demanded by the project, Jäckel is committed to it. He is quite certain that “extra-high-voltage power lines make our children ill.”

Whether or not electromagnetic radiation does in fact cause leukaemia in children remains an open question. Some studies suggest an increased risk, but this has yet to be confirmed. The debate has long become a matter of personal opinion, with each camp trotting out those figures and studies that support its specific view.

“If we can get people to change the way they think, that will be a huge achievement.” Burkhard Jäckel, chairman of citizens’ action group Quickborn against giant pylons

Jäckel’s group has been active for over three years, providing information about the dangers of electromagnetic fields. He prints flyers, paints posters, and conducts talks with property owners about an alternative route for the transmission line. He has worked out how many hours he and his fellow campaigners have invested in the project over the last few years and came to a grand total of 3,300. Certain of those hours are still fresh in Jäckel’s memory, such as one evening in the winter of 2010. The town was covered in snow, and all the paths were frozen over. It was dark outside, and neighbours and friends had made lanterns from used jam jars and tea lights and placed them along the transmission route – a chain of lights in the snow. Jäckel handed out mulled wine and grilled sausages. Only 35 people turned up. “It is difficult to get people mobilised,” says Jäckel, mechanically clicking on the photos of the evening on his website. “I often have to tell myself that it’s not how many people come that matters, but the fact that anyone comes at all.” The unused boxes of mulled wine are still stacked in his hallway.

The power highway leading past Quickborn is sheer nonsense in planning terms, says Jäckel. There is no legally prescribed minimum distance between the power lines and residential areas, simply a directive establishing maximum values for electrical and magnetic field strength. But those who, like the action group, are convinced of the detrimental effect of the power lines are not content with threshold values – they regard any increase as harmful. That is why Jäckel’s group is campaigning to have the route changed. However, this would mean getting the agreement of the owners of the properties that are affected by the new route. “We’re unlikely to have much joy there,” says Jäckel tersely. The frustration of prolonged negotiations for an alternative route has left furrows in his brow.

A round table was created in an attempt to find possible compromises. Municipal representatives, grid operator Tennet (responsible for erecting the pylons), and the citizens of Quickborn are all fighting for their own interests. “A lot of new bonds are formed, and a lot of old ones are broken,” says Jäckel. Objectively speaking, there has been no real debate for a long time, as oft-repeated arguments fall on deaf ears while people become increasingly fixated on their own point of view. On the surface, Quickborn looks like a peaceful enough town: front gardens with carefully tended lawns, lace curtains, geraniums, and one or two nice mid-range cars parked in front of every garden fence. However, behind the fences and curtains, the Quickborn transmission route has long become a subject of dispute, and disparaging comments are rife among the neighbours here.

Yet everyone is in favour of the switch to renewables and everyone agrees that the grid expansion is necessary. “This power line is hugely important,” says Martin Groll, of grid operator Tennet. “It is an intensification of the only line across the Elbe currently in existence. We need to act quickly, otherwise it is going to be impossible to transport wind energy from Schleswig-Holstein to the south for a very long time.

The process has been dragging on for over three years. The final stage is the forthcoming planning resolution, when the Schleswig-Holstein Ministry of Energy Transition will approve the path and type of the extra-high-voltage transmission lines. This resolution is expected in mid-January. After that, time will start running out for Jäckel’s action group: they will have just four weeks to file an appeal with the Federal Administrative Court before the diggers and bulldozers arrive.

What looks like a line of musical notes across the sky over Quickborn belies the discord wrought by high-voltage power lines.

The procedure for a case like this is complicated, and a lawyer is essential. Hiring a lawyer will cost around €20,000, according to Jäckel’s estimates. And the chances of success are slim. The Ministry has discretionary power over the plans: if the resolution determines that the transmission line can be upgraded as planned, the court cannot overrule this decision, which means that the route to be followed by the power line in Quickborn will remain unchanged.

When Jäckel considers the possibility that his group might not be able to raise the money, the furrows on his brow grow deeper. If that happens, Jäckel admits he will be all out of ideas. Even so, he says, the action group will have succeeded in blocking the expansion for a few years. “So it won’t have been entirely in vain.” At least he will be able to look people in the eye in the bakery every morning, in the knowledge that he put up a fight. His son once asked him why he puts himself to all this trouble. “Because no one else will,” was his reply.

Assuming the resolution is taken in mid-January, Jäckel has just under three months to raise the €20,000 needed for the lawyer. When he walks through Quickborn with his collection box, people always toss in a coin or two. For Jäckel, that feels like recognition for all the work he has put in. People reach for their wallets before he can even open his mouth to ask for a donation, he says. “The euro coins drop steadily into the tin. That’s a real boost.” As he speaks, he appears to forget the January deadline for a moment. On the action group’s website, a red counter keeps track of the donations. Jäckel has already succeeded in raising €552.91 – just €19,447.09 to go.


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