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 supply in 2015. 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 2015, Germany got roughly 14.7 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. Onshore wind power is also considerably less expensive than offshore wind power.

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.

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.

Offshore wind farms are expected to provide power more reliably, as the wind on the open sea is more constant. On the other hand, offshore wind power currently costs up to two to three times more than onshore wind power. Furthermore, 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 2015, Germany had just over 3.3 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. As the turbines go up, people also realize that concerns about noise are grossly 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. For more information on community ownership of renewables in Germany, read 2 - I "Energy by the people".

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.

Germany has steady wind power growth

Germany’s wind sector peaked in 2002, when roughly 3.2 gigawatts was newly installed. The market stabilized at nearly 2 gigawatts of new capacity per year for a decade, equivalent to 2.5 percent of peak demand (around 80 gigawatts).

The onshore wind sector was clearly the big success story in 2014: A record 4.4 gigawatt was added, roughly a quarter of which replaced older turbines that were decommissioned. Another 3.5 gigawatts was built in 2015. Market experts believe that planners are currently rushing to build before the country switches 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.

In contrast, the US is the second largest wind power market in the world behind China in terms of absolute capacity; US peak power demand is just under 800 gigawatts. Americans would have to install nearly 20 gigawatts of wind turbines each year to keep up with Germany's performance. The US never came close to reaching that level, having peaked at 13.1 gigawatts in 2012.