The energy transition: When maize fields become a bone of contention


In the course of the energy transition, the proportion of renewable energy in Germany has increased significantly in recent years. But the wind turbines, biogas plants and solar parks this change entails have repeatedly come under criticism. Can such conflicts be avoided?

Symbolic representation of an energy landscape in Northern Germany.
Dr. Peter Michael Link is a geographer at Universität Hamburg’s Center for Earth System Research and Sustainability.

The transition to climate- and environment-friendlier energy sources is impacting our landscape: wind turbines and energy crops for biogas plants require a great deal of space – which can lead to conflicts. Accordingly, at Universität Hamburg’s Center for Earth System Research and Sustainability (CEN) we are currently investigating what future “energy landscapes” could look like. To do so, my colleague Prof. Jürgen Scheffran and I are working with models that simulate developments over extended timeframes. For example, we use what are known as agent-based models – models that describe why, when and how stakeholders act.

Concretely, we have employed such a model in Schleswig-Holstein to investigate how bioenergy needs are shaping land use. Here, every agricultural community is considered to be a stakeholder. We’ve also taken a closer look at four agricultural plants that can, in part, be used as energy crops – wheat, maize, sugar beets and winter rapeseed – and compared the size of the crop fields and the choice of plants in 2010 with the projected development through 2100.

The idea: farmers in each community make decisions about which plants to grow every year on the basis of specific rules. That means they don’t act randomly, but instead take into account the current profit expectations – making them to some extent predictable. The market price, harvest size and demand can be used to calculate the potential profit for farmers.

When it comes to the price and harvest size, in the model we assume that the trends of the last 20 years will continue largely unchanged; in contrast, we vary the other factors for each respective case. In this way we can e.g. investigate how crops change when more agricultural land is available, or what happens when energy crops are actively promoted, such as through subsidies.

The results show: if communities have more available agricultural land each year, the area used for food production doesn’t decline. What’s more, the proportion of energy crops, including maize – which typically partly serves as an energy crop – declines and instead, above all, more wheat is planted. Only external stimuli, like financial incentives, can increase the proportion of energy crops. However, beyond a certain point this development accelerates markedly – changing the landscape significantly.

Our model is unbiased: it shows which developments can arise, but not people’s reactions, for example protests. We can, however, identify situations in which conflicts are likely – for instance when monocultures are created, or when commercial land competes with conservation areas. If residents respond with e.g. demonstrations, it could affect farmers’ decisions for or against particular plants – and the development through 2100 would then look very different.

At the annual “Energielandschaften Norddeutschland” conference (Energy Landscapes North Germany) we bring together representatives from government, the scientific community and society at large to discuss different scenarios and issues. Together we seek to find solutions and to assess new developments. For example: What would change if bioenergy were no longer limited to local use, but could be used throughout Germany? Would more farmers opt for maize if there were also a demand for it as an energy crop in Bavaria?

This content was first published as a guest article in the newspaper Hamburger Abendblatt on 13th February 2018.

Dr. Peter Michael Link is a geographer at Universität Hamburg’s Center for Earth System Research and Sustainability.

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