Everyone has been watching Germany’s energy transition – energiewende – with great interest. Much of it relates to deploying renewable energy technologies. Uwe Hessler writes on the Deutsche Welle website about how the wind industry is stalling.
German wind energy stalls amid public resistance and regulatory hurdles
The German Economy Ministry has called 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.
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 closely 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 action against German wind energy projects have multiplied in recent years, leading to a dramatic decline in the number of new onshore wind farms.
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.
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 servant 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 closely 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.
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.
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 to stations that are used for navigation in aviation.
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.