Policy debate steals the show


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Provision of a wide range of practical information for potential operators of wind plant in inland Germany was the aim of the Renergie Congress, held in Hamm-Westfalia in the state of North Rhine Westfalia from May 26-29. Starting with geographical considerations, the congress moved steadily through the major aspects of wind energy development, including choice of location and turbine, the battle through the undergrowth of licensing procedures, grid connection issues, financing, and last but not least the practical experience of current operators.

But it was wind energy politics which sparked the most heated discussions of the congress. The North Rhine Westfalian (NRW) government came under steady fire over the structure of its revived REN programme of support for renewables. The state's investment support has been limited to wind projects costing no more than DEM 1 million. This effectively puts a stop to the use of large state-of-the-art wind technology in the 500-600 kW size range. Good wind sites will be wasted by smaller turbines, argued the programme's critics. Siegfried Borchers from NRW's Mining Office, which administrates the programme, tried to defend the state government's decision. He said that as a result of the subsidy ceiling, one manufacturer had cut its prices to fall within the DEM 1 million limit. But his argument was shot down by others, who pointed out that a forced cut in prices at this stage of the industry's development was bound to lead to a drop in quality, a trap which the young wind industry cannot afford to fall into.

The critics were also disappointed that the promised cheap loans programme for financing larger plant has not been introduced at the same time as the renewal of the REN programme. Borchers explained that this programme has been delayed until the state budget for 1995 has been drawn up. The government is still involved in talks with the NRW Investment Bank, a subsidiary of the West LB Bank, over what funds can be made available. It appears that a statement should be made in the autumn over a cheap credit programme, where up to 50% of investment costs may be borrowed at low interest rates. This will enable the NRW government to steer the development of renewables through the rate of interest on credit from the Investment Bank.

Podium provocation

The congress was rounded off with a lively podium discussion. Uwe Carstensen, chairman of the German wind energy association, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Windenergie, set the ball rolling with two provocative questions: first, he asked whether German industry would really suffer if it had to pay the full cost of electricity generated by renewables for a limited period of about five years; second, and mainly addressing the representative from major utility RWE-Energie, he wanted to know the significance of the utilities' advertising slogan "A lot of wind about very little electricity?" which has appeared in the German press.

Representatives from the NRW Economy Ministry, the Green party and the (Liberal) FDP party were present as well as members of the German Farmers Union, now a major partner for the renewables associations. But despite their desire to talk politics, the discussion soon centred on utility issues, with RWE Energie's Karl Wilhelm Otto fielding questions from all directions. On increasing the payment for renewables to reflect their true cost of generation, Otto acknowledged that an industrial nation like Germany would not collapse at the knees if asked to do so. But he cautioned: "We would create a zoo, an artificial market in Germany." This elicited a rumble of ironic laughter. All electricity prices charged by German utilities to households and small commercial customers are designed to cover generation costs and are licensed by the state Price Supervisory Authorities -- these prices presumably include the massive sums received by the German hard coal industry, some DEM 10 billion in direct and indirect subsidies each year. So by this criterion, the whole of Germany could be considered a zoo.

Commenting on the advertising slogan, Otto admitted it was "washing powder advertising and does not conform with the RWE-Energie view." He added: "We are wiser now." RWE Energie has since become actively involved in wind power, installing 300 kW and 1.2 MW vertical axis machines in NRW. It is also planning a 17 MW wind station with a Spanish utility in northern Spain where wind speeds average 9.5m/s. This wind station will eventually be expanded to 40 MW if all goes well.

The lingering impression at the end of the discussion was that the renewables lobby has mixed feelings about the major electricity utilities. The utilities are attacked for not doing enough for renewables and for blocking their development. On the other hand, a remark by Otto jolted the audience into awareness of what the utility could do if it wants to. Otto simply said that RWE Energie subsidiary, Nukem, is working with Deutsche Aerospace on the development of solar energy systems, an area which has so far received very little attention, but which is vital to the widespread use of solar power. Suddenly it became clear that should the major utilities decide to wade into renewables development, the entire amount of wind capacity now being installed by the private sector could come out of their petty cash -- with or without support programmes.

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