Issue 5/2020

Stop and go

By Jörg-Rainer Zimmermann, 26 Nov 20
Wind turbine approvals are rallying in some parts of Germany – but not in others. Issues with species conservation have been identified, but not resolved. More turbines are planned, but an even greater number are due for dismantling. Mixed messages for Germany’s energy transition.

No law leaves parliament in the same form as it went in. The customary bickering of German lawmakers over the draft version of the 2021 Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG) currently working its way through parliament is filling the country’s renewables sector with fear and hope in equal measure. A decision is expected at the end of November, and the rules are due to enter into force on 1 January.

The task is immense, as a glance at the state of onshore wind energy shows. By 26 October this year, 494 new wind turbines with a total capacity of 1,178 megawatts (MW) had been approved. The figures are a ray of hope compared to the period from 2017 to 2019, when an average of just 322 turbines totalling 1,118 MW were given the green light each year. Yet this year’s numbers still pale in comparison to older figures. In 2016, for instance, 1,080 approvals were issued for a total of 3,164 MW.

The reasons for the current situation are as diverse as they are familiar. Regulatory requirements linked to species protection and prevention of harmful effects on the environment, a lack of local acceptance and overstretched authorities are all slowing the momentum – and this urgently needs to change. Even when approval has been granted, the path ahead can still be unclear. Wind farm projects often end up in court, with many cases dragging on for years and ultimately preventing construction. According to the association Fachagentur Windenergie an Land, Lower Saxony was recently tied with Brandenburg for second place on the list of German states approving the most new turbines. Only Schleswig-Holstein was ahead with 102 turbines, while much of the south is seeing a slowdown.

Lawsuits have become regular

However, Lower Saxony’s environment minister Olaf Lies points out that lawsuits have been filed against roughly half of the projects approved. They are often filed by individual plaintiffs, in many cases invoking species conservation. Germany’s economics ministry did mention the issue in its 18-point plan for onshore wind, but according to Lies the problem has yet to be resolved a year later.

The effects are clearly visible: the latest call for onshore wind tenders was once again undersubscribed. The Federal Network Agency invited bids for a total of 826 MW by 1 October, but the projects submitted totalled just 769 MW. How Germany can achieve its expansion targets by 2030 is therefore anyone’s guess. Industry representatives believe this would require some 4,700 MW of new onshore wind each year.

If the country is to adhere to the Paris Agreement on climate change, however the picture is different again. In a study for Fridays for Future, the Wuppertal Institute calculated how much wind and solar capacity would have to be installed for Germany to become climate neutral by 2035. It came to between 25,000 and 30,000 MW annually. Either way, researchers like Andreas Reuter of Fraunhofer IWES are convinced that in spite of the growing capacity of modern turbines, it is up to politicians to steer the energy transition to success.

Target in jeopardy

Right now, however, the exact opposite seems to be happening – at least as regards the medium-term forecasts for renewable electricity generation by consultancy firm Enervis for Germany’s four transmission grid operators. Take solar, for instance: in the draft EEG, the Federal government wants to hit 83 gigawatts (GW) of solar capacity by 2026. Enervis, however, expects 71 GW by 2025 and a maximum of 51.5 GW by the end of this year. It is therefore highly unlikely that the government’s 2026 target will be met – it is separated from reality by a 12-GW gap, which would have to materialise within a year. There is also little optimism for biomass. By the end of 2019, Germany had 7.8 GW of installed capacity, and dismantling is expected to bring that down to just 6.9 GW by 2025.

Nevertheless, the government is expecting to have systems totalling 8.4 GW by 2030. The situation with onshore wind is perhaps the most striking. Here too, systems are due to be dismantled – starting as early as 2021. Enervis presents three scenarios. The worst-case possibility involves a net decline of 709 MW in 2021, with turbine dismantling alone removing 10.5 GW by the end of 2025. Other calculations have yielded a figure as high as 16 GW.

To blame for the situation is the uncertainty surrounding the continued operation of older turbines which, after 20 years, will no longer qualify for feed-in tariffs under the EEG. This problem will arise for the first time in 2021. Since electricity trading prices are currently very low, operating these turbines will probably cease to be economically viable as soon as major repairs are needed, for instance.

Call for simpler procedures

Industry representatives and politicians discussed possible solutions on 14 October at round-table talks organized by Germany’s economics ministry. At the meeting, Olaf Lies defended his model of a transitional, degressive system of feed-in tariffs for turbines with more than 20 years on the clock. However, the issue of tariffs could take a back seat if there was an easy way of repowering existing sites with new turbines. This would benefit many in the industry: turbine manufacturers and their employees would sell new turbines; operators would be able to continue their business model using more efficient technology; local communities could be sure of ongoing trade tax revenues; and on top of all that, the climate would benefit from increased production of green electricity, probably with fewer turbines because they would be more powerful. This last point is also important for acceptance among local residents.

Changes to regional plans over the years and new criteria for the selection of designated wind farm zones, however, will make it harder or even impossible to simply replace turbines. And the obstacles presented by the approvals process are also a problem here. Accordingly, the industry is calling for simplified procedures that would quickly allow repowering projects on existing sites. As a result, legislators will have their hands full to get the energy transition back on track, assuming there is the political will to do so. This starts with the question of whether the annual expansion numbers will be significantly increased in order to achieve the near- and long-term climate targets.

There is a small glimmer of hope, however. By describing renewables as being of “overarching public interest”, the draft EEG opens up possibilities. When lawsuits are brought against wind farm projects in future – whether they are filed before or after approval has been granted – the new status could help greenlight the plans faster and more frequently in future. Even so, this passage in the EEG is certainly no magic bullet.


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Stop and go - Mixed signals for German wind

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