Onshore wind energy is a fundamental component of the energy transition. However, the expansion of wind power has recently stalled. Tenders, public protests, species protection and competition for land are dominating the discussion. What needs to happen to spark a new dynamic? We will explore this subject in the third part of our series "The Future of Energy”:

Onshore wind energy - the controversial workhorse of the energy transition

Wind turbines are already a fundamental part of Germany's energy supply. Together with offshore turbines, close to 30,000 turbines generated 27 percent of Germany's electricity supply last year. However, expansion has stalled since the reform of the Renewable Energy Sources Act (Erneuerbare-Energien-Gesetz or EEG) in 2017, which introduced a process of open competitive bidding. The construction of new wind turbines fell drastically, in some cases by up to 80 percent compared to the previous years, with figures only rising slightly from 2020 onward. Since first-generation wind turbines are no longer eligible for subsidies and ceasing operation after 20 years, there is even a risk of a net reduction in wind-energy capacity. What exactly are the problems?

Most importantly, there is considerable grassroots opposition to wind energy. "Yes to renewables, but not in my backyard (NIMBY)," many opponents argue. According to them, the turbines disfigure landscapes, cast moving shadows, and cause health issues when built close to residential areas. Many environmentalists also point to the estimated 100,000 birds killed by wind turbines each year in Germany. This number, though, is small compared to the 18 million birds that die each year from glass facades and windows. Nevertheless, rare species, especially birds of prey like the red kite, are under threat, conservationists contend.

Legislators too are setting up new hurdles. Planning is taking longer and longer: expert opinions, regional development plans, local resistance, red tape. It frequently takes five to eight years to complete building a turbine, not even including lawsuits.

Minimum-distance requirements on the state level

Not only has the switch to open competitive bidding considerably slowed down the expansion of wind energy, but laws like the one passed in North Rhine-Westphalia in July, which stipulates a minimum distance of 1,000 meters from residential buildings, are making the search for suitable sites much more difficult. This was preceded by the federal government's decision to leave minimum-distance regulations up to the states. Other states like Bavaria have similarly restrictive distancing regulations (so-called “10H-rule”). In addition, there is a strong north-south divide. While there are significantly more wind turbines in Lower Saxony and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania due to high citizen approval, lower population density and better wind conditions, hardly any turbines are being built in Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria (where in contrast solar power is more widely spread). However, since these economic powerhouses have a higher energy demand, a “southern quota” in the most recent reform of the EEG is intended to boost expansion south of the grid bottleneck. The quota reserves 15 percent of allocations through the federal bidding process for southern Germany. It is not yet clear, though, whether the quota is compatible with EU competition law.

These uncertainties in the construction of wind turbines are driving away small private investors in particular, for whom much is at stake. As a result, a steadily bigger share of the contracts is awarded to large investors and companies. Yet even these are often reluctant to take part in the call for bids by the Federal Network Agency (BNetzA), while the ceiling for bids is not always reached. In the call for bids of May this year, the BNetzA reduced the total volume for the first time because of the risk of not reaching the quota. Hence there was less demand for new projects than intended by the federal government. Paradoxically, this gap drives upwards the subsidies in ct/kWh compared to the previous remuneration model of the EEG, as the competitive pressure among companies shrinks.

Approval through participation

One approach to increase citizens’ acceptance of turbines is to let the adjacent communities participate in the revenues – money makes the energy turnaround go round. With the latest EEG reform, municipalities can be paid 0.2 ct/kWh. Depending on the model and the location of the turbine, this corresponds to about 10,000 to 30,000 euro per year. The operator is reimbursed by the grid operator via a surcharge paid by consumers. Small communities in particular thus have an incentive to consider wind turbines an investment rather than obstacle.

For higher efficiency, wind turbines are steadily increasing in size. Through so-called "repowering," older turbines are replaced by larger ones with a considerably higher output. This approach is particularly cost-effective because the required infrastructure is already in place. Dismantled turbines can for the most part be recycled, with the exception of the rotor blades. These are made of plastic fibers and resins that are difficult to recycle, but innovations from ongoing research might eventually change this picture. In September 2021, a federal law to reduce requirements and facilitate repowering by lowering regulatory hurdles came into force.

A matter of space

Without a significant expansion of wind energy, Germany cannot achieve its climate targets. The next federal government will have to adjust the legal requirements in order to facilitate and accelerate this course. In the long term, expansion will happen only if citizens approve. At the same time, environmental concerns must be taken into account. Then there is the issue of which areas are actually available for the increasing number of wind turbines. In recent public debates, the goal of allocating 2 percent of the federal territory to wind parks has been brought up. It is unrealistic to assume that we can reconcile all these conflicting points of view. The headwinds look strong for the coalition to come.