A debate on an equal footing

Federal Minister for Economic Affairs Mr Altmaier regards swift grid expansion as a crucial priority for energy policy. Dr Peter Ahmels, who co-chairs the citizen’s dialogue on the electricity grid, tells us what the public is asking about grid expansion.

Participants at a Bürgerdialog Stromnetz event.© BMWi/Kruppa

In 2015, the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy engaged with members of the public directly affected by plans for the electricity grids and launched a dedicated public dialogue on grids. Many members of the public have used this tool to tell the government about their questions and concerns about grid expansion. Dr Ahmels, you are heading up the public dialogue on the electricity grid. What do you think is your most important task in this?
Dr Peter Ahmels: We regard ourselves as brokers of dialogue and are trying to pave the way for constructive discussions between all stakeholders, especially the public. Whenever a new electricity line is being planned, there are many legitimate interests and often these are contradictory. The first step towards a facts-based and respectful dialogue is to give everyone the chance to be heard. This may sound trivial, but it is not.

What are the challenges associated with this?
First of all, creating a form of dialogue that all the stakeholders regard as constructive is anything but a trivial matter. Second, the issue itself is complex. We don’t want a situation whereby dialogue proves impossible from the outset, simply due to different levels of knowledge. We want a dialogue of equals, which is why we try to provide information as early on as possible, answer questions and seek to explain the relevant issues and interdependencies in a way that is easy to understand. Most importantly, we want to explain to the public how they can become involved in the planning and approval proceedings.

In Germany, members of the public can become involved in the process not only once the project has reached the planning stages, but already at the stage of the needs assessment, which is when scenarios are being developed and the network development plan defined. But does the public really make use of these opportunities?
Not as much as they should. There are many technical terms that are not understandable for laypeople without additional explanations. It is true and good that we have these formal possibilities for the public to get involved, but they are often not enough. The problem is that many members of the public only start to become involved once they realise that they are personally affected, for instance by construction work. This is at a point when it is too late to make any substantial changes to the energy system.

This is why we try to make the public aware of any projects by which they may be affect and to explain to them how they can become involved in the formal procedure and also informally. More specifically, we are answering the following questions: What is being planned? Where can I find information? How can I become involved? What are the relevant dates and deadlines? In many cases, this is rather painstaking and laborious work, but it is the only way to get people involved.

How can I find out if there are plans for a new electricity line in my municipality or region?
You can use the map on our website to gain a good overview. The map provides information on all of the projects that have been confirmed by statute. It can be used to see whether a certain region may be affected. There is a brief data sheet for each project, complete with links to all of the relevant stakeholders such as project managers and regulatory authorities.

We also offer citizen’s consultations and information events locally, bring our ‘dialoguemobile’ to town, and visit town halls and mayors. Of course, we also contact the local press of the regions affected by new projects and keep the news outlets informed.

What can members of the public do if they discover that they may be affected and have questions?
Our regional managers based in the ten citizens’ bureaus will be happy to answer all your questions and queries. You can ask them in person, using our hotline or by email. You can also use our ‘citizens’ bureau online’.

Members of the public who want to play an active role in the planning procedure and the definition of the power line routes should definitely take note of the dates of the public application conferences. We would also encourage people to make use of the opportunities for public participation offered by the transmission line operators prior to the beginning of the statutory planning and approval procedures. Whilst these opportunities are of an informal nature and therefore non-binding, they help project managers gain information about local particularities.

What are the questions the public finds the most important?
There is a large variety of questions and issues, ranging from more general questions about the link between the energy transition and grid expansion to debates on whether certain power lines are really needed, questions about potential technical alternatives and concerns about the environmental impact, the landscape and electromagnetic fields. Which of these questions are considered to be the most pressing depends on the nature of the project and the stage of the planning.

Thank you very much for talking to us.