Why less wind power is being generated in Germany
Subsidies for old wind turbines ended. Many are being dismantled. Even if replaced, it could take years for new turbines to go online.
Neustadt an der Dosse-His first wind turbine was a sensation. It was only 6m high, but in the late-1980s it was a novelty in the area around Rheinsberg, Brandenburg. Christian Wenger-Rosenau built it himself and erected it on his parents' farm. The small green power generator was his way of expressing his rejection of the nearby nuclear power plant and at the same time provided his family with fossil-free hot water. If the wind was strong enough, Wenger-Rosenau recalls, the electricity sufficed for the whole household. "Not much, but still," he says. A start.
Now 57, Wenger-Rosenau is still no friend to nuclear power. In a field near Neustadt an der Dosse in northern Brandenburg, he leans against the base of a wind turbine tagged "16996". He wears jeans, a blue jacket and sturdy shoes. High above the field, mighty rotors circle slowly but mightily through the sky. "74m to the rotor hub, 100m to the tip," Wenger says. He also set up this turbine, which generates about 1m kilowatt hours a year. Enough to supply more than 300 households with CO2-free electricity.
This turbine went into operation 18 years ago. Its time is running out. Wenger-Rosenau, who owns four others in the region and is also involved a turbine being set up by a citizens' initiative, will soon have at least three of his wind turbines dismantled. Number 16996 is at the top of the list. The wind power pioneer once invested €850,000 in its construction. The loan has only been repaid in full for two years, but he can now expect to spend a five-digit sum on demolition, even though the turbine is technically sound and could continue producing green electricity for years to come. Wenger-Rosenau shakes his head and grins bitterly. "Crazy."
Until now, he received nine cents for every kilowatt hour of electricity that his turbines fed into the grid as stipulated by the Renewable Energy Act, or EEG. The subsidised price (or "feed-in tariff") is intended to promote the generation of electricity from the sun, wind and biomass. The subsidy is financed by the EEG levy, which is passed on to everyone's electricity bill. This has been the case since 2000. The subsidy is limited to 20 years. In two years, it will expire for turbine number 16996.
Last year, renewable energy producers and climate activists were still betting on a revision of the Renewable Energy Act and hoping that subsidies for older facilities would be saved. But when the law was updated by the Bundestag shortly before Christmas, it did not extend support for plants more than 20 years old.
For Wenger-Rosenau, this means that in two years he will receive only the market price for the power produced by his wind turbine, between two and three cents per kilowatt hour. He says he can't afford to operate the turbine for that kind of money. Six to seven cents is needed just to pay for maintenance, insurance and rent. This leaves the former green energy rebel from Rheinsberg with no choice but to capitulate. He will also have to dismantle turbine number 16997, about 200m away. So much for Germany's much-lauded energy transition.
The German Wind Energy Association estimates that more than 2,500 of the current 29,600 wind turbines nationwide are about to be demolished, leaving behind a serious shortfall in production.
No rise in demand expected
The calculations of the Economics Ministry tell a different story and predict that demand for electricity will remain almost constant over the next few years, perhaps even decreasing somewhat.
However, the ministry responsible for the EEG is pretty much alone with its forecast. It is generally considered a sure thing that the widespread introduction of electromobility, heating with heat pumps, the production of green hydrogen and the proliferation of server farms will cause electricity demand to rise by at least a quarter this decade.
The Transport Ministry even expects a spike of more than 30 per cent, while the German Energy Agency predicts an increase of 26 per cent. The so-called Wirtschaftsweisen - a cabal of the country's top economists - also expect an increase of about a third.
So if the expansion of renewable energy sources is not radically accelerated, the share of green power in national electricity production will fall, putting a serious dent in Germany's climate policy. What's more, in recent years the construction of new wind power capacity has stalled. While five years ago a good 1,600 turbines with a total output of more than 4,600 megawatts went online in a year, last year only 420 with a combined output of 1,431 megawatts were built.
For Volker Quaschning, the situation is absurd. "If the wind turbines of the noughties are now torn down on a grand scale, we won't need to talk about climate protection in Germany any more," says the scientist.
"It is easier to build an ammunition factory"
Quaschning, 51, is Professor of Renewable Energy Systems at the Berlin University of Applied Sciences. The campus on Wilhelminenhofstraße in Schöneweide is located at the former site of AEG , where the city's electrical industry flourished at the turn of the 19th century, earning Berlin the nickname Elektropolis. Even back then, electric cars were being built a few hundred metres from Quaschning's office.
"We have a lot of catching up to do," says the HTW professor. The Scientists for Future movement, which he co-initiated, has just fielded a very concrete proposal to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. An "emergency brake for climate change", which, among other things, calls for the expansion of wind energy by nine gigawatts per year. "We need six times more new wind turbines than today, and we need them now," says Quaschning, calling for the radical fast-tracking of lengthy approval procedures to achieve this goal. He describes what is probably the fundamental dilemma as such: "In Germany, it is easier to build a ammunition factory than a new wind turbine."
€20,000 a year
Existing turbines shouldn't be shut down, says the scientist. At the same time he questions the EEG levy, which is so important for Wenger-Rosenau, because it makes electricity expensive. "It is counterproductive for electromobility and the transition to new forms of heating," says Quaschning. He favours abolishing the levy and instead making fossil fuels from heating oil to petrol more expensive. The market alone cannot yet guarantee profitable green electricity production, he says.
But perhaps this is not entirely true. A number of wind turbine operators earn handsome sums from the subsidised business and can now get by without subsidies. For Christian Wenger-Rosenau, however, the wind turbines did not generate the earnings he had originally expected.
Wenger-Rosenau hasn't become rich of off wind power. For 16 years he paid off the loan for the almost €1m Vestas V52 turbine with the electricity income. He has only been making money with it for two years, about €20,000 annually. "If I'd put the money in a savings account, I would have made more," he says. But that is not the point. Wenger-Rosenau is very concerned about the climate.
However, the fight against climate change has become more difficult rather than easier. Wenger-Rosenau is of course familiar with the banners of the wind power opponents hanging at junctions and on garden fences in the area: "No new wind turbines". When asked if he had thought about replacing the old turbine with a new, more efficient one, he waves off the suggestion. That would require an almost as elaborate approval process as a new one, he says. "That takes three years if it goes well." Twelve years is not unusual, he adds. Tesla, meanwhile, will open its Giga Berlin factory, just 100km away as the crow flies, after a estimated two years.
When it comes to wind power, Wenger-Rosenau knows what he's talking about. Over the many years, he and his own company have planned a total of 160 turbine projects in northern Brandenburg. Together they supply about 300 million kilowatt hours of electricity a year, a source of pride for Wenger-Rosenau.
A year and a half ago he sold his company. He was tired of waiting forever for permits, being at the mercy of bureaucracy and dealing with wind power opponents. Wenger-Rosenau understands that people object to wind turbines being built too close to their homes. He himself was a citizen activist against the airforce bombing range in the Kyritzer Heide. But often it's a selfish defence of someone's private rural idyll, he says. "That's annoying." After all, he says, it is a matter of responsibility towards future generations.
Tinkerer among climate activists
His whole life, Wenger-Rosenau wanted to make the world a little better. When he built his first wind turbine, he was a toolmaker at VEB Elektrophysikalische Werke Neuruppin. Until the fall of the communist system, the plant produced circuit boards for TV sets and Robotron electric typewriters. It was the largest printed circuit board factory in Europe, emplying 2,500 people. When it was closed down in 1991, Wenger-Rosenau retrained to become a social worker. Then headed to Papua New Guinea for two years to work in vocational training. "I taught metalwork to prisoners," he says.
Upon returning to Germany, he continued what he had started on his parents' farm and founded his project planning office for wind turbines. He describes himself as a man of conviction. In the region he has been regarded the Gyro Gearloose among climate activists ever since he launched a streamlined two-seater known as the Jetcar in the early 2000s in reponse to unkept promises by the auto industry to produce a car that could travel 100km on a litre of gasoline.
In 2003, he presented the vehicle at Frankfurt's auto fair. "Volkswagen didn't catch up until six years later," says Wenger-Rosenau, who actually wanted to produce and sell 100 vehicles a year. In the end, only four buyers were willing to spend €48,000 on the car. Later he built an electric Jetcar, but it didn't stand a chance because of the high cost of batteries at the time. The unique orange car still sits in Wenger's workshop.
Now he's built an electric motorcycle and expects it to go into serial production soon. But he remains a "windmiller" at heart. He wants to keep one turbine near Zehdenick to produce green hydrogen by electrolysis with the electricity generated. Does he still want to save the world? Christian Wenger-Rosenau laughs. "Better than just talking about it."