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Case Study: Strategic planning of wind energy projects outside a World Heritage property and its buffer zone

Upper Middle Rhine Valley

In order to avoid negative impacts of wind turbines on the Upper Middle Rhine Valley, a planning and heritage consultancy was commissioned with an expert report on the ‘Mapping of Exclusion Zones for Wind Turbines Outside of the Buffer Zone of the Upper Middle Rhine Valley World Heritage Site’ in accordance with Decision 44 COM 7B.155 of the World Heritage Committee. The study was commissioned by the Rhineland-Palatinate Ministry of the Interior and Sports during the partial update of State Development Programme IV (LEP IV). To counteract the climate crisis, this Programme includes new regulations on the expansion of wind energy and photovoltaics in Rhineland-Palatinate.

Against the background of the increasing height of wind turbines and their potential negative impact, the objective of the expert report was to identify exclusion zones for wind turbines which are of significant importance for preserving the visual integrity of the World Heritage property also beyond its buffer zone, in the wider setting.

The report is based on the ‘Attribute Mapping’ that was developed as part of the Management Plan and a Cultural Landscape Compatibility Study (CLCS). Attributes convey the Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) of the property and must be protected, conserved, and managed. The CLCS, basing on the Attribute Mapping as well, was drawn up to assess (spatial) transformations within the World Heritage property and its (wider) setting using a uniform system.

By determining viewpoints, radii of visibility and landscape sensitivity, conflict potentials caused by the dominance of wind turbines could thus be identified in the report. According to the report’s methodology, the concluding examination regarding landscape sensitivity ultimately leads to the definition of wind energy exclusion zones. At the same time, ‘Sensitivity Mapping’ also makes it possible to identify areas in the wider setting to the World Heritage property where wind energy developments have no impact on its OUV and in which renewable energies can contribute to climate protection.

According to the expert report’s methodology, the final examination regarding landscape sensitivity resulted in the definition of exclusion zones for specified wind turbine total heights, graded from 140 to 250 meters, which are deemed incompatible with the OUV.

With the adoption of the Fourth Amendment to the Regional Development Programme (LEP IV), in January 2023, the additional exclusion zones outside the buffer zone gained legal recognition and in these areas the construction of wind turbines of certain heights is prohibited, as they would compromise the OUV of the property.

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State Party:

World Heritage property:
Upper Middle Rhine Valley


Year of inscription:

Brief description:
The 65km-stretch of the Middle Rhine Valley graphically illustrates the long history of human involvement with a dramatic and varied natural landscape. The strategic location between Bingen, Rüdesheim und Koblenz as a transport artery and the prosperity that this engendered is reflected in its sixty small towns, extensive terraced vineyards and ruins of castles that once defended its trade. As a transport route, the Rhine has served as a link between the southern and northern halves of the continent since prehistoric times, enabling trade and cultural exchange, which in turn led to the establishment of settlements.

See further details at: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1066

Impact assessment carried out

A classical impact assessment was not necessary to be caried out, as the study for the identification of exclusion zones has been developed with a sensitivity mapping, identifying important visual axes and vistas, and assessing the potential impact of wind turbines regarding their height and dimensions.

Challenges identified

The additional exclusion zones for wind energy represent an encroachment on the property rights of landowners and prevent the generation of income (e.g., by leasing the land to wind turbine operators). Especially in the municipalities that are located on the highlands within or outside the buffer zone and that do not participate in the tourism induced by the World Heritage title, the introduction of additional exclusion zones was viewed critically, especially considering the current challenges of climate change and the energy crisis.

Outcomes of the project

As a result of the expert report, the following binding spatial planning objective (Z 163 j) was included in the State Development Program IV: “The Outstanding Universal Value of the UNESCO World Heritage Site shall not be significantly impaired by the erection of spatially relevant wind turbines even if they are located outside the buffer zone of the recognized Upper Middle Rhine Valley World Heritage Site. In the areas adjoining the buffer zone of the Upper Middle Rhine Valley World Heritage Site that are particularly sensitive to wind energy utilization, the erection of wind turbines beyond specified total heights is excluded. The binding demarcation of exclusion zones for wind energy, graded according to wind turbine total heights, can be derived from the maps 20 d through 20 h and the table for the maps 20 d through 20 h.”

The fourth partial update of the State Development Program IV has been legally binding since January 31, 2023. As of that date, any plans for the development of wind turbines within the exclusion areas can be vetoed based on Article 12 Federal Spatial Planning Act (ROG) and Article 19 State Spatial Planning Act (LPIG).

Any turbines already approved or erected will be safeguarded according to the status quo. Repowering existing turbines will only be possible up to the respective exclusion height. This means that instruments of protection are in place to withhold the approval of wind turbines that could negatively impact the World Heritage Site’s OUV and its attributes. With this regulation, the Federal State of Rheinland Palatinate complies with the requests made in Decision 44 COM 7B.155 by the World Heritage Committee.

Important lessons learned from the project

The differentiated consideration of the attributes of the World Heritage property and the analysis of its landscape sensitivity are important baselines that can also be used in impact assessments of other infrastructure projects. Future impact assessments can build on the methodology of the conducted study. At the same time, the methodology can also be used to identify areas that have lower sensitivity and where infrastructure measures have no or a little impact on OUV.

The methodology also allows project developers and bodies responsible for a project to explain the reasons for a project refusal in a transparent and consistent way, thus contributing to an increase in the acceptance of decisions.

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