Wind Power Slump Blows Germany off course on Climate Targets

Germany has forged a reputation as an energy transition pioneer, with its “energiewende” (energy transition) policy to flip over to renewables. But as construction of new wind energy turbines stagnates, can it still strike its ambitious climate targets?

By Jess Smee

As politicians struggled—and ultimately failed—to make a decisive push to rein in global C02 emissions at the United Nations climate summit in Madrid, one piece of better news for the climate made the rounds in Germany: Wind energy will be the nation's most important power source in 2019, outstripping environmentally harmful lignite for the first time. But German Wind Energy Association President Hermann Albers was quick to dampen any cheers, stressing that the industry is 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 this 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: earlier this year it outlined plans to boost renewables to 65 percent of the power mix by 2030, part of its new climate targets. Wind energy is seen as a key contributor to this goal, 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, Germany’s renewable share of the total power consumption rose to 44 percent in the first half of 2019.

The country looks set to fall short of its climate goals for next year, not least because of its ongoing continued reliance on coal. This was underscored by Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) 2019 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 further hike its renewable targets following European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s recent announcement of a “Green Deal” for the bloc, seeking to make it the first climate neutral continent by 2050. The plan, which is an assortment of aims rather than binding measures, also includes more ambitious 2030 emission-cutting targets, meaning that Germany as the largest economy in the grouping, will have to step up its game.

Meanwhile the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s recently published Social Justice Index (SJI) concluded that intergenerational justice, in particular, the environmental legacy being passed on to younger generations, “is of grave concern”. It pointed out how climate protection, had stalled in Germany and beyond. Just three Nordic countries managed to cover more than half of their energy consumption with renewables, while Germany covered just around 14 percent of its total final energy consumption with renewables, a figure which also includes the use of fossil fuel for transport and heating. At the end of the day, Germany has a glowing report card for generating renewable electricity - but still leans heavily on fossil fuels when it comes to other sectors like 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. Wind energy, the most important source of clean energy, is being held back, for example by new laws such as the government's controversial 1,000-meter minimum distance from residential places rule for onshore wind turbines 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.

Following in the footsteps of solar?

A few weeks ago, premiers of Germany's five northern coastal states called for the minimum distance ban to be renegotiated, arguing that it threatened a key industry of the future and national climate targets at the same time.

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, which went bust after a boom in the early 2000s, losing its leadership position to Chinese firms.

German businesses are already feeling the heat: Reflecting a difficult business environment, this year has seen wind energy companies like Senvion declare bankruptcy. Key problems are anti-turbine sentiment and legal battles which have delayed the construction of new wind mills, making it an uphill struggle to construct new wind turbine projects. Nordex, for example, has said it offsets its lackluster business in Germany with new business elsewhere in Europe as well as in other markets like 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.

Jess Smee is a Berlin-based journalist who writes for The Guardian newspaper among others. She is an editor for 

SGI News and the Bertelsmann Stiftung's BTI Blog.

First published on Social Europe