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20th May 2022

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German wind energy stumbles

  • A trifecta of bureaucracy, furious local opposition and intra-Green battles on wind energy vs protecting iconic birds like eagles will make delivery of Germany's expansion of wind power arduous at best (Photo: Karsten Würth)
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Germany's coalition government of Social Democrats, Greens and Liberals is promising big on massively accelerating the transition to renewable energy.

The backbone of this pledge is more windmills, bigger windmills, built faster and utilising far more land.

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  • Easier to build offshore windfarms? In thinly-populated eastern Germany, four-out-of-five states ban building windmills in forests (Photo: Kim Hansen)

"Wind energy is one of the supporting pillars of the energy transformation," says the German Advisory Council on the Environment, which consults with the federal government in Berlin. "If it's not expanded far more swiftly, the German climate protection goals cannot be achieved."

Yet even as Russia's Ukraine war adds geopolitics to reasons for more domestic energy, a trifecta of bureaucracy, furious local opposition and intra-Green battles on wind energy vs protecting iconic birds like eagles will make delivery of Germany's expansion of wind power arduous at best.

This is not theory. These are my experiences as our family forestry business seeks to build wind turbines on four different sites in eastern Germany.

Wind turbine construction has been strangled in Germany by multiple constraints. The amount of electricity produced by newly-built windmills has plunged to less than half of the record peak set in 2017 for each of the last four years.

The Green party's minster for economy and climate protection, Robert Habeck, plans to radically increase the number of wind turbines and wants two-percent of German territory to be used for windmills — to enable Europe's biggest economy to produce 80 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2030 (up from 42 percent today) and be carbon-neutral by 2035.

But Habeck's problem is that windmills bitterly divide his followers between those prioritising clean energy and those wanting nature conservation, even at the cost of de-growth. Habeck's ministry declined to give an in-person or telephone interview for this story and did not reply to emailed questions.

Habeck must try to do this in consensus with regional and local leaders, as well as his own Green party. Yet it's unlikely he'll succeed unless the full legal force of the federal government is used to slash laws that — in my view — are designed to prevent the expansion of wind turbines.

A couple of examples

In thinly-populated eastern Germany, four-out-of-five states ban building windmills in forests. My state, Brandenburg, is the only exception that allows them. This blanket ban removes a huge land mass, far away from where people live, as potential wind energy sites.

Across most of Germany, there's an arbitrary 1,000-metre rule (in Bavaria a de facto 2,000 metres) that says windmills cannot be built any closer to a house. In terms of nighttime noise limits this does not make sense. Studies show that windmills can be located 600 to 700 meters from a house and still not exceed the decibel limits.

A report by Agora Energiewende, a think tank, shows that cutting the limit to 600 metres, and allowing wind turbines in forests, would increase the potential land available for windmills to 15 percent of Germany's territory, up from eight percent under the 1,000 metre and no forests rule.

Decibels, and peregrine falcons

But putting windmills in forests inspires fury — even among many forest-owners who would profit from them. I've seen this first-hand in my role as chairman of the advisory committee for a forestry cooperative which manages 17,000 hectares of forest in eastern Germany.

As I have discovered, even where it seems possible to build a wind park, nothing is decided until everything is decided. And, adding a Kafkaesque twist, some things cannot even be decided.

Here are some examples.

At my Kleinsee forest about two hours southeast of Berlin, I signed a contract to be part of a wind park in January 2021. First of all, an environmental impact report costing more than €100,000 was needed. Among its most significant findings was a nest used by a peregrine falcon (which is no longer endangered, as the population in Germany and Europe has risen since the 1970s). There are 600 breeding pairs in Germany and up to 15,000 pairs in Europe.

Nevertheless, under present regulations, windmills cannot be built closer than 1,000 metres (in a few cases, 500 metres) from the nest. For this wind park, the nest means that three potential windmills have been axed.

Multiply this across Germany and it means lots of windmills are never getting off the drawing board due to birds that are not really threatened.

Habeck's ministry says they want to loosen these regulations but Green opponents have plenty of pictures of decapitated birds for their PR campaign. Technology may have a partial answer because warning systems can shut down windmills when very large birds approach. Peregrines, however, are too small for the current systems.

The project developer says that if all goes well — a big if — the first wind turbines may start producing electricity in 2027. That's almost seven years after the contract was signed. And this is a small wind park with just 10 to 12 windmills.

A second wind park that we have been working on for months in the west of the city of Eisenhüttenstadt was suddenly cancelled because the local council said "nein."

And a third windmill which was supposed to be built near Kyritz in western Brandenburg met all the prerequisites and seemed set to go but since there were already a dozen wind turbines in the area, one developer, seeing no chance the local government would approve building further windmills pulled out. The other is slow-walking the project. There is now probably a 10 percent chance it will actually be built.

German polls show big majorities love renewables. Just NIMBY ("Not In My Backyard, Please). And not in our sacred forests.

Unless it changes tack, this one-third green German government, despite the best of intentions, is not going to be deliver on its renewable energy targets.

This article first appeared in EUobserver's magazine, War, Peace and the Green Economy, which you can now read in full online.

Author bio

Leon Mangasarian worked as a reporter and editor in first East Berlin, then Berlin, for Bloomberg news, dpa, and UPI.

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