Town rises against prince’s bright idea

Marketplace Staff Dec 24, 2009

Town rises against prince’s bright idea

Marketplace Staff Dec 24, 2009


Kai Ryssdal: Germany doesn’t get quite as much sun as, say, Hawaii, but it still has one of the biggest solar energy industries in the world. That’s thanks in part to a law that gives cash incentives to makers of solar panels, and also to people who contribute to the national power grid with solar panels of their own.

One of Germany’s wealthiest families wants to cash in and build a giant solar park on its land. But residents of a nearby town are saying nicht in my backyard. Kyle James reports.

KYLE JAMES: At the Thurn and Taxis castle in the medieval town of Regensburg, the commoners are enjoying a Christmas market in the courtyard. The nobles who live in this grand estate once ran all of Europe’s postal services, now they want to deliver something else, green power. The head of the family is 26-year-old Prince Albert, the world’s youngest billionaire. He wants to invest $165 million and build the world’s largest solar park on his land.

Family representative Stephan Stehl says the project would benefit the family and Germany.

STEPHAN Stehl: Locally produced power keeps the value that comes from energy production here at home. Right now, the money spent on oil and gas from Russia or Saudi Arabia creates value there, but not in this region.

The solar park would cover a large strip of land — some 470 acres. At peak times, it would generate enough electricity to power some 18,000 households. Still, despite the enthusiastic support most Germans have for renewable energy, a cloud has darkened the aristocrat’s plan.

A tractor engine and the occasional car are about all that disturb the bucolic landscape near the small town of Feldkirchen.

Barbara Unger is the mayor there. She’s led a campaign to stop the prince’s project, which would border her town. She stands before miles of wheat and sugar beet fields.

BARBARA Unger: Just look at this beautiful landscape. It’s right on the Danube, one of most fertile parts of Germany. We’re going to lose all this farmland to solar panels. It’s going to affect our quality of life here. And residents are worried about the value of their homes, because those values will fall.

Mayor Unger insists she has nothing against solar power. But the idea of living next to a strip of gleaming glass panel two miles wide moved her to start her protest — not with a mob and pitchforks, but a petition. However, she adds, both the nobles and the neighboring city have pretty much brushed her concerns aside.

Straubing is a small city just a few miles away, which wants the solar project to go ahead. The city stands to earn over a million dollars a year in taxes from the $25 million the prince will likely make.

Oliver Vetter-Ginderle heads the city planning department. He doesn’t think much of these kinds of “not in my backyard” protests, especially given the urgency of energy and climate issues today.

OLIVER Vetter-Ginderle: Each individual community and each region needs to ask itself, how can I contribute to addressing and solving these problems. Always saying, oh, let the others do it, that doesn’t help much.

But as Germany’s solar sector grows, more of these kinds of NIMBY fights look likely. In another blue-blooded row, residents recently forced a German baron to cancel a solar park planned for his lands. And since Germany is so densely populated, almost any solar park is going to butt up against somebody.

Back at the Thurn and Taxis castle, Stephan Stehl says the family is waiting for final approval by a Munich court and hopes to be generating power by the end of next year. But delays beyond that would make the project less attractive financially. Government tax breaks would expire and the scheme might be scrapped. That, he says, could set a dangerous precedent.

Stehl: Germany could lose the key position it now has in renewable energies. A solar park doesn’t smell, doesn’t make noise, poses no danger to people. If you can’t build a solar park, what can you build?

And, he says, since the solar sector employs about 80,000 in Germany, no one should want to see projects getting shelved.

In Regensburg, Germany, I’m Kyle James for Marketplace.

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