Germany has forged a reputation with its Energiewende flip over to renewables. But as construction of wind turbines stagnates, can it hit its ambitious climate targets?
As politicians struggled—and ultimately failed—to make a decisive push to rein in global CO2 emissions at the United Nations climate summit in Madrid in December, one piece of better year-end news for the climate made the rounds in Germany: wind energy became the nation’s most important power source in 2019, outstripping environmentally harmful lignite for the first time. Yet the German Wind Energy Association president, Hermann Albers, was quick to dampen any cheers, stressing that the industry was mired in a ‘serious crisis’.
Despite the glowing headlines, Germany’s once vibrant wind-energy sector is in the doldrums, with a steep slump in construction of windmills last year and a new law which threatens to cripple the industry. Amid mounting signs that Germany’s frontrunner position in wind energy is being blown off course, observers fear that, unless lawmakers throw their weight behind the sector, the country will not reach its 2030 renewables goals.
On paper, Germany has ambitious climate aspirations: in 2019 it outlined plans to boost renewables to 65 per cent of the power mix by 2030, one of its new climate targets. Wind energy is seen as a key contributor, meaning that the nation’s scope to strike these goals could be imperilled by the sector’s downturn. Thanks to the strong performance of wind-power generation, the renewable share of Germany’s total power consumption rose to 44 per cent in the first half of last year.
The country looks set to fall short of its climate goals for this year, not least because of its continued reliance on coal. This was underscored by the 2019 Bertelsmann Stiftung Sustainable Governance Indicators report on Germany: ‘Despite a strong push into renewable energy production and energy-efficient infrastructure, Germany will fail to meet its 2020 greenhouse-gas emissions-reduction goals. Part of the issue is the continued reliance on coal as the country seeks to phase out nuclear power by 2022.’
European Green Deal
Germany might even come under pressure to hike its renewable targets further, following the announcement by the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, in December of a ‘Green Deal’ for the bloc, seeking to make it the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. The plan, an assortment of aims rather than binding measures, includes more ambitious 2030 emission-cutting targets—meaning that Germany, as the largest economy in the bloc, will have to up its game.
Meanwhile, the Social Justice Index recently published by the Bertelsmann Stiftung concluded that intergenerational injustice, and in particular the environmental legacy being passed on to younger generations, was ‘of grave concern’. It pointed out how climate protection had stalled in Germany and beyond.
Just three Nordic countries managed to secure more than half of the energy they consumed in 2019 from renewable sources, while for Germany this figure was around 14 per cent. Germany has a glowing report card for generating renewable electricity—but it still leans heavily on fossil fuels when it comes to other sectors, such as transport, heating and industry.
There is ample scope for Germany to generate more of its national power requirement from wind but, in the current political environment, the sector is being squeezed. The most important source of clean energy is being held back, including by a new law which requires onshore wind turbines to be at least 1,000 metres away from residential areas.
This calls into question the country’s position as a leading wind-power market, as well as the health of the sector. Premiers of Germany’s five northern coastal states recently called for the minimum distance to be renegotiated, arguing that it threatened a key industry of the future and national climate targets at the same time.
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Feeling the heat
If no changes are made and decision-makers fail to throw their weight behind the sector, many fear that the German wind industry might follow in the footsteps of the solar industry. This went bust after a boom in the early 2000s, losing its leadership position to Chinese firms.
German businesses are already feeling the heat: last year the wind-energy company Senvion went bankrupt. Key problems are anti-turbine sentiment and legal battles which have delayed the construction of windmills, making turbine projects an uphill struggle. Nordex, for example, has said it offsets its lacklustre business in Germany with new business elsewhere in Europe, as well as in other markets such as Turkey and India.
Germany’s international reputation, including Angela Merkel’s ‘climate chancellor’ image, is gradually wearing thin—as the reality of its green-energy roll-out fails to keep pace with its lofty aspirations.