The Energiewende storms ahead20 September 2022
For over a decade, Germany’s leaders have talked enthusiastically about boosting the country’s wind sector – but between local opposition and the lure of ambitious gas schemes, German turbines have traditionally struggled to get noticed. However, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine forcing a rethink of how the country secures its electricity – and a new green-friendly government ensconced in Berlin – could Germany finally fulfil its wind potential? Andrea Valentino talks to Christoph Podewils at Global Solutions Initiative and Heike Winkler at WEB, to learn more.
In the summer of 2021, Angela Merkel made a momentous decision. Ignoring Eastern European pleas to find alternative sources of power, Germany’s outgoing chancellor pushed ahead with Nord Stream 2. A 1,200km-long gas pipeline, reaching from St Petersburg to the Baltic shore of Pomerania, the scheme would have provided German consumers with 110 billion cubic metres of gas each year – and made Vladimir Putin very rich indeed. During those long-lost July days, in fact, Berlin seemed remarkably relaxed about just this prospect. After a call between Putin and his German counterpart, the Kremlin released a statement praising Merkel’s “steadfast loyalty” on this “purely commercial” project.
Now, of course, everything is different. Germany’s president recently admitted that ignoring worries about Nord Stream 2, effectively placing Europe’s energy needs in a Russian vice, had been a mistake. Nord Stream 2 AG, the Swiss company behind the project, is rumoured to have gone bust. Angela Merkel, now safely retired, released a terse statement noting that recent events represented a “deep rupture” in European history. But if the war in Ukraine has shoved German politicians towards a world without cheap Russian gas, what that means for the future is unclear. This is not an idle question. As the continent’s economic titan, with the world’s fourth biggest manufacturing base, Germans on average use the equivalent of over 1,000 more kilos of oil than their British or Italian neighbours. One solution could be the immense power of wind. If nothing else, the sector’s renewed popularity is clear from internet data. Google searches for ‘windenergie’ across the federal republic have almost tripled since the start of 2022. Nor is that term ‘renewed’ merely incidental. On the contrary, Germany’s sudden pivot away from Nord Stream 2 gives the country’s wind sector a second chance after years of listless investment and nimbyism. And with government officials promising a wind revolution by the middle of this century, there’s every chance that this time the nation’s turbines can truly fulfil their potential – even if the Russian threat may endure in more insidious ways.
A renewal for renewables?
If the latest chapter of Germany’s wind odyssey is being shaped by crisis, you could argue the previous one was too. Reliant on nuclear energy for decades – through the 2000s, the country secured a quarter of its electricity from atomic fission – the 2011 Fukushima disaster prompted a dramatic reassessment. Though the circumstances of Japan’s disaster were largely specific to the earthquake that preceded it, Germany’s leaders nonetheless sped into action. Just days after the Fukushima meltdown, Angela Merkel (she was chancellor then, too) announced she was suspending the extension of her country’s nuclear capacity. Three months later, the German parliament voted to close all its nuclear stations by the end of 2022.
Yet, if events 11 years ago were a desperate blow for supporters of nuclear power, things were rather rosier for German wind. “In the beginning, and in particular after Fukushima, growth was very steep,” explains Christoph Podewils, director of communications and spokesperson at Global Solutions Initiative, a Berlin group that supports different think tanks. “From 2010–2020, we could see a very fast and substantial ramp up of wind power.” Fair enough: as Podewils says, Germany’s annual wind capacity tripled to 132TWh in the decade after Fukushima, and now represents 20% of annual production. And as Heike Winkler adds, pure capacity was also bolstered by an expansion in technical expertise. By 2015, explains the managing director at WAB, an industry body, “the full supply chain was active” – meaning everyone from project developers to service companies were set up and ready to build.
Beyond the demands of politics or the specifics of industry competence, however, perhaps the best way to understand Germany’s historical boom in wind is to study its geography. To the country’s north sit the North and Baltic Seas, both famed for their ferocious squalls. Some parts of Germany’s North Sea coast see winds of up to 10.1m/s. To put that into perspective, the Mediterranean typically gets speeds of just 8m/s. Nor is German geography any less accommodating once you’ve reached land. The north of the country, between Bremen and the Polish border, is an enormous plain, encumbered by natural barriers and perfect for rows of turbines. Unfortunately, this natural bounty couldn’t save German wind from one of the government’s many energy about-faces. Despite talk of putting renewables “centre stage” (Merkel again), politicians gradually abandoned their post-Fukushima enthusiasm for wind in favour of the ill-fated Nord Stream 2. In 2016, for instance, government support for onshore wind was cut by 1.2%.
Spurred on by an electorate that often dismisses turbines as a blight, regional politicians have limited wind’s growth too. In Bavaria, turbines must be at least 2.5km from the nearest house, obviously making large-scale development hard. At times, this sluggishness has even been supported at the highest levels. As recently as 2020, Angela Merkel proposed compensating homeowners who live near onshore farms. No wonder the number of people employed in the German wind sector has slumped by 8,000 from its 29,000 peak, with barely any new turbines built in 2020 or 2021.
“In the beginning, and in particular after Fukushima, growth was very steep. From 2010–2020, we could see a very fast and substantial ramp up of wind power.”
Percentage of Germany’s energy production that is made up of wind power.
When it emerges from the soil of Lower Saxony sometime in 2023, Bartelsdorf 2 will be a striking case study for a new Germany. Built by RWE, and adding five additional Nordex wind turbines to a pre-existing site, the improved wind farm will generate 28.5MW of energy – enough to power around 18,000 homes. Nor is Bartelsdorf 2 unique. RWE is spending $65.8m (€60m) to develop another two onshore farms alongside its plot in Lower Saxony, among them an expanded 45MW facility near Düsseldorf. That’s echoed by frantic offshore activity: Germany’s maritime and hydrographic agency – the BSH – recently approved three North Sea sites that could create 1.9GW of energy.
Just as well: with plans to generate 80% of the country’s electricity sustainably by 2030, Germany’s politicians need all the growth they can get. How, though, to explain this rush back to turbines and wind? Obviously, the conflict on Europe’s eastern edge has helped focus minds – and indeed has led to even more dramatic green goals. But as Podewils emphasises, clean and sustainable power were key to the government’s plans even earlier. “Before the Ukraine war, they wanted to nearly double the installed capacity of wind onshore by 2030, and more than triple wind offshore.” It all stems back to politics. With Merkel finally stepping down, and her ruling Christian Democrats replaced by a three-way coalition of social democrats, liberals and greens, Germany’s new rulers are congenitally more sympathetic to wind farms than their right-wing rivals.
But beyond the headline figures of schemes like Bartelsdorf 2, how does this so-called ‘traffic light’ coalition (so named for the red, yellow and green colours of its members) plan to achieve this sustainable tomorrow? One important area involves changing the planning laws. For starters, Winkler explains how ministers hope to speed up approval for farms, perhaps by hiring more staff to review applications. From there, she continues, it aims to tender more capacity for new projects. That is of a piece, suggests Podewils, with how politicians are starting to think about wind farms more broadly. “It will declare renewable energy projects as projects of national public interest,” he says, describing a system whereby all German municipalities will soon be expected to dedicate 2% of their territory to wind power. Not that local doubts will necessarily be bulldozed – if a town can convince a neighbouring municipality to use 4% of its land for wind farms, they’re absolved of responsibility at home.
That last point is important. For if the politicians in Berlin are increasingly excited about the vast potential of wind farms on land and sea, many outside the capital clearly are not. That’s especially true in Germany’s rich and conservative south. In one interview, an anti-turbine activist recently described wind energy as “schmarrn”, meaning ‘nonsense’ in his Bavarian dialect. It goes without saying that the flexibility of the 2% rule could go some way towards softening these concerns. But even more fundamentally, Podewils claims that the German public is gradually becoming more sympathetic to turbines. Between the Nord Stream 2 fiasco and the shock of recent floods that killed 196, he says that in comparison the impact of wind farms is “negligible”. That’s reflected by the statistics: according to one 2021 survey, 88.5% of Germans now support their country’s energy transition.
Not that the path ahead is completely smooth. Both Podewils and Winkler emphasise that as wind farms sprout up like potatoes, the sector will become more and more vulnerable to malicious cyber onslaughts. Almost simultaneously with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a number of satellites, crucial for the smooth running of thousands of central European wind turbines, all went offline at once. And though Moscow’s involvement in the affair has not been proved, it does seem likely that as the economic battle between Russia and the West deepens, similar disruption seems likely. Yet, though she’s clearly conscious of the threat, Winkler is adamant that the wind industry is partnering closely with officials and IT experts to “work on” these issues. Podewils agrees, noting that using different frequency bands could help keep turbines secure. Given how much Germany’s tricolour government has resting on wind – to say nothing of how often the country’s political class has stumbled into energy U-turns – we have to hope they’ll listen.
The term ‘Energiewende’ is coined in a publication by the Öko-Institut, calling for the complete abandonment of nuclear and petroleum energy.
The German government under Angela Merkel publish the key policy document outlining the Energiewende.
11 March 2011
Fukushima nuclear disaster occurs in Japan, turning a large part of German public opinion against nuclear energy.
Progress on the Energiewende slows down.
Chancellor Merkel forms a ‘climate cabinet’ to find a consensus on new emissions reduction measures to meet 2030 targets.
9 October 2019
Germany adopts the Climate Action Programme 2030.
Germany’s new ‘traffic light’ coalition agrees to boost offshore wind capacity targets for 2030 by 50% to 30GW.
31 December 2022
The last nuclear power plant in Germany is due to shut down.
All existing German coal-fired generation will be retired.