The six offshore wind turbines that REpower Systems began erecting near Germany’s coast in 2004 make their older cousins look like pinwheels. Each one has three 61.5-meter blades, which in a good breeze make one revolution every 5 seconds, producing 5 megawatts of electric power. Inspired by Germany’s bold vision for capturing offshore wind energy, these majestic machines are designed to withstand anything the famously unforgiving North Sea can dish out.
And yet, these turbines have never felt the spray of salt water. They tower over communal pasture—above sheep munching, bleating, and adding to the world’s supply of greenhouse gases. These turbines are tucked between a nuclear power station, an incinerator, and a cluster of chemical plants in Brunsbüttel, a hardscrabble harbor town where the Elbe River and the Nord-Ostsee Canal spill into the Wadden Sea.
Just a few years ago, many Germans thought that by this time, hundreds of offshore turbines like these giants from Hamburg, Germany–based REpower would be scattered off their northern coasts. After all, this prospect was a centerpiece of energy plans not only in Germany but also in Denmark, the Netherlands, and the UK. But the envisioned embrace of offshore wind power was particularly fervent in Germany, where the country’s center-left political parties hatched plans to double renewable energy’s share of power generation to 30 percent by 2020. But rather than the hundreds of turbines that were to be spinning in Germany’s coastal waters by now to meet that schedule, only three turbines had gone up by the start of this year.
And Germany will not have many more offshore wind turbines anytime soon. German energy giant E.ON plans to install a small test farm on the North Sea this summer. But it will be another one or two years, at least, before big offshore wind farms are feeding the German grid. ”Germany lost a lot of momentum,” says Eduard Sala de Vedruna, a senior analyst tracking wind energy for the consultancy Emerging Energy Research, of Cambridge, Mass., and Barcelona. ”The offshore projects are at a quite immature stage.”
The idea that Germany is playing catch-up with Europe’s most promising strategy for renewable energy is jarring. This is Germany, after all, the country that 11 years ago put the Green Party in government, decided to phase out nuclear power, and pushed wind energy and photovoltaics to grid scale. Today Germany’s installed wind-turbine capacity of 24 gigawatts ranks second only to that of the United States (which has 25 GW). But despite the promises, greenhouse-gas emissions there haven’t plummeted. Rather, they have gone down only slightly since 2000. Germany, it seems, has lost its groove.
The result is a turnabout that would have seemed preposterous even six months ago: ”Everyone in the environmental community is looking to the U.S. now,” says Elias Perabo, who codirects a campaign against the use of coal for Germany’s Berlin-based Climate Alliance.
The dearth of offshore wind turbines is just one of several signs of a slowdown in the country’s two-decade-old transition to renewable energy. Germany’s balkanized power grid, split between east and west when the country was divided and not yet fully knit back together, remains ill adapted to the variable flows from renewable energy. And Germany is readying a new generation of coal-fired power plants—including three proposed for Brunsbüttel.
The story of how Germany lost the lead in the transition to greener sources of energy contains a complex blend of backlash, environmental conflict, and competing commercial interests. It is a cautionary tale, showing in particular that public consensus about the urgency of combating climate change is just a first step in delivering a renewable-energy system.
No country has pushed renewable energy harder than Germany has. And much of that impetus came from one development: disenchantment with nuclear energy, which supplies about a quarter of the country’s electrical needs.