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Michael Krieger is the Managing Director and a founding member of the Competence Centre for Nature Conservation and Energy Transition (KNE) in Berlin, working on developing its international cooperation and outreach activities. We had a conversation with Michael about the challenges that surround nature conservation in the context of the energy transition, especially the safety of birds and bats around wind turbine blades.
Where does your commitment to the environment come from?
It all started 20 years ago, in 1998. I was watching the advertisement before the American version of the movie Godzilla (by Roland Emmerich). Greenpeace had that very emotional clip of a family sitting together and watching television when suddenly a bulldozer crashes in and destroys the living room. A voice speaks about the destruction of a home and then a gorilla appears, around thousands of rolls of toilet paper. Its home is also gone. That short clip moved me a lot and I have been supporting the protection of the environment since then.
According to your experience, what would you say are the greatest challenges of the energy transition?
The greatest challenges of the energy transition are to make the energy transition ecological appropriate, to find technical solutions for a massive change of the energy supply system (from a stable centralized to a fluid decentralized energy production, transportation, and storage), as well as the economic and social impacts of that change.
Why is nature conservation a very important part of the energy transition?
The energy transition is not taking place in closed rooms or laboratories. It takes place in the green field in rural areas. When we started to build windmills and open space photovoltaic, we knew only little about the possible impacts on nature — especially the effects on birds and bats — and landscape. The energy transition aim is not to have negative effects on protected species like the red kite; its aim is to stop climate change which has proven negative effects on a lot of protected species. So, we must fight climate change while protecting species from extinction. It’s our task to do both.
How important is the participation of the civil society and local citizens in planning the energy transition?
The energy transition takes place almost everywhere. It is highly important that we know as much as possible about the surrounding environment where a project is going to be realized. You need information about the best places to harvest wind, to collect sun power, to grow plants. You must also gather information about the surrounding nature; are their nests of protected species, or is there an especially valuable landscape? You must also understand the social situation of the local community. A lot of that information is held by the local civil society, their participation in the planning process is therefore essential for you to get all the necessary information for the success of your project. Civil society is also a solid basis you need to work with, because maybe not everybody is happy with the project, but the earlier you get that information the earlier you can work with upcoming conflicts.
What is the role of public authorities regarding nature conservation?
In Germany, you must bring monitoring data and screenings about possible impacts of the project to nature. The public authorities control your given data and, if everything is appropriate, you’ll get their permission to start with the execution. Normally, you have to do compensations for the impact of your project or you have to continue the monitoring, which could have later on, effects on the operations such as shutdown during bat flight time.
Do you have an example of a public authority that did some very good work in terms of nature conservation?
The administrative district of Aurich, Germany, has a public authority which imposes the wind projects to use a second microphone at the tower where the blades pass to detect bat activity. Normally, bat activity is detected at the top of the tower to cover the rotor area. The reason for the second microphone is to get more data about bat activity because some species fly at a lower level and they are quieter than other species. Technical solutions are a very strong trend how we can deal with bat and bird conflicts. The difference between bats and birds is that bats use a ultrasonic signal for orientation and that can be recorded and used for a shutdown algorithm when a lot of bats are crossing the plant. Birds don’t have such a signal. So, they must be seen with a camera. The challenge is to detect the animal right. Is it a species which could be harmed by a rotating blade and is it coming closer or just passing by?
What are the main conflicts that come with nature preservation and the energy transition?
I am not sure if we already know all conflicts that come with nature preservation and energy transition. We currently focus on birds and bats, and their conflicts with windmills. We see a lot of approaches on how we can solve these conflicts, from good monitoring in advance to technical camera and microphone systems which control the blade movement when animals are passing by. However, we do not know a lot about the effects of underground grid to microorganisms in the soil. That’s also the reason why we, as an institution, have an eye on the ongoing technical development. We should start at a very early stage to ask about the possible (side) effects on nature before we begin with a massive installation of new technology.
How can we avoid such conflicts?
First, the more information you have about the possible conflicts, the faster you can react. Second, the better you allow local civil society to really participate in the project, the smaller the conflicts will be. Real participation is much more than just giving information to hope for acceptance. And finally, the technological development has made huge steps in the past, and that development will continue. I am optimistic that we can cover all energy needs by renewable energy in 2050.
How do you contribute to encouraging the energy transition at KNE?
We are a neutral institution. That means that we are a moderator or mediator. We are not supporting one side of the conflict. We build a space where the different interest groups can talk about the subjects and find solutions together. For us, the energy transition is necessary to achieve a future without nuclear power and fossil fuels. We are not talking about if it is happening, we are talking about how it is happening.
What would you like to see happening in coming years?
The energy transition is happening everywhere on planet Earth. There is no project where nature is not affected. We would be very glad if other countries think about similar ways that energy transition and nature preservation go hand in hand. It becomes a win-win situation.
Interview by The Beam Editor-in-Chief Anne-Sophie Garrigou.