Despite their surging popularity in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, the Greens did badly in the Oct. 27 election in the German state of Thuringia, and the nationalists from the Alternative for Germany Party (AfD) did very well. An important reason is that the Greens support wind energy and the AfD militates against wind turbines. The giant terrestrial windmills have grown so unpopular in neighboring communities that their construction in Germany has all but ground to a halt.
There are nearly 30,000 wind turbines in Germany, more than anywhere else in Europe. Only China and the U.S., both much bigger countries, have more. Germany gets 23.5% of its energy from wind this year; it’s the biggest source of renewable energy for the country. But in the first half of 2019, only 35 wind turbines were added — an 82% drop compared with the first six months of 2018. Last year was bad, too: Just 743 turbines were added, compared with 1,792 in 2017.
This is happening because it’s getting harder to get permission to erect the turbine towers. Local regulations are getting stricter. Bavaria decided back in 2014 that the distance between a wind turbine and the nearest housing must be 10 times the height of the mast, which given the density of dwellings makes it hard to find a spot anywhere. Wind energy development is practically stalled in the state now. Brandenburg, the state surrounding Berlin, passed a law this year demanding that wind-farm operators pay 10,000 euros ($11,100) per turbine each year to communities within 3 kilometers of the windmills.
Wind projects are also often rejected or stalled because they’re deemed to interfere with military communications, air traffic control or broadcast radio stations.
Besides, local opponents of the wind farms often go to court to stall new developments or even have existing towers dismantled. According to the wind-industry lobby BWE, 325 turbine installations with a total capacity of more than 1 gigawatt (some 2% of the country’s total installed capacity) are tied up in litigation. The irony is that the litigants are often just as “green” as the wind-energy proponents — one is the large conservation organization NABU, which says it’s not against wind energy as such but merely demands that installations are planned with preserving nature in mind. Almost half of the complaints are meant to protect various bird and bat species; others claim the turbines make too much noise or emit too much low-frequency infrasound. Regardless of the validity of such claims, projects get tied up in the courts even after jumping through the many hoops necessary for a permit.
Another reason for local resistance to the wind farms is a form of Nimbyism: People hate the way the wind towers change landscapes. There’s even a German word for it, Verspargelung, roughly translated as pollution with giant asparagus sticks. In Thuringia, locals were appalled by a plan of the outgoing state government (which includes the Greens) to carve two areas for the turbines from a beloved forest. There are 40 citizens’ groups working against more windmills in the small state of 2 million people, and they appear to be getting results: Only six towers have been erected so far this year, compared with 51 in 2017. Even though most of the initiatives are environmentally motivated and the activists want nothing to do with the AfD, ordinary voters who want to see fewer windmills built go with the party that promises to stop the projects.
This nasty political and regulatory climate creates too much uncertainty for investors, just as the German government prepares to phase out wind-energy subsidies. That a vicious circle will ensue, understandably, worries the renewables industry. A recent study carried out for the engineering lobby group VDMA predicted that, if the current obstacles persist, employment in the onshore wind industry, which stands at 64,200 people today, will drop by 27% by 2030.
Meanwhile, the German government, aware of the difficulties with wind development, has been trying to shift the emphasis with its ambitious new energy plans to solar. But it’s hard to say whether building up photovoltaic energy production, which accounts for about 10% of the German energy mix today, can make up for the lagging wind development. Germany, after all, isn’t one of the world’s sunnier countries.
Without technological breakthroughs — for example, in energy storage, which would make fewer new turbines necessary — Germany, and then other countries that try to build up renewable energy generation as it has done, will be hard put to push production to the level required to reach climate goals. In renewable energy, competition from fossil fuels isn’t the only problem: Local politics may be an even higher hurdle.
Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist.