Germany's cheap onshore wind plans under threat

GERMANY: Alarm bells are ringing in the German wind sector after documents published alongside the government's draft national energy plan to 2050 revealed that onshore wind development could be halted by 2016.

Anti nuclear activists protest German government's u-turn on nuclear phase-out plans
Anti nuclear activists protest German government's u-turn on nuclear phase-out plans

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What Chancellor Angela Merkel has described as a revolution in energy policy is deemed a counter-revolution by Green member of parliament and energy expert Hans-Josef Fell. "The old ways are to be preserved, and new advances to be blocked and monopolised by the old powers," he warns.

The nub of the matter is the reversal of the 2002 nuclear phase-out law, which would have closed the last nuclear reactor in Germany around 2023. Controversy over the issue has led to major antinuclear demonstrations, similar to the protests of the 1980s and 1990s.

Nuclear bridge

Much of the public is unconvinced that a "nuclear bridge" is necessary to smooth the expansion of renewables, as the conservative-liberal coalition government claims, fearing that the owners of the 20.4GW of nuclear capacity will reap in windfall profits and consolidate their oligopolistic control of power generation in Germany for years to come.

On the face of it, efforts to promote wind energy set out in the draft energy plan look encouraging, with emphasis on planning, transmission network expansion, and integrating wind and renewable electricity into the market. But expert scenarios used to back up the plan show that extending nuclear reactor lifetimes by an average of 12 years could halt cheap onshore wind development.

By mid-2010, Germany's wind energy fleet, almost entirely onshore, stood at 26GW. Among the expert energy scenarios drawn up for the government, the outlook for a 12-year nuclear reactor extension sees onshore wind energy capacity increasing by just 7GW to 33.3GW in 2020, or 700MW/year, followed by an even more meagre expansion of 3.1GW to 36.4GW in 2050.

But over the last five years, average annual growth in German onshore wind energy installations has been 1.9GW. If this growth continued, onshore wind would reach the 2020 target of 33GW by 2014 and the 2050 target by 2016. After that, onshore wind development, which mainly involves small wind developer companies, would come to a virtual standstill.

But, the scenarios for more costly offshore wind development by large energy firms envisage 10.1GW in 2020, or an average growth of 1GW a year. This rises to 28.3GW to 2050.

The draft energy plan foresees a EUR5 billion support programme from 2011 by the state-owned KfW development bank, providing loans for the first ten offshore stations. E.on, RWE, EnBW and Vattenfall Europe, the companies profiting from nuclear plant extensions, would be among the beneficiaries. But they may choose not to develop offshore wind stations if this interferes with the optimal running of their nuclear plants.

Renewables prevention

Government assurances that nuclear lifetime extensions will smooth the way to reliance on renewable energy sources are being questioned. "Extending lifetimes of existing nuclear power stations creates massive incentives for the operators to use their political and economic influence to stall, if not prevent, the expansion of renewable energies for as long as possible," says Olav Hohmeyer, professor at Flensburg University.

There has been added outcry over a government deal that sees the cost to protect German nuclear power stations against aircraft crash and terrorist attack being taken from a renewable energies fund. If the added measures required due to the longer lifetime of a nuclear plant exceeds EUR500 million per plant, the reactor owners will pay less or nothing into a new fund for renewables, energy efficiency, energy storage technologies and cogeneration.

This fund plus a nuclear fuel tax are supposed to cream off some of the windfall profits accruing to the nuclear operators through the longer running times of their plants. But politicians will have to choose between insisting on investment in safety domes for the eight oldest reactors, at around EUR1 billion apiece, or funds to push on the transformation of Germany's energy sector to the renewable energy era. Critics have slammed this as a politically immoral choice, since nuclear reactor safety is paramount and must be independent of all other issues.

Details of the deal were unwittingly revealed by RWE energy manager Rolf Martin Schmitz in answer to a question by a member of environmental organisation Greenpeace at an energy conference. Ironically, expected payments into the fund will hardly be significant, averaging EUR233 million a year. A recent study estimated that this year's renewables spend would total some EUR13.5 billion, rising to EUR15.9 billion next year.

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