Green vs. Greener in East Tyrol

A clash of ideas clouds plans for hydro power in Tyrol on Austria's last untouched river

Top Stories | Christian Cummins | November 2012

Photos: C. Cummins

Conservationist Wolfgang Retter walks on the shaded root-strewn path besides the upper Isel River. It’s a well-trodden route for the passionate Tyrolean ecologist. Not far from its glacial source, the river is shallow here. The water is milky with sediment, and it roars over the rocks that protrude from the gravel riverbed. But a metallic chugging sound from behind a screen of trees is competing with the natural sound of the river.

"They’ve started already!" grumbles Retter, a veteran member of the East Tyrol Water Network. The digger is excavating an exploratory hole in preparation for the building of a small storage reservoir that should harness the power of the river to create "clean" energy.


For better or for worse

The plans for a hydroelectric plant on the upper Isel in East Tyrol, one of the most remote regions in Austria, are already well advanced. The building is scheduled to begin in 2014 with the plant starting to generate renewable electricity by the end of 2017. But this project, championed by the local mayors and backed by two-thirds of the local population, has horrified many ecologists, including the Austrian branch of the world's largest conservation group, the WWF. They contend that the electricity gain isn’t worth the loss of the natural state of the river.

It’s a clash of ideas that has posed two very tricky questions for environmentalists: How green is green energy really? And what sacrifices are we prepared to make for a low carbon future?

Two small villages line the upper Isel: Prägraten and, a few kilometres downstream, the slightly larger community of Virgen. The latter, which gives its name to the sleepy valley, recently won a European Energy Award and many of the houses that line the main road have solar panels on the roof. Virgen’s mayor Dietmar Ruggenthaler sees himself as a champion of green energy and he proudly carries around a glossy brochure celebrating his village’s official appointment as a "climate protection community" in 2009. The brochure features a gushing quote from the Austrian Environment Minister Nikolaus Berlakovich: "Virgen shows how it can be done."

How what exactly? The EU has set a binding target to source 20% of the bloc's energy from renewable sources by 2020, and after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, the search for energy generated by wind, sun and water has only intensified. Planners predict that the Isel plant could provide 130 gigawatt hours of electricity annually, and Mayor Ruggenthaler describes the power station as a potential "green battery", which could play a small role in fulfilling these ambitious renewable targets, while also bringing welcome revenue to a cash-strapped economic zone. According to the mayor’s calculations, €400,000 a year would flow into the community’s coffers as soon as the project is up and running.

Many villagers are convinced by these arguments. Devoid of industry or a significant ski resort, the valley could benefit from such a steady income. "We need the money to reinvest in our local infrastructure," says Karl Steiner, a local spokesman of the pro-power plant citizen’s action group, "We need to bring some life back into the valley." Steiner envisages a state-of-the-art swimming pool and better ski lifts. In a local referendum in June the inhabitants of Prägraten and Virgen were asked whether they supported "an ecologically viable" power plant and 68% answered yes.

But the WWF’s Bernhard Köhler says the referendum was misleading. Far from being ecologically viable, the project will destroy what he describes as "one of the most beautiful valleys in East Tyrol". The Isel flows for almost 60 kilometers without interruption from its glacial source to its confluence in the Drava – a stretch of unregulated river that Köhler describes as "absolutely unique in the Eastern Alps". He is not against hydroelectric power in principle, he says, but since there are already an estimated 3,800 hydroelectric power plants of varying sizes in Austria, "this country has already contributed a great deal". According to the WWF, 70% of Austria's rivers have been already harnessed for electrical power production.


The tale the river told

"Rivers are not just there for producing energy; they are also there as a haven for biodiversity," says Köhler, arguing that the reduced flow will no longer transport the gravel down the valley, impacting the habitats of birds like the common sandpiper, as well as fish, such as grayling, insects and vegetation, particularly threatening the German tamarisk shrubs that are seen as markers of the river’s health. "Nonsense," says Mayor Ruggenthaler, who insists that every effort has been made to protect the natural environment. The storage reservoir will be small and the water directed down 15km of tunnels. Wolfgang Widmann of INFRA, the company developing the project, has insisted that the Isel will remain "a free-flowing glacial river."

So who’s right? The WWF has called for an environmental impact assessment before the building can begin in earnest.

Many supporters of the project are angry at the interference of the conservationists that they see as unwelcome meddling in local affairs. Retired baker Fritz Joss holds up one end of a banner reading "We want to decide our own future!" Life is hard in the valley and it is unfair that people "with well-paid and secure jobs come here and tell us what to do."


Nurturing nature

Yet much of the opposition in the Virgen valley is homegrown and is most vividly manifested by the stone "Iselmander" that perch by the river. These foreboding figures, pyramids of river rocks piled on top of each other until they look like grey snowmen, are "the guardians of the river," according to Regina Köll, a 26-year-old opponent of the project. Her family runs a mountain hut, the Goldried. Today she is standing defiantly by one of the stone guardians, below Prägraten, where the Isel river splits into three shallow, fast-moving channels. "They are also signposts to our intact glacial river. We have to protect it."

Köll argues that tourists to East Tyrol are drawn by the region’s pristine nature and it would be economic folly to endanger that appeal. Adolf Berger, a local farmer who also runs an agritourism bed and breakfast, agrees. Besides, he’s skeptical of the authorities' climate saving rhetoric: "The power plant may well be good for the climate, but until we learn to use electricity more sparingly, it is not worth sacrificing the Isel for our energy excesses."

Opposing the project has proved difficult in a community where everyone knows everyone. Köll says she’s had to endure her fair share of dirty looks in the inns of the villages: "It’s a different mentality around here," she says. "People are not used to someone standing up and voicing their opinion, particularly if you’re a woman and young. But that doesn’t matter. We’ll keep up the fight."

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