Renewable Revolution, How Wind Energy Took Root In Germany
Eco-friendly national legislation and hard work on the local level has made it possible for wind farms to blossom throughout Germany. But it's not without costs.
AHLERSTEDT — An hour southwest of Hamburg, the horizon appears endless. Around the small villages of Wohnste and Ahlerstedt, the land is spotted with small farms, pig pens and fields of corn, potatoes and grains. Suddenly, gigantic towers appear, rising up into the sky, dictating the tempo of life in this corner of northern Germany.
Jan Ehlen, 46, is proud: He and four others manage this wind farm of 23 turbines and 52 megawatts for the Awomo company. "It runs in the family," he says. "My father Helmut used to produce energy using peat in the neighboring village of Ahrensmoor. He took advantage of new legislation to invest in wind turbines. The first wind farm here was built in 1999."
An engineer and economist who used to work for Airbus, Ehlen set up his office in an opulent-looking house near the entrance of Ahlerstedt, 5,300 inhabitants, in the state of Lower Saxony. On his computer he monitors the wind farm in real time: the turbines' operating speed, production (about 120 million kilowatt-hours per year) and, more importantly, the amount of carbon dioxide emissions spared. According to him, that figure already stands at 1.8 million tons.
For Ehlen, Germany's energy transition makes complete sense. Between 1998 and 2005, the Socialist-Green coalition government led by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and vice-Chancellor Joschka Fischer passed legislation to massively develop renewable energy and to fight against climate change. Under the legislation, the share of renewable energy in nationwide energy production is supposed to reach 35% by 2020, before climbing to 45% by 2025 and 60% by 2035.
Since then, wind farms have been sprouting all over the country, particularly in the north. "With this energy dynamic, it's not only the big energy groups, the oligopolies, that can benefit. Citizens can also get involved. The investment possibilities in renewable energy are a good thing for the middle class," Ehlen says.
Some see the energy transition as an act of democratization of energy production. In Ahlerstedt and Wohnste, 35 local landowners, or as Ehlen says, "35 families," joined forces to invest together in what the Germans call a Bürgerwindpark (citizen wind farm), to create the company Awomo. Almost all of them live in the two villages. "We built the turbines with the help of the industry giant Enercon, but we take care of the rest: managing surface rights, building rights, exploitation, modernization, etc."
Citizen wind farms abound in this region. Ehlen manages another one that involves 42 families. But there are hurdles to establishing the farms."We talked with the locals, to tell them exactly what it was about. They were all able to express their opinions, which we included in our reflection." There was even a vote in Wohnste, where 800 inhabitants live, says the current mayor, Hans-Dieter Klindworth. "The result was 55% in favor of the wind farm, 45% against. At the time, people were worried that such a project would bring down the value of their homes. This fear didn't materialize. Now, 90% of those who were initially opposed to the farm have toned it down."
Standing at the foot of one of these giant wind turbines, Ehlen says some of the locals had complained about the noise. Three turbines were too noisy because of a manufacturing defect. Other villagers were not happy about the infrasound produced by the turbines. But the engineer has an answer for everything. "When you drive with your car windows open or when you listen to the sound of the waves at the beach, you're exposed to more infrasound than near a wind farm." Wind turbines must be at least 1,000 meters away from people's houses and the noise must remain below 45 decibels.
And the villagers reap fiscal benefits thanks to the wind farms, says Klindworth, the mayor of Wohnste. The professional tax paid by the wind farms goes entirely back into the village coffers, as well as 15% of the profits. "We've also created a foundation that partly finances day-care centers, firefighters, and wheelchairs," Ehlen says.
Technological progress has also made it possible to reduce in part the noise pollution caused by the turbines. As part of a repowering process, the wind farm of Ahlerstedt-Wohnste invested 16 million euros (about $18.8 million) to replace some of its turbines. The new ones are 149 meters high with a diameter of 82 meters. The number of rotations per minute were reduced from 23 to 18 while producing significantly more electricity.
Renewable energies have already led to the creation of 130,000 jobs in Germany, and they represented 35% of the country's energy mix in the first half of 2017, making it Germany's first power source. "We should even reach 40%," forecasts Patrick Graichen, of the Berlin-based think tank Agora Energiewende, adding that the constructions of onshore and offshore wind farms are maintaining a sustained pace. More than 28,000 wind turbines have already been installed in Germany.
Berlin's plans for offshore projects are very ambitious. Germany wants to reach a production capacity of 20 gigawatts by 2030 and 30 gigawatts by 2035. But the government's subsidies policy comes at a cost. The price of electricity for the consumer has doubled since 2000. And, paradoxically, the wind energy boom has not prevented the return of coal plants.