The best years for the builders of wind farms in are perhaps already over. Last year, 1,792 new wind turbines with an output of 5.3 gigawatts were installed on land, the expansion output this year is likely to decrease by around a third to less than 3.5 gigawatts. This is what the Federal Wind Energy Association expects in Berlin. “And in the coming year even fewer new plants will be built, the pipeline is largely empty,” says association manager Wolfram Axthelm.
It doesn’t look much better at sea. Last year, 222 offshore wind power plants with a capacity of 1.25 gigawatts were connected to the grid. But now the pace slackens. Two offshore wind farms with a capacity of 780 megawatts and five further projects with around 1.5 gigawatts are currently planned. More is not legally possible until the end of 2020.
The slack in the expansion of wind energy is somewhat surprising because electricity from wind is no longer more expensive than from other power plants and requires little or no subsidies. “Due to the sharp drop in prices for the systems, the electricity generation costs from wind have fallen to under 3.0 cents per kilowatt-hour in some cases,” says Klaus Öwohlhle, owner of a consulting firm specializing in wind power. “At many locations with favorable wind conditions, wind energy is now competitive with newly constructed conventional power plants worldwide, including in Germany.”
Political guidelines and regulations are the cause of the downward expansion trend. With the latest reform of the Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG), the legislature introduced tendering procedures for new wind turbines and at the same time limited the volume. On land, so-called community wind farms were given privileges in the tendering process, which resulted in almost all of them being awarded contracts. But because the privileges also included long deadlines until the construction project was implemented, it is now unclear when the wind farms will be built – if they will be realized at all.
At sea, on the other hand, the expansion is capped and also depends on how many capacities are built for the transport of electricity on land. “We want to build at least two additional gigawatts of offshore wind power by 2025 because the necessary grid capacities are available,” says Sebastian Boie from the Offshore Wind Energy Foundation. The industry has long been calling for the expansion cap for offshore wind power to be raised from 15 to 20 gigawatts by 2030. This is also supported by the northern German federal states and the trade unions. There are currently 1169 plants with a capacity of 5.4 gigawatts in operation in the North and Baltic Seas.
The federal government, in turn, has had to admit that it missed its climate targets for 2020. In their coalition agreement, the supporting parties agreed that at least 65 percent of electricity should come from renewable energies by 2030. That will not work without a massive expansion of wind power and electricity grids. For onshore wind power there are therefore special tenders of four gigawatts for 2019 and 2020 in the coalition agreement, for offshore wind power an unspecified contribution.
Although time is of the essence, nothing has happened yet. “The legal specification is missing,” says Axthelm. “The parties had different challenges, and a lot has been left behind.” In fact, the responsible Federal Minister Peter Altmaier (CDU) is still looking for a State Secretary for the energy sector and has a lot to do with the threat of trade wars, the coal commission and conflicts within his party had to do in his first few months in the economic department. “Of course, we are sticking to the coalition agreement when it comes to legal implementation, and votes are currently under way,” the ministry said.
It is currently unclear whether even a steeper expansion path for wind energy would be sufficient to achieve the climate targets by 2030. Because from 2020, more and more old wind turbines could be switched off because their funding will expire after 20 years and they can no longer be operated economically. By 2023, around 14 gigawatts of installed capacity are on the verge, more than a quarter of all wind power plants in Germany.