Offshore and solar get nod as Germany tilts from onshore wind

ANALYSIS | Berlin's climate package limits annual onshore wind expansion to just 1.5GW, while boosting it for PV and offshore turbines

Without explicitly saying so, Germany’s government new climate legislation seems to shift the nation's renewable energy policy away from onshore wind, and towards wind at sea and solar PV as the main engines of the country’s future renewable energy ambitions.

The move came unexpectedly, but in a typical move by the government of Angela Merkel of choosing the path of least resistance and muddling through.

Onshore wind installation figures had already diminished over the past two years, and this year collapsed to a mere 287MW of gross additions in the first half – the worst performance in Europe’s biggest wind market since 2000.

The reasons for the slump are relatively clear – a permitting malaise due to an increasing number of lawsuits by NIMBY and nature conservationist groups came on top of the consequences of ill-designed tendering rules in 2017 that resulted in community power groups without noise emission permits winning more than 90% of bids.

German cabinet deals body blow to onshore wind growth

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Alarmed by the loss of 35,000 jobs in Germany’s wind sector in recent years (that number could swell to 40,000 by year-end), energy Minister Peter Altmaier in early September held a so-called ‘wind summit’ in Berlin to counter the decline.

A promised, Altmaier a couple of weeks after the meeting came up with a cross-government ‘to-do list’ on how to revive onshore wind.

The paper includes somewhat vague directives for various ministries and state governments to shorten the process for legal appeals, speed up the permitting process, avoid grid bottlenecks and create measures to limit the possibilities of lawsuits on grounds of species protection.

But it unexpectedly also included a stipulation for a country-wide introduction of a 1km minimum distance between new wind developments and residential areas – a measure that could reduce areas available for onshore wind by 20-50%.

Altmaier and others in his Christian Democratic Union (CDU) argue such minimum distance rules would increase acceptance among the population, a claim that has been refuted by the wind sector. Studies actually show that acceptance increases through local participation in projects, with distance from turbines irrelevant.

In a second, and equally unexpected blow, the government in the climate package announced yesterday set a target for Germany’s cumulative onshore wind capacity in 2030 to hit 67-71GW. That would limit average additions for wind on land during the next decade to some 1.5GW per year. That annual volume is far below historic installation figures and also below the 2.9GW that would have been auctioned off at tenders in 2018 and 2019, if the lack of permits had not kept developers from bidding.

The low target obviously goes against the spirit of reducing obstacles to onshore wind, as stated at Altmaier’s wind summit.

"The decision of the federal cabinet for the 2030 climate protection programme in our view means a worsening for the expansion of wind on land," Matthias Zelinger, managing director of VDMA Power Systems, a group representing wind OEMs, told Recharge.

To reach the government's 65% renewable power target by 2030, the group had actually demanded an annual wind power addition of 5GW.

German policy plans pull onshore wind two ways at once

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The government hasn’t explained at all why it has suddenly lowered its onshore wind ambitions so drastically.

Altmaier also invited anti-wind groups to the summit, and parts of the CDU have become increasingly hostile to onshore wind, fearing NIMBY protests. It is possible that the minister has given in to those pressures, although so far he had not shown much hostility to wind power.

At the same time, the climate package set a 98GW target for solar, which would mean a doubling of capacity from a current installed base of 49GW across Germany. Berlin has not explained, however, how its wants to reach the about 4.5GW in annual PV additions that would represent a much faster expansion than in the past couple of years.

Another winner is the offshore wind sector, which was able to convince the government to raise its 2030 target to a cumulative 20GW from the15GW previously envisaged.

"Unlike the UK, Germany is home to a significant chunk of the onshore wind industry."

The lack of possible protests for projects at sea likely played a great part in the shift towards offshore wind, as it has in the UK over recent years.

But unlike the UK, Germany is home to a significant chunk of the onshore wind industry in the Western world, an industrial base it is risking by voluntarily giving up a large part of its domestic market.

Besides, Germany’s renewable energy federation BEE also has said that by choking off onshore wind, the nation will never be able to reach its target of 65% renewables in the power mix by 2030.

The Green Party opposition has said it will try to improve parts of the climate package in the Bundesrat, the upper house of parliament representing states. The wind industry can only hope that the Greens are able to leverage their representation in most of Germany’s state governments to achieve improvements.

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