There has been a steady rise in the number of power-to-gas plants in Germany. Systems at several dozen locations are now producing hydrogen based on eco-power. Despite some bureaucratic hurdles and technical complications that developers may face, planning and construction are typically uneventful processes. Not so in the German town of Grenzach-Wyhlen: There, the future neighbors of a planned power-to-gas system founded a citizens’ initiative to prevent it from being built.
Grenzach-Wyhlen is situated in the Lörrach district of the Rhine Valley, east of Basle, in the tri-border area of Switzerland, France and Germany. One highlight of the town of 14,000 is the Wyhlen hydropower plant set up in 1912, “Germany’s first hybrid renewable power plant.”
The operator of the system, EnergieDienst, intends to set up a 1 MW power-to-gas facility on 32 hectares (79 acres) of company premises in direct vicinity to the historical building and immediately next to a bird conservation area. Two of the objectives of this project are to test a 300 kW electrolyzer by McPhy and devise a guide for the efficient operation of P2G systems. The partners of the main project coordinator, the Center for Solar Energy and Hydrogen Research Baden-Württemberg, are the Institute of Engineering Thermodynamics of the German Aerospace Center, the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems and the DVGW research division of the Engler Bunte Institute at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.
EnergieDienst is owned by Energiedienst Holding, a Swiss-based business supplying eco-power, e.g., to private households under the NaturEnergie brand. Sixty-seven percent of this parent company is owned by EnBW.
The project has faced much criticism over the past months: In mid-October 2016, residents founded an initiative that was initially called “BI gegen Chemie” or Citizens’ Initiative Against Chemical Pollution and directed “against the use of potentially highly dangerous technology in a residential area.” Michael Kempkes, spokesperson of the initiative, is especially worried about how close the chemical plant is planned to be built to the small settlement in which he lives and which directly borders the company premises. This settlement consists of ten houses with around 40 people living in them, of which “five to six” can be considered “core members of the initiative,” as Kempkes told Badische Zeitung in late October last year.
He explained to H2-international that his family’s home was fewer than 100 meters (328 feet) away from where the plant is to be built and that he fears the hydrogen could explode, since these kinds of incidents cannot be ruled out. Additionally, he indicated that he is worried about the property value of the plots that have so far offered a picturesque sight. He also was wary about the potential “strain on traffic through hazmat transports in Grenzach-Wyhlen.”
Last but not least, he was not at all satisfied with the information policy of the future operator: “Our fears and concerns remain, since EnergieDienst does not seem to be an apt candidate for operating a chemical plant and because no one was able to fully answer the questions we had.” On the website set up by the citizens’ initiative – bi-wasserkraftwerk-am-altrhein.de – Kempkes summed up what he thought was the most important thing to take away from all of this: “We are typically for developing and testing new technologies, but this should be done at a suitable location.” The initiative had been unsuccessful in convincing EnergieDienst of the alternative site it suggested.
The foundation of the citizens’ initiative has now made the public aware of the entire problem. Since then, regional and national news outlets have reported about the deadlock, with headlines such as: “Hydrogen turns up the heat.” Despite the negative press, the city council decided on signing a building contract with EnergieDienst when the council members met on Oct. 25, 2016. Some of them, however, criticized EnergieDienst’s PR work: “There would have been no reason for the citizens’ initiative had ED informed residents earlier.” The project initiators expressed their utmost regret about the entire issue having “taken a wrong turn somewhere.”
Unsuccessful information event
The information event originally scheduled during the summer time took place shortly thereafter – when the building application had already been submitted. On Nov. 14, 2016, experts from the operating company, the TÜV, the manufacturer of the electrolyzer and Freiburg’s regional authority held a joint presentation with the coordinator to provide a variety of background information, which was met with great interest by the more than 100 attendees. When asked by Kempkes during the event, Irene Knauber, the project’s manager and board member of EnergieDienst Holding, acknowledged that the capacity of the system may be increased at a later date. Before that exchange, she had tried to alleviate the worries of residents by saying that the residential zone next to the plant was already well-protected by the existing buildings on the company premises. Friedrich Haas from planning office HaasEngineering, who had helped design the H2 filling station in Freiburg, said as per Badische Zeitung: “The noise level won’t be high either. It will be six decibels below the limit of 45.”
The newspaper also reported that Kempkes had read to the audience a list of questions from which you could infer that “he had doubts about almost all of the statements made.” Furthermore: “Kempkes renewed his objections and said he got involved that much to prevent the plant from being built there.” Knauber, however, said: “We expect to be able to start construction early next year.”
Even if EnergieDienst considered the information event a success, the minds of citizen initiative members remain unchanged. Kempkes told H2-international: “Neither side is ready to approach the other.” There is ED, which put an extensive FAQ page online before the event and thinks it has done everything possible to shed light on the issues, and then there is the citizens’ initiative, which has meanwhile renamed itself Citizens’ Initiative on Hydropower Plant at Altrhein and had collected around 200 signature until the end of last November against the project. Particularly the way in which ED is beating time is garnering “much ill will” among the initiative’s members. Currently, there doesn’t seem to be a solution that would satisfy all parties involved.
Hardly any property owner wants to wake up one morning only to look out the window and see nothing more than industrial facilities, even if they are used for eco-friendly purposes. It is a phenomenon aptly described by the phrase “Not in my backyard.” In a situation like this, it seems as if one party reaped all the benefits pushing through a certain item on the agenda, whereas the other would have to expect things only getting worse because of it. It makes little sense when discussing the item in question to bombard each other with “facts.” Attempts at persuasion cannot be successful because if roles were reversed, both parties would simply trade places and opinions. These kinds of “fact-based” discussions can only lead to entrenched opinions. It would make more sense to try and work out an agreement despite contrary opinions, even if a consensus seems far-fetched at first. One possible solution could be to get a mediator involved.