Prince Albert of the noble house of Thurn und Taxis wants to build what would be the world's largest solar park on his lands. But the plans have angered residents who don't want to live next to a sea of solar panels.
While Prince Albert von Thurn und Taxis is more widely known for his enthusiasm for exhaust-spewing race cars, the 26-year-old is showing a decidedly green streak these days, although not everyone is happy with the new color.
Albert, the world's youngest billionaire according to Forbes magazine, wants to take some 195 hectares (482 acres) of farmland owned by his family in Bavaria and build a huge solar park that could, at peak times, generate up to 65 megawatts of electricity.
Former monopoly-holders of Europe's postal services, the Thurn und Taxis family are today considering investing 115 million euros ($165 million) in a 21st Century service: green electricity that could power some 16,000 households.
Another 26 hectares of land belonging to a local municipality would also be made available for solar module construction, making this the world's biggest solar park to date.
The land in this part of Lower Bavaria, according to family spokesman Stephan Stehl, is ideal for such a project. It is relatively flat and is one of Germany's sunniest regions. The solar park would also help Germany reduce its reliance on foreign sources of power.
"Locally produced power keeps the value that comes from energy production here at home," Albert told Deutsche Welle. "Right now, the money spent on oil and gas from Russia or Saudi Arabia creates value there, but not in this region."
It would also generate a nice income stream for the family, which could earn around 18 million euros a year from electricity sales.
Clouds on the horizon
Despite Germans' general enthusiasm for renewable sources of energy like solar and wind power, a cloud is appearing on the horizon.
The small town of Feldkirchen, with a population of just under 2,000, has become a thorn in the nobleman's side. Residents say they don't want to see their bucolic landscape covered with kilometers of glass solar modules.
Mayor Barbara Unger has led a campaign to stop the prince's panels, which would begin around 400 meters north of her town. Standing in front of a broad expanse of wheat and sugar-beet fields, she said the solar project 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 house. But the idea of living next to a sea of gleaming glass modules is another thing altogether, and moved her to start her protest. She and Feldkirchen residents didn't storm the Thurs and Taxi castle with pitchforks, but they did start a petition to "keep our home the way it has always been."
She added that so far residents' concerns have been pretty much ignored.
"Not in my backyard"
Her struggle is that much more difficult, because the project enjoys the support of the small nearby city of Straubing.
City officials are eying the prospect of earning around a million euros a year in taxes from electricity sales because the solar park would fall within Straubing's administrative boundaries.
The head of the Straubing city planning department, Oliver Vetter-Ginderle, does not have much patience for Feldkirchen's "not in my backyard" protestations – 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 told Deutsche Welle. "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 the country moves further down the path of renewable energy, more of these kinds of struggles over solar parks and wind turbines are bound to occur.
In another blue-blooded row recently, residents of another part of Germany forced a baron to cancel a solar park planned for his estate. Since Germany is so densely populated, almost any solar park is going to butt up against somebody.
The Thurn and Taxis family is now waiting for a Munich court to give their plans 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 next year.
Feldkirchen residents admit a court order to prevent the project is unlikely, but they are still holding out hope because the noble's lands are considered a major area for clay extraction.
Still, delays that could push construction of the solar park into next year would make it less attractive financially for the family. Government tax breaks for solar energy are being reduced and the project might be scrapped, which could set a dangerous precedent, according to family spokesperson Stehl.
"Germany could lose the key 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?"
Author: Kyle James
Editor: Nathan Witkop