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The real treasure of the Alps

Eisenbrech gorge on the Ostrach: the unique landscape and water are the real treasure of the Alps. These should be preserved while successfully implementing the energy transition. © Julia Wehnert, Bund Naturschutz

A Swiss energy producer is to receive a prize for finding a successful compromise between the protection and use of water: while the head of the Upper Allgäu district authority has approved the building of a small power plant in a protected area over the head of his own officials. Two examples of the tension existing between conservation and the energy transition.

Water, in all its forms, is without doubt one of the most valuable resources of the Alps. There are also major interests where this treasure is of special importance: over 90 percent of Alpine watercourses are nowadays used and exploited to produce electricity using hydropower. Many strategy papers assign an important role for hydropower in the energy transition, for example in the Swiss town of Aarberg near Lake Biel and the Bavarian municipality of Bad Hindelang near Sonthofen.

A power plant at any price

Bad Hindelang has twice made recent headlines: it was once of the first places in Germany to be awarded the label of “Mountain Village” as an acknowledgment of sustainable tourism. However, in May 2015, the head of the Upper Allgäu district authority approved the construction of a small hydropower plant, even though the responsible official refused to sign the authorisation, the first time this had happened in Bavaria. The official was not alone in rejecting the project: the plans were regarded with considerable scepticism by the Environment Ministry in Munich, nature conservation associations and the German Alpine Association (DAV). The specific case involves a power plant in a previously unspoilt and pristine valley in the Allgäu High Alps nature reserve. The Ostrach stream flows through a gorge, which has no fewer than five levels of protection: as a national and European protected area, as a protected landscape, as a natural monument and as a bird sanctuary. The project envisages electricity being generated for 2,500 households even though the power plant will remain unused for up to 165 days a year, as little water flows through the Ostrach in winter. Both environmental organisations and private individuals have now filed objections with various authorities in order to protect this natural gem and to prevent a precedent from being created. The German Alpine Association even wants to retract the “Mountain Village” label.

Renaturing as a business strategy

On the other hand, the 2015 Swiss Water Prize has been awarded to the owner of the Aarberg power plant, BKW Energie AG, for its successful compromise between the protection and use of water. It is the first time that a company has received the prize, jointly awarded by Pro Natura and the Swiss Water Management Association, among others. The Aarberg power plant was built in the 1960s and is the first run-of-river plant in Switzerland to achieve the highest level of eco-certification. The company has so far invested six million Swiss francs in numerous environmental improvements around the plant to provide new habitats for animals and plants. The cost is borne not just by the company, but also by consumers. Municipalities, farmers and other private land and forest owners have also participated in the rehabilitation work. In her praise for the project, the representative of the Swiss Environment Ministry particularly highlighted this co-operation and discussion culture as contributing to its success.

Alpine rivers are not renewable

These two examples show that the balancing act between nature conservation and the energy transition can succeed and that at the same time the thirst for energy will not spare the unique landscapes and water courses that are the real treasure of the Alps. “Our first priority must be to reduce energy consumption in our society and to implement models such as the 2000-Watt society”, says Katharina Conradin, President of CIPRA. This includes a freeze on the construction of new hydroelectric plants and optimising existing plants. Because, as Conradin says, “Alpine rivers are not renewable”.

Source and further information: http://www.alpenverein.de/presse/bergsteigerdoerfer-hinterstein-ramsau_aid_15232.html (de), http://www.sueddeutsche.de/bayern/naturschutzgebiet-im-allgaeu-kurioser-streit-um-wasserkraftwerk-1.2476121 (de), http://www.gewaesserpreis.ch/site/index.cfm?id_art=119000 (de), http://www.srf.ch/news/regional/bern-freiburg-wallis/kraftwerk-aarberg-fuer-engagement-im-naturschutz-ausgezeichnet (de)

 

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