Hard times for wind power
As Germany’s latest wind power figures show, things are not getting any better for the beleaguered sector. In the first three months of 2019, the number of new turbines connected to the grid was the lowest in 19 years. This trend continued in the second quarter, as announced by the German Wind Energy Association (BWE) and VDMA Power Systems in late July. At a mere 86 turbines, totalling 287 megawatts (MW) – factoring in decommissioned machines yields a net total of just 35 turbines – new installations fell hopelessly short of expectations.
Last year’s 2,500 MW already constituted a colossal decline of 55 percent, and compared to the first six months of 2018 expansion has fallen by another 82 percent. Forecasts for 2019 as a whole were already low at 2,000 MW, but will now probably have to be revised downward to 1,500 MW. By contrast: in the record-breaking year of 2017, new builds came to more than 5,300 MW.
There are various reasons for the near-paralysis of Germany’s onshore wind industry and the continued decline in auction participation – despite higher remuneration levels. More than 1,300 projects in Germany are currently either embroiled in legal challenges, or have been blocked by civil or military aviation authorities. In all, more than 9,400 MW of planned capacity cannot be realised due to these issues, according to a recent industry survey by specialist agency Fachagentur Windenergie an Land (FA Wind) and the BWE, involving 89 companies.
40 of the companies surveyed reported ongoing legal challenges, while 66 mentioned restrictions imposed by civil and 42 by military aviation authorities. FA Wind estimates that the 40 companies involved in legal disputes account for 30 percent of all wind power capacity approved but not yet built in Germany. 325 turbines are affected by the lawsuits, with the highest number of cases in Lower Saxony (66) and North Rhine-Westphalia (58). In all, roughly 1,000 MW are at stake, of which around 300 MW are already up and running. Of the turbines approved but not yet completed, 20 percent have been delayed by litigation (in Bavaria and Hessen this figure rises to 40 percent) by an average of almost 22 m o n t h s – and in one case, 59 months.
“The survey reveals an astonishingly high number of lawsuits. In some regions, almost every second turbine has fallen foul of legal disputes. Meanwhile, expansion levels have fallen dramatically – starting in 2018, but even more so this year,” says FA Wind expert Jürgen Quentin. “The approval situation remains dire, and among the few projects approved a significant proportion is being delayed – if not halted altogether – by legal action, while new projects are being blocked,” he warns, adding that the duration of the lawsuits can have a deterrent effect, with grim implications for the industry’s future prospects.
Besides the high number of lawsuits seeking to have wind farm permits revoked, another notable aspect are the grounds for the objections: the overwhelming majority of cases invoke nature and wildlife conservation, or irregularities in the environmental impact assessment. “It is remarkable that 60 percent of the cases surveyed were brought by environmental and conservation bodies, even though it is perfectly clear that a renewable energy supply is crucial to the success of climate and wildlife protection,” remarked BWE president Hermann Albers.
Another major obstacle hindering the expansion of wind energy in Germany are conflicts with the 59 rotating radio beacons operated by the country’s air traffic control service Deutsche Flugsicherung (DFS). Allegations that wind turbines interfere with these beacons have prevented over 4,800 MW of wind capacity from being realised – a figure that has almost doubled since the BWE’s previous survey in 2015. The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) prohibits the construction of wind turbines within 3 km of a rotating radio beacon, and recommends that proposed wind farms be assessed to a distance of 10 to 15 km depending on beacon type.
However, the DFS has gone much further, imposing a mandatory 15 km radius for all beacon types – an unnecessarily restrictive measure, as the regulations adopted by almost every other European country demonstrate. “Simply aligning the assessment radius with international standards would allow 49 percent of the projects currently in limbo to go ahead. An area the size of Schleswig-Holstein would become available for wind power expansion at one stroke,” says Albers. What is more, in most cases these areas would not be subject to any other restrictions such as proximity to residential areas, Albers adds.
Climate goals in jeopardy
According to FA Wind, almost half of the 1,100 suspended projects are in North Rhine-Westphalia and Lower Saxony. Both of these states are also heavily affected by military aviation restrictions, which have prevented 900 turbines totaling 3,600 MW from being approved nationwide. The main reasons cited are the low-altitude flight corridors for helicopters, and radar systems for air traffic control and air defence.
The majority of the projects blocked on civil (72 percent) or military (59 percent) aviation grounds are located in areas specified for wind power by regional or urban land-use plans. “This is an intolerable situation, as designated priority areas are ultimately turning out to be unusable,” says BWE president Albers. In response to the study, the BWE has drawn up an action plan proposing concrete measures to be implemented by the Federal and state governments. These include amendments to nature conservation legislation or improvements at the planning level designed to speed up the approval process, which suffers from bottlenecks even in undersubscribed auction rounds.
“At the end of the coming decade, onshore wind is supposed to provide half of the country’s electricity, with renewables making up 65 percent of the energy mix,” Jürgen Quentin points out. “If we want to achieve the necessary increase in capacity over the next eleven years, but continue to build only 80 turbines every six months, then we should be seriously concerned about missing our renewables targets – and with them our climate goals.”
A small ray of hope for the future can be discerned in the offshore sector. Installations at sea in the first half of 2019 were also low – 42 turbines totaling 252 MW, as ascertained by consulting firm Deutsche Windguard on behalf of Germany’s wind industry associations. Nevertheless, they were within the projected range – and not hopelessly short of expectations like in the onshore sector.