Technology as a key issue

Wind power

Germany began switching to renewables primarily with wind power in the early 1990s. Nowadays, onshore wind power is the cheapest source of new renewable power and made up roughly 12 percent of the country's power production in 2016. What's more, the onshore sector is largely driven by midsize firms, cooperatives and small investors. Both of those aspects will, however, be different in the fledgling offshore wind sector. In the first round of onshore wind auctions, 96 percent of the volume went to projects that met the legal definition of "citizen projects".

In 2016, Germany got roughly 12 percent of its electricity from wind turbines, almost all of which were onshore. By 2020, Germany plans to roughly triple the share of wind power (both onshore and offshore). But the fledgling offshore sector differs greatly from traditional onshore wind; while the latter mostly consists of midsize firms and distributed wind projects owned largely by communities and small investors, the former is almost entirely in the hands of large corporations and utilities, many of which initially opposed the switch to renewables. The traditional onshore sector therefore argues that older onshore wind farms should be repowered; turbine technology has made great advances since the 1990s, so far fewer turbines can now produce much more power. Roughly 15 percent of the new turbines added in 2016 replaced old ones. Since 2014, offshore wind power production had grown nearly ninefold from 1.4 TWh to 12.4 TWh.

Repowering is an important issue in Germany. Because the wind sector has been at work here for two decades, the first wind farms that received feed-in tariffs have reached the end of their service lives, and even the ones that still have a few years left do not use the available space as efficiently as the latest turbines can. After all, the output of an average turbine installed today is about ten times greater than that of the average turbine made in the mid-1990s. In other words, by replacing old turbines with new ones – by repowering – we can produce ever greater amounts of wind power even as we reduce the visual impact of wind farms. For instance, turbines in 2016 had a rated capacity roughly twice as large as those installed in 2000, and several times greater than those installed in the mid-1990's.

Germany also has plans for offshore wind power: the government aims to have 6.5 gigawatts installed in German waters by 2020, and 15 GW by 2030. 2015 was a record year for offshore wind in Germany, with some 2.2 GW newly installed, bringing the total up to 3.3 GW. In 2010, Germany's first offshore wind farm – the Alpha Ventus test field – was connected to the grid, followed by Bard 1 and Baltic 1, the first commercial wind farms, in 2011. Permits have already been granted for an additional 20 offshore wind farms within Germany's Exclusive Economic Zone in the North Sea along with three in the Baltic. In 2016, 818 MW was added in offshore wind capacity.

Offshore wind farms are expected to provide power more reliably, as the wind on the open sea is more constant. Recent auctions produced prices for offshore wind in line with expected wholesale prices by 2025. Nonetheless, the German wind sector is somewhat lukewarm about offshore wind power because these projects are firmly in the hands of large corporations, whereas onshore wind in Germany is largely owned by citizens; indeed, the Merkel government's support for offshore wind is sometimes interpreted as a special incentive for Germany's largest power companies, whose nuclear plants the government is shutting down. At the end of 2016, Germany had just over 4.1 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity completed.

Increasing acceptance of onshore wind

In contrast, the German wind sector has traditionally consisted of community-owned projects that grow "organically": a few turbines are put up, and when the community realizes what good returns the wind farm provides its investors, more people want to get involved and install new turbines. In the first round of onshore wind auctions held in 2017, special conditions were set for bids that fit the definition of "citizen projects". Specifically, the environmental impact assessment did not yet have to be available at the time of bidding, and these "citizen projects" were eligible for the highest winning bid price regardless of the price at which they actually bid. As a result, more than 96 percent of the first auction round went to these specific projects. Even Green Party representatives feel that this share is too high, so future auctions are likely to be redesigned as to allow for commercial bidders to have a share of the cake as well. There have also been first reports that numerous commercial players have already gamed the system so as to compete as a "citizen project" by getting their own employees to act as independent citizen investors.

As the turbines go up, people also realize that concerns about noise are exaggerated. Internationally, concern about the health impact of wind turbines is restricted to places with very few of them. Health effects are less an issue in the debates in Germany and Denmark, the two countries with the greatest density of wind turbines. On the contrary, people realize that the health effects are positive when clean wind power replaces dirty coal power and potentially dangerous nuclear power. Finally, as the wind farms grow, people get used to the "visual impact" and start to see the turbines as no more intrusive than power pylons, buildings, and roads – and less noisy than cars.

Thanks to the technical developments seen in recent years, the use of wind power has also become more attractive in inland regions. In southern Germany – especially in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg, which still has very little wind power – planning barriers were removed to facilitate the installation of wind turbines on hillsides and in forests. At the same time, new turbines must fulfill strict ecological criteria. The state of Baden-Württemberg – which for the first time ever has a government led by the Green Party – plans to increase its annual newly installed capacity significantly, reaching ten percent wind power in the power sector by 2020. Baden-Württemberg is one of Germany's most economically strong states.

The onshore wind sector was clearly a big success story in 2016: A 4.3 gigawatts were added after record 4.4 gigawatts in 2014, roughly a quarter of which replaced older turbines that were decommissioned. Another 3.5 gigawatts was built in 2015. Market experts believe that planners rushed to build before the country switched from feed-in tariffs to auctions in 2017. In addition, a number of federal states improved the conditions for onshore wind, removing some of the barriers for wind installations.