Germany’s Green-Energy Gap

Germany stumbles in its move to replace coal and nuclear power with offshore wind energy

11 min read
Photo of wind turbine.
Power Shift: Renewable sources should eventually replace conventional electric power plants. But the new and the old will probably coexist for many decades yet, as they do outside the German city of Cottbus.
Photo: Joerg Glaescher/Laif/Redux

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.

Sources: Yields–German Wind Energy Association; Capacity–Deutsches Windenergie-Institut; Map–European Wind Energy Association; Generation–International Energy Agency

Click the image to enlarge it

Public opinion turned abruptly against nuclear power in 1986, after the Chernobyl accident in Ukraine sent radioactive fallout over northern Europe and made West Germans uneasy about their own reactors. Popular concern after Chernobyl froze construction of additional reactors and fueled calls from the political left to scrap the nation’s existing nuclear plants. The chancellor at the time, Helmut Kohl, refused to abandon this source of carbon-free electricity, declaring climate change to be Germany’s top environmental challenge.

In this way, Kohl forged a political consensus for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. But so far it is renewable energy, not nuclear, that has reaped the benefits. In 1990, the German government passed its path-breaking Electricity Feed-in Law, compelling utilities to buy all the power that renewable sources on their grid could generate—and at premium prices. The Feed-in Law thus set off a wind-power boom.

In 2001 that boom boomeranged on nuclear energy under Kohl’s successor, Gerhard Schröder. His Green Party–Social Democrat coalition cited wind energy as proof that Germany had an alternative to dirty coal and Russian natural gas in replacing nuclear power. Schröder’s government passed legislation to shut down all of the country’s reactors by 2022.

For that to happen, though, offshore wind power would be key. Germans, like most people, love the idea of wind power, but not all of them like the idea of having their landscapes marred by 130-meter-tall wind turbines. What is more, thanks largely to the 1990 law, most of the sites on land best suited to wind generation were already occupied. So installing turbines in their offshore territorial waters seemed like the best way around these obstacles. And because winds are in general stronger offshore than onshore, planting turbines far out in the sea promised twice as many hours of peak generation for each megawatt of installed capacity (assuming that offshore equipment functions reliably over time).

With these virtues in mind, the government passed its Renewable Energy Act in 2000, extending the favorable tariffs to wind farms in Germany’s North Sea and Baltic waters. By 2002—the year in which annual installations on land peaked at 3240 MW—developers had filed 29 proposals for offshore farms that together would have had a generating capacity of 63 GW, which was equal to half of Germany’s entire installed capacity at the time. Germany’s ministry for the environment (its Bundesministerium für Umwelt, Naturschutz und Reaktorsicherheit, or BMU) forecast that 500 MW of offshore wind would be operating by 2006 and that an additional 2500 MW would come on line by 2010.

Then the plans crashed headlong into political reality. Almost immediately, conservationists and marine ecologists questioned proposed incursions into near-shore areas where millions of migratory birds breed and feed. The BMU handled that challenge by studying it carefully and then, in 2005, designating permissible zones for wind development that were far from shore and in deep water.

As the UK, Ireland, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden pressed forward with pioneering wind farms installed in water less than 20 meters deep and within 15 kilometers of the shore, Germany’s maritime authority offered developers 20- to 40¿¿¿meter waters, located for the most part 40 km or more from the coast. That raised the cost and technical risk of German projects. Earlier, the German government had mandated a tariff of at most 9.1 euro cents (13 U.S. cents) per kilowatt-hour for offshore wind-generated electricity, no more than its neighbors were offering, despite the higher costs and risks.

Boosting the tariff to match the challenge faced opposition from the Big Four utilities that dominate Germany’s power sector: E.ON, RWE (formerly called Rheinisch-Westfälisches Elektrizitätswerk), Swedish power giant Vattenfall, and Électricité de France–owned EnBW (Energie Baden-Württemberg). Saddled with purchasing rising levels of wind power at top rates, these companies were pressing Berlin to scrap the special tariffs being offered.

It was the revival of Kohl’s center-right Christian Democratic Union party under Chancellor Angela Merkel that delivered the concessions needed to kick-start the offshore-wind industry. In 2006 Merkel’s government—a coalition that also included the Social Democrats and the Christian Social Union—made power-grid operators responsible for running cables to offshore farms. That shaved about one-fifth off the average cost of a project. And last year Merkel improved the revenue side of the ledger, boosting the offshore tariff to 0.15/kWh (US $0.21/kWh).

Slow but sure change is, well, in the wind. In a world that’s putting a price on carbon, Germany’s Big Four power giants are warming to the commercial potential of renewable energy. Over the past few years they have bought into offshore wind by acquiring projects from wind developers. Norbert Giese, director of REpower’s offshore business unit, says this shift is critical because most wind developers cannot raise the 1.2 billion (US $1.7 billion) to 1.4 billion (US $2 billion) needed to install a commercial-scale offshore farm.

Turbines have been ordered for more than 900 megawatts’ worth of installations off Germany’s northern coast. Of that, 60 MW will come from E.ON’s 180-million (US $254 million) Alpha Ventus project, a turbine cluster being installed over the next few months 45 km off the North Sea island of Borkum. E.ON will plant six of REpower’s behemoth 5-MW turbines and six more turbines of the same capacity from REpower’s competitor Multibrid in water 28 to 32 meters deep. Sven Utermöhlen, regional director and CEO for E.ON Climate and Renewables Central Europe, calls Alpha Ventus a trial to gain logistical experience with these water depths and offshore distances.

They are getting their money’s worth: Unusually rough seas last August scuttled an attempt to put down 700-metric-ton steel tripods on which to erect the first six turbines. No surprise then that E.ON—which operates globally—will focus its offshore investments elsewhere in Europe until at least 2011 or 2012. “We’d rather proceed sequentially from shore,” Utermöhlen says.

RWE has firm plans to install 30 5-MW turbines in 2011 at the Nordsee I wind farm, its first German offshore project. Many more may follow—RWE took an option with REpower for an additional 220 turbines. But there’s no guarantee. Martin Skiba, offshore-wind director for RWE’s renewable-energy subsidiary, says he’s not sure that 0.15/kWh will cover the cost of expanding Nordsee and other projects in Germany.

Even if these projects get built, offshore wind will generate a lot less energy in 2020 than Germany had hoped for. Just a few years ago, the German Energy Agency (Deutsche Energie-Agentur, or DENA) was projecting 20.4 GW of wind power by 2020, but lately the BMU has cut that forecast to just 10 GW. And even that estimate appears optimistic. “These 10 gigawatts are not going to be installed by 2020. That’s a fact,” says Emerging Energy Research’s de Vedruna. He puts the figure at 8.4 GW. If every turbine ran full out, they would together deliver less than a quarter of the 149 billion kWh generated by Germany’s nuclear reactors last year.

Germany hopes to make up the offshore shortfall by rejuvenating the onshore market for wind power. Tariff revisions last year added a bonus of half a euro cent per kilowatt-hour for repowering wind farms—swapping in multimegawatt machines in place of older, smaller turbines. That can double or triple output from a wind farm, but only if neighbors consent. That’s a big “if,” considering that growing resistance to the sight of giant turbines helped to drive Germany’s wind developers offshore in the first place.

What happens when the wind doesn’t blow? Even over the North Sea, the breeze sometimes abates, just as it does frequently enough on land. There was a day in January, for example, when a stalled high-pressure system becalmed many of Germany’s wind turbines, and just 113 MW flowed from the country’s 24 GW of installed capacity. Pushing renewable energy to an ever larger share of power generation means contending with the problem of backing up this fickle source of energy. Here, too, Germany’s ideas are far bolder than its actions.

The challenge is steep. DENA estimates that in 2020 Germany will be able to count on enough renewable generation at any moment to cover just one-eighth of projected peak power demand, even though its wind turbines, photovoltaics, and biomass-fired power plants may constitute more than one-third of installed power capacity.

In the long run, a more robust grid might be able to import enough renewable energy to cover such shortfalls. German analysts have been in the vanguard of modeling the backup benefits of a trans-European supergrid, in which high-voltage DC (HVDC) transmission lines would provide access to the renewable resources available at any given moment across a broad area of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. Energy-systems consultant Gregor Czisch, for example, has shown that Europe could meet all its power needs with an HVDC supergrid sharing northern Europe’s offshore wind energy, Scandinavia’s hydropower, and North African solar energy.

The European Union embraced that concept last year. However, the idea of exchanging tens of gigawatts of electric power over thousands of kilometers looks positively hallucinatory given the state of transmission systems in Germany today, where wind-turbine installation has far outpaced expansion of the grid.

At present, weak connections between the regional grids controlled by the Big Four’s transmission subsidiaries hinder the distribution of wind power, heavily concentrated in northern Germany, to the rest of the country. Already, transmission bottlenecks require grid operators to idle some wind farms in especially blustery conditions. A 2005 study by DENA led to a consensus plan for upgrading the grid, designating 850 km of high-tension AC lines to be built to integrate wind power. But a combination of tight credit and community opposition has stalled some of these high-priority projects, frustrating renewable-energy advocates. “The grid extensions should have started 10 years ago,” says Hermann Albers, president of the German Wind Energy Association.

Czisch, meanwhile, complains that Germany isn’t facing the future and building the HVDC cables required to provide a backup supply of renewable power from elsewhere. The root problem, says Czisch, is the Big Four, whose power plants face greater competition with every megawatt of added transmission. “There must be an independent state-owned organization that can calculate what the grids should look like in the future,” he says.

The good news here is that pressure from European Union competition authorities forced the Big Four to put their transmission subsidiaries up for sale. The bad news is that until these assets are sold, those companies have even less incentive to invest in better transmission lines.

At the moment, however, DENA has more pressing priorities. One of them is dealing with the spreading opposition in Germany to coal-fired power, which has caused a handful of projects to be stalled, blocked, or dropped. Last year DENA determined that cancellation of coal projects could leave Germany without sufficient conventional energy capacity to back up its wind and solar power. This “power gap,” says DENA’s CEO, Stephan Kohler, could reach 12 GW by 2020.

The gap could even be wider, says Kohler, if energy-efficiency gains slide. For example, the DENA’s analysis assumes that Germany will reduce power demand by 8 percent by 2020. “This is a realistic scenario,” says Kohler. But then again, “last year power demand increased 0.9 percent,” he concedes. “That’s not good.”

Climate activists call Kohler’s position disingenuous. For one thing, the construction of new coal plants directly contradicts the government’s energy-efficiency plans, because only a few facilities will capture their waste heat for district heating. A climate scorecard of G8 countries prepared last year by environmental consultancy Ecofys concluded that the build-out of coal-fired plants would “lock Germany into a high level of carbon intensiveness for the next 40 years.”

Two years ago Germany vowed that by 2020 it would cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 40 percent from its 1990 level, inspiring its European Union partners to agree to a combined reduction of 20 to 30 percent if other countries, such as the United States, contribute their share. But Ecofys, confirming most other analyses, concluded that an increased reliance on coal and an emissions-heavy automotive sector meant that Germany was “lagging behind its aspirations.”

In 2006 Merkel’s government made power-grid operators responsible for running cables to off shore farms

The only hope for neutralizing the greenhouse impact of the coal surge—carbon sequestration—is at least a decade away from implementation. Companies such as Vattenfall are engineering new technologies to reduce the punishing costs of capturing and storing CO2 , but they know they will have to convince the same communities that reject wind turbines and power lines in their backyards to accept the presence of CO2 underneath them.

Postponing the nuclear phaseout would take the steam out of Germany’s coal surge and erase DENA’s projected power gap. Many expect Chancellor Merkel to do just that if her Christian Democratic Union party wins a majority in federal elections this fall. It would be a bitter pill for German antinuclear activists. But most of their fellow citizens seem ready to compromise.

The German Physical Society, a scientific body that has been preoccupied with the dangers of climate change since the early 1980s, has pleaded for continued use of nuclear energy. In 2005, the society assessed Germany’s energy options and calculated that only a nuclear extension would enable it to meet its 2020 goals for CO2 reduction. The society predicted then, correctly, that the supply of offshore wind energy would fall well short of the government’s projections. It concludes in its report (and has repeatedly confirmed) that no other measure even comes close to making up for the increased carbon emissions from coal that the nuclear phaseout would stimulate: “Whilst originally we had hoped to have sufficient leeway to compensate for the loss of CO2-free electricity derived from nuclear power, today we are forced to realize that such an equation will not balance out.”

“I think I could live with that,” agrees Brunsbüttel-area resident Stephan Klose when asked about keeping nuclear alive. Klose lives 12 km south of Brunsbüttel’s cutting-edge wind turbines, its proposed coal-fired power plants, and its 33-year-old nuclear reactor, which has two more years of operation left before its scheduled shutdown. He likes renewable energy and fiercely opposes more reliance on coal.

Shutting down reactors, reasons Klose, will not resolve challenges posed by nuclear power, such as the long-term management of spent fuel rods. “We have the nuclear waste anyhow,” says Klose. But last year he joined a local group working against coal, because he believes that coal-fired generators in Brunsbüttel will pollute the area with mercury and contribute to global climate change. The climate concern has a particular resonance in this marshy region where sinking dikes stand between communities and the swiftly rising sea levels that these people fear.

As for carbon capture and storage neutralizing the climate risk, Klose says no way, raising the specter of sequestered CO2 escaping to the surface and causing mass asphyxiation. “If there’s a leak and you have a 1- to 2-meter-high level of CO2, every animal, every human being within this zone will die,” says Klose. “I think you can’t take that risk.”

About the Author

Peter Fairley, a contributing editor, writes about energy for Spectrum. When he started research for “Germany’s Green-Energy Gap,” he anticipated that the nation’s efforts to replace coal- and nuclear-fueled electricity with power from offshore wind turbines might provide a road map for other countries. He discovered, though, that Germany’s green-energy push has stalled. His article reveals why. Fairley also writes about a strategy to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions from power plants by mixing biomass with coal, in “King Coal Eats Its Vegetables.”

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