Wind energy in crisis as expansion stalls in Germany

The German wind power industry is suffering setback after setback. Hardly any new turbines are being built, and more and more old wind turbines are being phased out. Now wind industry lobbyists are calling for new subsidies and construction rules to be relaxed.

In the Free State of Bavaria there is almost nothing going on when it comes to wind power. According to a report by the Bavarian Ministry of Economic Affairs expansion of wind power has been almost zero for several years. The share of wind energy in electricity production is now even declining. “Wind power is dead in Bavaria” “complained the Green politician Martin Stümpfig.

Bavaria’s Prime Minister Markus Söder had promised in 2019 to have a hundred new wind turbines installed in the state’s forests. But according to the Ministry of Economics, not a single application for such a wind turbine has yet been received. The Greens are calling for the so-called 10H rule to be abolished, according to which the distance between new wind turbines and the nearest residential area must be ten times the height of the turbines. Modern wind turbines are 200 meters high, which requires a distance of two kilometers. That makes many projects impossible.

The expansion of wind energy has stalled nationwide as well. In 2016, 4625 megawatts (MW) of new wind power capacities were installed in Germany, and in 2017 even 5334 MW. That corresponds to four to five large coal-fired power plants. In 2018, the expansion fell to 2402 MW, in 2019 even to just 1078 MW. Last year, too, the newly installed capacity of 1431 MW was well below the federal government’s target of 2800 MW of new wind power capacity per year (see graphic).

Enormous public resistance 

Lengthy planning and approval procedures stand in the way of the expansion of wind energy. There is too little designated space for possible locations and too many lawsuits against projects. The resistance to the construction of wind turbines is enormous in many places. Countless nature conservationist groups and citizens’ groups see the landscape impaired, health threatened or rare birds in danger and are fighting with all possible means against new wind turbines. Frequently, political leaders of municipalities and states are against easing the elimination of wind power locations.

To make matters worse for the future of wind energy is the fact that many wind farms are threatened by shutdown. The German Renewable Energy Act which has been in force since 2000 guarantees wind turbine operators secure subsidies for twenty years. For thousands of wind projects this deadline will expire in the next few years. Without subsidies they are no longer profitable. By 2025, there is a risk of 15,000 MW of wind projects being lost which corresponds to over a quarter of Germany’s onshore wind power.

Technically, it would still be possible to continue wind turbines operating after 20 years. But without guaranteed subsidies many operators find it difficult to survive in the market. At the current low price level for electricity they are hardly competitive. There are already appeals to the federal government to provide financial support to keep the wind farms running.

“We are heading for a disaster”

There are a particularly large number of wind turbines in the state of Lower Saxony. Olaf Lies, the Minister of Energy and Environment, has had to extent the period during which wind power can be taken off the grid without replacement because the feed-in tariff for electricity ends after 20 years of operation. By 2025 there will be around 3500 wind turbines with a total output of 4300 MW. “We are heading for a disaster,” said Lies to the “Handelsblatt”.

He appealed to Federal Minister of Economics Peter Altmaier to pay more attention to the plight of renewables. “If the federal government does not pull the rip cord, Germany faces a gigantic dismantling of wind energy with all the consequences for eliminating it. Repowering means replacing old systems with new, more powerful, carbon-free electricity generation,” says Lies. In particular, he wants to reduce the hurdles for repowering.

Today, this repowering often fails due to height restrictions for new wind farms as well as due to species and environmental protection laws. “We are calling for a national repowering strategy that secures and maintains the urgently needed existing space and simplifies and accelerates approvals for projects,”  Hermann Albers, President of the German Wind Energy Association, told “Handelsblatt”.

In general, the wind power lobby is calling for the construction regulations for new wind farms to be relaxed. More land is to be designated for wind turbines, also in forest. The rules as to how far wind farms must be located away from inhabited areas are also under attack.

Fight for minimum distances

The government of the state of Hesse is planning to declare two percent of the state’s area to be wind priority areas. That would have serious consequences for the last undisturbed forests and the countryside, according to the Hessian Association of Nature Conservation Initiative. Above all, the construction of wind turbines in the extensive Palatinate Forest means “another break of taboos by the red-green-yellow coalition in favor of the wind power industry”.

In the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, a battle is raging over the distance rules. A regulation envisaged by the state government provides for a minimum distance of one thousand meters to residential areas. The municipalities could, however, allow a smaller distance to wind turbines. Green politicians complain that the thousand meters are far too restrictive. According to the Greens, it is “foreseeable that many municipalities, under the pressure of a loud minority, will not want to go below the minimum distance to splintered settlements”. It remains to be seen whether the state government will cave in. After all, it has announced that it intends to double the capacity of the installed wind turbines in North Rhine-Westphalia to 10,500 megawatts by 2030.

To make matters worse for the wind industry there is now also bad data regarding electricity production. Because of “low wind in spring” Germany’s 30,000 wind turbines generated almost a third less electricity in the first quarter of 2021 than last year, the statistical office has announced. The result was the lowest generation since 2018. The gap was filled by increased electricity generation from coal power and gas-fired power plants. Critics of the green energy transition who have been warning about the intermittency problems of renewable energy see themselves confirmed.

Full story (in German)

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June 28, 2021