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German wind energy buildup collapsing

Uwe Hessler
September 4, 2019

The German Economy Ministry has held a summit to discuss a dramatic slowdown in the wind energy sector that's threatening agreed climate goals. The problems are due to policy mistakes and growing public resistance.

The broken shaft of a wind turbine that is being dismantled
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Pleul

At the Ketzin 1 and Ketzin 2 wind farms near the small town of Nauen about 50 kilometers (31 miles) west of Berlin, almost 200 wind turbines are gently humming along in the late-summer breeze. The two wind farms are among the largest and oldest in Germany, generating about 48 megawatts (MW) of electricity and meeting the power needs of about 20,000 people. But these days, the farms are facing unexpected headwinds.

"As long as the health hazards of infrasound emissions from the wind turbines haven't been fully studied and the problem of how to store excess electricity isn‘t resolved, we are against the relentless buildup of wind farms," says Volkmar Richter, a member of the local branch of the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP).

Richter is active in a local pressure group that is protesting the planned extension of the wind farms by another 15 turbines. The group has launched a lawsuit against the plan, claiming the new installations would be built too close to the village of Falkenrehde, situated only 600 meters (656 yards) away, and that the turbines would threaten the red kite raptors breeding in the area.

Legal actions against German wind energy projects have multiplied in recent years, leading to a dramatic decline in the number of new onshore wind farms.

An assortment of houses standing against a backdrop of huge wind turbines
In the villages situated close to the Ketzin wind farms people fear health hazards that some experts associate with wind turbinesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Pleul

Wind power drive stalls 

All over Germany, only 35 new windmills with a combined output of a mere 290 MW were installed in the first half of 2019 — a decline of more than 80% compared with the same period last year and the lowest total in almost two decades. In 2018, Germany installed wind turbines with a total capacity of 2,800 MW. That in itself was a sharp drop from 2017, when Germany added more than 5,000 MW of wind capacity on land. 

"The situation in the wind power sector is a catastrophe. We are facing the slowest buildup of capacity in the past 20 years, while the government at the same time is claiming to fully support and implement the Paris climate goals," says Reiner Priggen, a former MP of the Greens and now a chief wind power lobbyist for Germany's Renewable Energies Association. 

According to the German government's long-term plan, renewable energy is supposed to account for at least 65% of the country's electricity needs by 2030 — up from about 44% today. Wind energy, which is expected to become the most important component in the country's future energy mix, accounted for more than a quarter of electricity production in 2019. Solar power, by contrast, contributed just 10%. According to a recent study by the Agora Energiewende pressure group, about three-quarters of the additional capacity needed by 2030 will have to come from wind.

Infografik Germany's energy mix in 2017 EN

However, Germany's wind sector is in "deep trouble," Brussels-based trade group WindEurope noted recently, and its chief executive Giles Dickson said: "The main problem is permissions. It's got much slower, more complex, and there aren't enough civil servants to process the applications."

Public resistance and regulatory hurdles

The German wind energy industry federation BWE estimates that wind farms with a total capacity of 11 gigawatts are currently waiting for approval. Until a few years ago, licenses were granted within 10 months. But the process now takes over two years as many wind projects are held up by legal disputes.

Local pressure groups are suing because they find some of the new projects are being built too close to residential areas. In the southern German state of Bavaria, for example, the regional government has imposed a so-called 10H ban on new installations, which stipulates that the distance between a turbine and a settlement must be a minimum of 10 times the height of the turbine.

Read more: Safety of power-generating wind turbines questioned

Often public resistance is supported by environmental campaigners who are worried about the turbines' impact on wildlife. According to BWE findings, about 300 turbines with a total capacity of 1,200 MW are currently being blocked by legal objections based on alleged threats to endangered birds and bats.

A Eurasian buzzard flying near a wind wheel,
Birds of prey are especially prone to be killed by the wind turbines' giant blades. They have a blind spot in front of them, and look down as they search for foodImage: picture-alliance/M. Guyt

In addition, military concerns and FM radio beacons constitute significant approval barriers, as wind power projects have to keep a distance of 10 to 15 kilometers from stations that are used for aircraft navigation.

In many cases, by the time these complaints are dealt with and the installation of new wind turbines is approved, the registered technology is already outdated.

As part of efforts to boost public acceptance for wind power, the state of Brandenburg recently passed a law that forces operators to pay an annual lump sum of €10,000 ($11,000) per wind turbine to neighboring municipalities.

Double blow from subsidy cuts

On top of the numerous legal risks, there is a growing commercial risk for the wind power industry, which threatens to scare off potential investors. By introducing a market-based tendering model for new capacity, the government forced the industry to cut costs and face stronger competition.

As of next year, wind turbines with a total capacity of 4,000 MW will drop out of the state subsidy scheme, which was guaranteed 20 years ago under Germany's Renewable Energy Law (EEG).

Luise Pörtner, the managing director of BayWa re., a leading renewable energy developer, already speaks of "a massive impact on the onshore wind industry." She estimates that a quarter of the existing wind power could be cut off by 2025 when older turbines become unprofitable.

"We need a great deal of re-powering," says Pörtner, referring to the replacement of outdated wind turbines on the same site. She admits, though, that approval procedures have become so strict that about 45% of turbines approved two decades ago, are likely to be refused today under the new rules.

How to recycle windturbines

Another initiative to boost onshore facilities — the corporate Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) — is also failing to get off the ground. These long-term power supply agreements between turbine operators and power companies aim to guarantee a set price for a certain period of time, mostly five years. But these contracts are considered risky because no one knows how the price of electricity will trend.

Growing investor reluctance is already showing in the number of wind power projects tendered this year. Of the more than 1,350 MW offered by the government so far in 2019, only 746 MW materialized due to a lack of participation in the public auction rounds.

So, the German wind energy summit came at a critical moment for Europe's largest economy, which has committed itself to phasing out nuclear power by 2022 and coal power by 2038. That shift can only succeed if the country manages to expand its wind energy sector significantly.

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