Energy transition becomes a tourist attraction
At first, the German Tourism Association (DTV), Germany's largest lobby group for domestic tourism, was decidedly sceptical about the "Energiewende". "We thought it would hurt tourism," said the DTV's deputy director Dirk Dunkelberg. And tourism is big business in Germany: the country takes 278 billion euros in tourism-related revenue reach year, equivalent to 4.5 percent of GDP.
"But the tourism industry has come round," said Dunkelberg. "We can use the Energiewende to benefit tourism, not just complain about it."
Despite concerns that renewable energy generation is changing the face of German landscapes – now frequently punctuated by towering wind turbines – some localities have embraced renewable energy production and used their Energiewende credentials as a selling point for visitors.
"Tourism and renewables are not opposed to each other," said Alexander Knebel of the Renewable Energies Agency, a Berlin-based advocacy group. "On the contrary, they can complement each other."
The county of Wunsiedel in the Fichtelgebirge mountain range along the Czech border has been an energy pioneer since the early 2000s and is on track to be energy autonomous by 2025. The region's rolling hills and majestic forests have long been a tourist destination.
But now the Energiewende offers an additional attraction in the form of an 18-kilometre cycle path that takes in its citizen-owned solar park, one of Germany's first municipally owned wind parks, a biomass power plant, and a pellet mill, among other green projects. Free guided tours are on offer at each stop.
"There have been many school groups and visitors from Poland, Italy and even Japan who've come just for the energy path," says Marco Krasser, director of the Municipal Wunsiedel Utility which co-sponsors the bike path.
The Wundsiedel bike path is just one of 190 Energiewende excursions listed in the second edition of a new tourist guidebook, the Baedeker Deutschland: Erneuerbare Energien erleben. Some destinations offer biking, hiking, walking or boating, while others have guided tours. The volume also offers tips on renting e-bikes and hybrid cars.
Cities are also featured in the Baedeker guide, such as the old Hanseatic city of Bremen where one can enjoy a coffee in Café Ambiente's conservatory beneath a 140-square metre solar awning, or a beer and a football game at Weser Stadium, which boasts a solar roof and façade.
The "Country and Energy" project in the region of Oldenburg Münsterland in Germany's north-western corner consists of a bike path of over 300 kilometres with 31 stops, mostly energy-generating farms that have tours for visitors. A team of 15 "energy scouts" are employed to not only to explain the role of renewable energy production in the region but "also to make it an adventure," said Vivien Werner of the region's tourism office. "After all, this is meant for holidaymakers and they don't want long, boring lectures," she says.
Since the tours were only launched in 2014, there are no statistics available to evaluate its success. But Werner says that so far the visitors have been exclusively German, and mostly from within the region. Next year, they'll be reaching out to Dutch tourists, many of whom regularly holiday in Oldenburg Münsterland.
The number of Germans taking holidays in their home country has increased by 12 percent over the past decade – a period which has also seen the number of green energy installations explode across Germany. As of mid-2014, there are 24,193 onshore wind turbines across hundreds of kilometres of German landscape, many soaring to over 125 metres in height. And this is the major sticking point, experts say.
The Mittelgebirge, or Central Highlands, constitute much of central Germany's mountains and forests, from the Alps to the North German Plain. Critics say the turbines deface these iconic landscape and clog the horizon.
A survey conducted by the DTV and other organisations, including the German Mittelgebirge Association, showed that a third of holidaymakers in the Mittelgebirge (over the last five years) as well as potential holidaymakers (in the coming three years) are annoyed by wind turbines in their favourite vacation spots. Of those surveyed, 22 percent said they would decide against a holiday in Mittelgebirge if there were wind turbines in view.
At the same time, 47 percent said the wind turbines are "a symbol of the Energiewende and contribute to a positive image of the Mittelgebirge as a vacation destination."
It remains to be seen whether the turbines will have a significant impact on tourism. Perceptions of the installations vary from place to place. A study by a Kiel-based research institute shows that in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany's northern most state where wind turbines have been part of the landscape for over a decade, holidaymakers are more accepting of them than in neighbouring Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, where wind power facilities are also abundant but relatively new.
The Kiel study found that 45 percent of German tourists say they're aware of wind, solar and bio energy facilities at their holiday destinations, but just 4 percent are irritated by them. In other words, its authors conclude, tourists don't like turbines in the picture, but they're not ruining vacations either.
This could change, say the report's authors, as more repowered wind turbines – bigger than the original structures – are erected, as planned in regions including Schleswig Holstein, which recently passed legislation doubling the amount of land where turbines can be erected.
"It's all about quantity and size," says Dunkelberg. "We've got to find a middle ground."
Paul Hockenos is a freelance contributor to the Clean Energy Wire. He has also written about energy issues for a wide range of international publications and is the author of the blog Going Renewable.