Prince Albert von Thurn und Taxis has long been known for his enthusiasm for exhaust-spewing race cars. But these days the 26-year-old blueblood is showing a decidedly green streak, even though not everyone is happy with the new colour.
Once holders of a mediaeval monopoly on Europe’s postal services, today the Thurn und Taxis family wants to invest €115 million ($165 million) in a very 21st-century sector: electricity from renewable energy sources.
Albert, the world’s youngest billionaire according to Forbes magazine, plans to construct a solar park on 195 hectares (482 acres) of farmland owned by his family in Bavaria. At peak times it could generate up to 65 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power some 16,000 households.
Another 26 hectares of contiguous land belonging to a local municipality would also be made available to other investors for solar module construction, making it the world’s biggest solar park.
The land in this part of Lower Bavaria, according to Thurn und Taxis family spokesman Stephan Stehl, is ideal for such a project, since it is relatively flat and located in one of Germany’s sunnier regions. He believes the solar park would also help Germany reduce its reliance on foreign sources of energy.
“Locally produced power keeps the wealth that comes from energy production here at home,” Stehl told The Local. “Right now, the money spent on oil and gas from Russia or Saudi Arabia creates wealth there, but not in this region.”
It would also generate a nice income stream for the family, which could earn around €18 million a year from electricity sales.
But a cloud has formed over the prince’s solar plan, despite Germans’ general enthusiasm for renewable energy sources like solar and wind power.
The small town of Feldkirchen, with a population of just under 2,000, has become a thorn in the aristocrat’s side. Residents there say they don’t want to see their bucolic landscape marred by kilometres of solar panels.
Mayor Barbara Unger has led a campaign to stop the princely project, which would begin around 400 metres north of her town. Standing in front of a broad expanse of what used to be wheat and sugar-beet fields, she said the solar endeavour would significantly lower residents’ quality of life.
“Just look at this beautiful landscape right on the Danube in one of the most fertile parts of Germany,” she said. “We’re going to lose all this farmland to solar panels and residents are worried about the value of their homes, because those values will fall.”
Unger insists she has nothing against solar power, adding that she has solar panels on the roof of her own home. But the idea of living next to a sea of gleaming glass modules is another thing altogether, and moved her to protest. She says she is not convinced by a plan put forward by the prince to surround the solar park with high bushes, which would hide them, in the summer at least.
Petitions instead of pitchforks
She and a mob of Feldkirchen commoners didn’t storm the Thurn und Taxis castle with pitchforks, but they did start a petition, which almost the entire town has signed.
“This land is very traditional and dear to us, and we want to keep it the way it is,” she said. “But we’ve pretty much been ignored.”
One of those doing the ignoring besides the Prince, according to Unger, is the small nearby city of Straubing, population 45,000.
Its city council was not moved by the petition or the ‘no’ campaign, likely in part because the city stands to earn around €1 million a year in taxes from solar electricity sales since the park would fall within Straubing’s administrative boundaries.
In his office over a pile of blueprints and feasibility studies, Straubing city planning director Oliver Vetter-Ginderle says he doesn’t have much patience for Feldkirchen’s “not in my backyard” protest – especially given the urgency of today’s energy and climate challenges.
“Each individual community and each region needs to ask itself, ‘how can I contribute to addressing and solving these problems?'” he said. “Always saying, ‘oh, let the others do it,’ that doesn’t help much.”
Germany’s solar sector is booming right now, and the country is considered a global leader in the solar field, which provides jobs for about 80,000 people. But as Germany’s renewable energy sector develops, more of these kinds of turf fights are likely.
Eco-aristocrats vs the nimby masses
In another aristocratic row, residents in northwestern Germany forced a baron to cancel a solar park planned for his estate. But since Germany is so densely populated, almost any decent-sized renewable energy facility is going to butt up against somebody.
The Thurn und Taxis family is now waiting for a Munich court to give their project the green light. A decision is expected by March, which would open the way for the family to start generating solar power by the end of this year.
Feldkirchen’s mayor admits a court order to prevent the project is unlikely, but there is still a spark of hope that the project could be derailed by a provision that designates the noble’s lands a priority area for clay extraction. And delays that could push construction of the solar park into next year would make it less attractive financially.
German Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen this month proposed cutting feed-in tariffs – set prices utilities are obliged to pay to producers of renewable energy – for solar power generated from open field and farmland sites by 15 and 25 percent respectively, starting as early as April. Tariffs are likely to fall further next year. If the project is delayed too long, it might be scrapped, according to Thurn und Taxi spokesman Stehl. That, he says, could set a dangerous precedent.
“Germany could lose the pole position it now has in renewable energies,” he said. “A solar park doesn’t smell, doesn’t make noise, poses no danger to people. If you can’t even build a solar park in Germany, what can you build?”