Germany is to become greenhouse gas neutral by 2050. This requires a restructuring of the energy system, with onshore wind power playing a central role. However, its expansion in Germany reached a historic low last year. Jülich researchers warn that the climate targets are running into danger.
_Some 70 metres above the ground: a small group is cramming into the engine room of the visitor wind turbine, “Windfang” (wind collector). Everyone is looking up at Horst Kluttig, who leads the tour. The physicist is sitting on the highest rung of the top ladder in the engine room, his legs dangling while a fresh breeze swirls around him. He looks out of the roof hatch, which he normally only opens to get to the anemometers on the drop-shaped nacelle. “But on days like today, when I bring guests up here, then of course we also want to enjoy the view,” he says and lets his gaze wander: over the hilly landscape of the German-Dutch border, the meadows and bare wintry fields as far as the rooftops of Aachen. It is hard to count how many wind turbines there are all around: it might well be some 100 to 150 plants. “A great deal has been done here in the past three decades,” explains the wind power pioneer from Aachen, who, as a wind farm planner, has followed the ups and downs of wind power in Germany from the very beginning._
Meanwhile, the industry is in a lull period, and expansion in Germany has practically come to a standstill. In 2019, no more than 325 onshore turbines with a total capacity of 1,078 megawatts were built in Germany – around 80 per cent less than just two years previously. This has been the lowest level of gross new construction since the introduction of state subsidies in 2000.
Picture above: On-site visit to the EuroWindPark west of Aachen and the visitor wind turbine “Windfang”, one of nine wind turbines with a capacity of 1.5 to 1.8 megawatts each.
There is almost no drive behind the expansion of wind power. “If Germany doesn’t readjust quickly, the energy transition will not be possible,” warns Jülich industrial engineer Dr.-Ing. Martin Robinius. At the Institute for Energy and Climate Research (IEK-3), the scientist keeps an eye on the entire German energy system.
Using computer models, he and his colleagues at IEK-3 designed a cost-optimised roadmap for the energy transition. According to this, renewable energies must be comprehensively expanded, buffered by huge underground hydrogen storage facilities, by 2050. In the future, biomass and biogas are supposed to cover a quarter of Germany’s energy demand. Buildings must be efficiently insulated; they will be heated mainly by heat pumps. The most important prerequisite for the conversion of the energy system, however, are the onshore wind turbines, says the Jülich expert: “Wind power is the fundamental pillar, the backbone of the energy transition. Without it, we will not be able to meet the climate targets we have set ourselves.”
Germany has set itself the goal of becoming largely greenhouse gas neutral by 2050. This means reducing emissions of CO2 and other climate-relevant gases accordingly. The researchers had calculated separate scenarios for the current political targets of 80 to 95 per cent reduction compared to 1990. Yet, whether the reduction was set at 95 or only 80 per cent had no influence on the role of wind power as the central component in the restructuring of the German energy system. Martin Robinius explains: “The only difference is the capacity of the wind energy performance that we will have installed in 2050. In the 95 per cent scenario, we would have to build an average capacity of 6.6 gigawatts annually. The value for the 80 per cent target would be 3.8 gigawatts. However, reality looks different at present: we had only 2.5 gigawatts in 2018 and just under 1 gigawatt last year.”
“Wind power is the fundamental pillar, the backbone of the energy transition. Without it, we will not be able to meet the climate targets we have set ourselves.”
Dr.-Ing. Martin Robinius
There are diverse reasons for the stagnation. For example, the political framework has changed, especially with regard to the allocation of subsidies, but a lack of social acceptance is also part of the problem. In the middle of last year, more than 300 wind turbines became the subject of lawsuits in Germany.
_Back in the visitor wind turbine on Vetschauer Berg near Aachen. Horst Kluttig and his guests have meanwhile left the nacelle and are climbing down a narrow ladder to the viewing platform one level below. The hatches and steel walls are reminiscent of a cramped submarine. All visitors wear helmets and climbing harnesses for safety.
The viewing platform clings to the tower below the nacelle; a ring-shaped gallery, protected from wind and weather. The huge rotor blades whiz past the windows every second. More than 10,000 visitors have already come up here to learn about the technology of wind turbines and their contribution to the electricity supply – but also about the controversy surrounding the turbines. “Phalanxes of wind turbines ruin the landscape, yes, you hear that again and again,” says Horst Kluttig. But it had not always been like that. There were no protests from the local residents against the first projects around Aachen. These only came up ten years later, when more and more turbines were built._
Dr. Hawal Shamon knows the arguments for and against wind power. At the Jülich Institute of Energy and Climate Research (IEK-STE), he works on acceptance research: how easy is it for people to get into a new technology? And what are the reasons for acceptance or rejection? “By no means was an interference of landscape through the huge turbines classified as the strongest argument against wind power,” explains the social scientist. For an online study, he and his colleagues asked more than 1,000 people, mostly with a strong educational background, how convincing they found a range of pros and cons regarding certain technologies for generating electricity – from conventional coal-fired power plants to photovoltaic parks. In the case of wind power, the first concern was the negative impact on bird life.
Annual gross construction of onshore wind turbines in Germany (in megawatts)
Sources: Internationales Wirtschaftsforum Regenerative Energien (IWR), Deutsche WindGuard GmbH
It is difficult to say how many birds actually perish due to the wind turbines. Counting the animals that died in accidents is in itself already a challenge, because some carcasses may fall into a neighbouring cornfield or be eaten by a fox. All these birds will not be included in the statistics. The figures for Germany range between 10,000 and 100,000 fatal collisions per year, depending on the research project.
Picture above: At the bottom of the wind turbine: a spiral staircase waits behind the green door. Inside the tower, its 300 steps lead to the visitor platform. The neighbouring wind turbines can only be climbed via a ladder in the tower.
However, would concrete figures or studies really influence or even change the minds of convinced opponents or supporters of wind power? Hawal Shamon also investigated this in his online survey. Did the participants change their attitude towards the different techniques of power generation after they had informed themselves about the pro and con arguments? The result: most of them stuck to their original opinion. In only 22 per cent of those surveyed could arguments contribute to them at least partially revising their attitudes. However: “In another 16 per cent of the participants, we could see a polarisation. In their case, the preconceived opinion had only been reinforced by addressing the arguments,” explains the researcher.
Dr. Wilhelm Kuckshinrichs, who is an economist at the Institute of Energy and Climate Research (IEK-STE) and was also involved in the study, points out a crucial problem: “Politicians long believed that people automatically accept a new technology if only they were given enough factual arguments. But it isn’t that simple. In this case, new paths will have to be paved that go beyond purely factual arguments.”
Online survey with 2,400 participants
_In the meantime, the group of visitors has started to descend within the wind turbine on Vetschauer Berg – not on a narrow ladder, as would be usual for turbines of this size. In Aachen, a spiral staircase inside the steel tube makes climbing easier. The guests’ steps resound on its steps. It is hardly noticeable that the construction swings back and forth.
“The tower is of course a big resonance box,” explains Horst Kluttig. “You can hear all the noises very clearly here – especially what is happening upstairs in the nacelle: the humming of the generator; a quiet mechanical noise of the shaft. When the wind picks up, it’ll get louder in here in the tower.”_
However, when it comes to noise pollution from wind turbines, it is not usually these noises that are meant. Complaints from residents usually concern the aerodynamic noise of the plants: the rotor blades cut through the air, briefly compressing and depressurising the air masses. Sufficient distance from residential areas helps to attenuate the sound, but the distance which is perceived as sufficient is also the subject of lively debate.
Last year, for instance, politicians argued over standardising the different regulations of the federal states and introducing a blanket distance rule at federal level. A minimum distance of 1,000 metres to settlements consisting of five or more residential buildings was under discussion. In the future, however, this will only be a benchmark; each federal state will be in a position to continue to decide for itself.
“The 1,000-metre distance would definitely harm the whole system,” believes Martin Robinius. “Depending on from which size of settlement such a regulation should take effect, this could mean the end for wind power in Germany.” He therefore advocates for the distance between residential areas and wind turbines be be decided on a case-by-case basis at municipal or regional level, based on local conditions. The experts at IEK-3 are currently developing an open source software which can be used to show which areas in Germany are available for wind power – under certain conditions. Martin Robinius: “Community representatives can enter any minimum distance on a graphical user interface and then see how the usable areas change. This would be an important decision-making aid for the municipalities to weigh for themselves whether and where a plant should be built. In the northern federal states, for example, many municipalities are passionate about wind power. They see it as a promising area of business, and a 1,000-metre rule would only interfere with this. In southern Germany, on the other hand, the municipalities fear for their landscape.”
A strict distance regulation would have hardly any influence on the acceptance of wind power at the locations anyway, emphasises Wilhelm Kuckshinrichs. This is the result of a sector survey conducted by Fachagentur Windenergie an Land, a non-profit association promoting the environmentally friendly expansion of onshore wind power throughout Germany: the majority of lawsuits currently pending against the approval of wind turbines – 72 per cent of the total of 325 turbines – relate to the protection of species. About almost a quarter of the complaints against plants were filed due to concerns of compromised health and well-being. If acceptance of the technology is to be increased, citizens in the communities must be actively involved in the projects: “Involve them as early as possible in the plans and decisions, respond to their wishes, suggestions, but also their concerns. Monetary arguments can also play an important role here.”
A wind citizen’s compensation, that is, a direct payment to affected residents as discussed last autumn, is only one possible model among many. Reduced electricity tariffs or the participation of the municipalities in the profits of the wind farm are also conceivable. A joint project in the form of a cooperative could also lead to acceptance through participation: “In our experience, the feeling of being involved in a plant, even being co-owners of such a plant, has a very positive effect on the local people. Other experts also confirmed this with various practical examples, which they presented at a workshop of the European Economic and Social Committee at Jülich in late 2019.”
“By no means did respondents classify an interference of landscape through the huge turbines as the strongest argument against wind power.”
Dr. Hawal Shamon
_Horst Kluttig and his guests have meanwhile reached the bottom of the visitor wind turbine at Vetschauer Berg. A few more steps on the outside stairs, then everyone has solid ground under their feet again. The enormous rotor rotates continuously far above their heads.
Looking up at the tower, the physicist explains: “Some of the turbines here at the wind farm have reached their expected lifespan of 20 years.” He nods towards a windmill that is standing still. “The plant over there shows clear signs of weakness, it has technical problems from time to time. This means that the older turbines are due for repowering.”
They are to be replaced by more powerful wind turbines. However, since these will also be sitting on higher towers and have a larger rotor, the total number of turbines at Vetschauer Berg is expected to be reduced from nine to three or four. Horst Kluttig still hopes for a smooth transition._
Gross electricity generation in Germany by energy source in billion kilowatt hours (kWh)
Sources: Bundesverband der Energie- und Wasserwirtschaft (BDEW, as of 11.02.2020), Forschungszentrum Jülich/Institute of Energy and Climate Research (IEK-3)
Wilhelm Kuckshinrichs argues that the amendment of the Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG) in 2017 represents a hurdle for the rapid expansion of wind power. Prior to this, every operator of a wind farm had received a pre-determined price per kilowatt hour of electricity – for 20 years. “For the companies, this naturally entailed a strong investment security. And this meant that smaller players were also on board, such as citizen wind farms, which have less money up their sleeves,” says the Jülich energy expert.
However, the feed-in compensation has now been replaced by a tendering model. Anyone who wants to build wind turbines must apply for funding at auctions. The companies offer consignments of wind power. Whoever can deliver at the lowest price is awarded the contract. The thought behind this: the competition is intended to ensure that the providers with the most efficient technology and the best locations will prevail. According to Wilhelm Kuckshinrichs, however, the procedure has contributed to the stagnation of the market because fewer and fewer players are participating. “There are certain risks involved for the providers: they have to invest in the planning of a new wind farm in advance, but they cannot be sure that they will be successful in the tender competition, which would give them the chance to refinance their investments. Of course, this is particularly difficult for companies in which the money comes largely from the participation of citizens.”
His colleague Martin Robinius agrees: “The bidding process no longer works in this form. Citizen-owned wind farms are not given sufficient consideration there. But this is exactly what would be important for acceptance: that a community builds a wind farm and recovers part of the profits itself.”
What is more, the tendering model sets an upper limit to the growth of wind turbines. This is because a maximum of only 2.8 gigawatts is auctioned off each year – which is significantly less than the 6.6 gigawatts that, according to the researcher’s calculations, are needed to achieve the climate targets at the lowest possible cost. This cap was intended to ensure that the expansion of the distribution networks for the electricity generated could keep pace with the expansion of wind power. However, according to Kuckshinrichs, the expansion of the above-ground electricity networks is also encountering major problems of acceptance.
Admittedly, the electricity does not necessarily need to be transported via power lines. “One could go along with the enormous dynamics of renewables and think about using the electricity to produce hydrogen or other energy carriers,” says Prof. Detlef Stolten from IEK-3, who is concerned with the construction and costs of an appropriate infrastructure. For example, excess electricity generated during windy periods could be used to break down water into its elementary components. Hydrogen would then serve as a chemical energy storage to overcome wind and solar lulls. In addition, the gas can be bound to organic carrier liquids and thus transported safely in tank trucks over long distances – without the need for an overland pipeline. “Even if there is no ideal solution, the energy transition is definitely feasible. We don’t have to change anything fundamentally, but we do have to make adjustments in many areas – whether in tendering procedures, distance regulations, approval procedures and public participation – and we have to do so quickly,” says Wilhelm Kuckshinrichs. “Then the wind power industry will gain momentum again,” adds Martin Robinius.
“Politicians long believed that people automatically accept a new technology if they are given enough factual arguments. But it isn’t that simple.“
Dr. Wilhelm Kuckshinrichs
Photos: Forschungszentrum Jülich/Sascha Kreklau, Forschungszentrum Jülich/Ralf-Uwe Limbach