Germanwatch: Fair and transparent planning procedures are core elements for a successful energy transformation

Germanwatch is a non-governmental organization that advocates global justice, fostering Germany’s responsibility for a just world. One can easily wonder how this overall goal is related to Germanwatch’s interest in the modernization of our electricity grid. The argument is easy: the fight again climate change is strongly connected to the fight for a just world. While industry nations, such as Germany, are responsible for the biggest share of greenhouse gas emissions, the fiercest impacts happen in developing countries. This is the main reason for Germanwatch to support the transformation of the energy system towards a future fully based on renewable energy. And the modernization of the electricity grid is seen as one enabler of this transformation. Or as Christoph Bals, Policy Director of Germanwatch puts it: „We will only reach the necessary reduction of CO2 emissions by a massive extension of local renewable energies on the one hand and cross-regional renewable energy resources on the other hand. The expansion of the grid is therefore essential.” 

What is meaningful participation?
Transparency and participation – two buzzwords that you can often hear when people talk about public acceptance, be it for power lines or other big infrastructure projects. But what does that mean exactly? Every new big infrastructure project has an impact on the communities it is passing through. Traditional planning law did not use to offer many opportunities for the “ordinary citizens” to get involved and state their concerns. A few years ago, when a new era of modernizing and building new electricity grids started, protests arose because people felt that they could not voice their concerns effectively within the official planning procedure. Many questions emerged, to name just a few: are the current procedures defined in a way that allows for more participation? How can fair and transparent decisions be ensured? How can laymen and interest groups, such as environmental NGOs, build up capacity to actively engage in permitting procedures?

It was back then when Germanwatch decided to co-found the Renewables Grid Initiative (RGI), a platform for grid operators and NGOs, together with WWF, TenneT and 50Hertz. Christoph Bals, board member of RGI, already then clearly stated: “The public needs to be engaged at an early planning stage in a meaningful way.” Together with its partners, Germanwatch was among the pioneers to get engaged in discussions about the electricity grid. It was very clear from the beginning that it was not easy to design planning procedures in such a way, that participation becomes “meaningful”, as Bals depicted it. That is why in 2011, Germanwatch together with the Boell Foundation compiled a study on the acceptance of power lines. Conclusions where drawn by analyzing the procedure of one grid development project in Eastern Germany (“Thüringer Strombrücke”). The result were concrete guidelines for project promoters, legislators and authorities. One of the main findings concerned the need definition of grid projects. The authors of the study recommended not to determine the need for a certain project on the federal level by the government. Instead, it should be discussed together with local stakeholders at the very beginning of each project to make sure that local information is fed into the process and affected communities are sufficiently involved.

Besides this study, Germanwatch actively engaged in stakeholder discussions in the framework of the ‘forum grid integration’ (Forum Netzintegration) set up by the German Environmental Aid (Deutsche Umwelthilfe). The forum, established in 2009, came up with a set of policy recommendations summarized in a document called “Plan N” (English version available here). Last year, an update of these recommendations was published. 

What are the chances Germanwatch sees in BESTGRID?
Germanwach decided to join the consortium of BESTGRID because it considered it a great chance to implement the principles discussed and the lessons learned so far in projects on the ground. “The cooperation with grid operators reaches a new level”, Rotraud Haenlein, Policy Officer for Power Grids at Germanwatch explains. While before NGOs were mostly given feedback to the plans of TSOs and criticizing approaches ex post, we have now the unique opportunity to discuss action plans with the participating grid operators and consult them on their approach towards the public. For example, when the public debate about the two proposed HVDC corridors ‘SuedLink’ and ‘Gleichstrompassage Süd-Ost’ in Germany inflamed early this year, TenneT discussed possible changes in their participation strategy with Germanwatch and the German Environmental Aid (DUH), an NGO that is also cooperating with TenneT within the framework of BESTGRID. “We can build on years of trust building that took place within the Renewables Grid Initiative. We know each other and even though we do not agree on everything, we know that we both benefit from the cooperation”, Rotraud Haenlein explains.

What is Germanwatch doing practically besides closely cooperating with the TSOs responsible for the pilot projects? They will invite other NGOs and experts dealing with participation issues to internal workshops in order to gather and include as much external knowledge as possible. Based on their observations and the workshops as well as on discussions with stakeholders Germanwatch will write, publish and disseminate a guidebook on public participation and transparency in grid development projects. The guidebook will entail general principles for participation and transparency and also provide specific advice for the local and national levels. The book will be an easy-to-read, professionally designed publication and will be available for download on the BESTGRID website.

Germanwatch’s engagement for a fair energy system
Germanwatch’s quest for a fair energy system goes well beyond Germany’s and Europe’s borders. For example, Germanwatch is part of an interdisciplinary team of Moroccan, Egyptian and German research and civil society institutions that assesses the socio-economic impacts of two concentrated solar power (CSP) projects in Morocco and Egypt. Based on findings of these two case studies, the consortium draws good practice recommendations on how to match the future design of the CSP technology and its service provision with the development needs and livelihood realities of MENA communities. The project shows that, also in this region, fair and transparent procedures that take concerns of local communities into account, are the key for successful planning.

How does Germanwatch work?
Germanwatch mostly pursues its goals via advocacy activities at national, European and international level. This is very often done with the help of local development and environmental groups all over the world. Moreover, Germanwatch is cooperating with other actors, such as companies, unions, or consumers organizations. 40 employees are working at Germanwatch and their work is funded by membership fees – currently Germantwatch has more than 600 members -, by donations to their foundation or by project funding.


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