Renewables policy in state of flux

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Seventeen wind turbines were installed in Austria in 1997, adding 8.5 MW of capacity and bringing the total to 20.3 MW supplied by 52 turbines. The main boost to Austria's wind fortunes came from two projects in the autumn -- a group of five Vestas 600 kW units at Oberstrahlbach, Lower Austria, and a wind farm of six Enercon 500 kW turbines at Zurndorf.

Despite the activity, however, wind's future in Austria is more uncertain than ever. An agreement on supporting renewables, signed between the economy ministry and utilitiy association, Verband der Elektrizitätswerke Österreichs (VEÖ) last July, was unceremoniously scrapped in January. Few tears have been shed by the wind lobby, though, which described the deal at its inception as "a renewables support plan which gives no support."

The plan would have reduced an already low renewable tariff -- and an accompanying "support fund" was just too small, says the Austrian wind association, Interessen Gemeinschaft Windenergie (IGW). Capital subsidies of 65-70% would have been needed per turbine to make up for the low tariff, but the funds available -- under a competitive bidding system for plant up to 2 MW -- would only have paid for about seven turbines a year, says IGW.

The short lived agreement apparently fell apart when the economy ministry saw it as an opportunity for gaining control of electricity pricing from Austria's Länder, or states, explains Hans Winkelmeier of Energiewerkstatt, a planning and engineering office for renewables in Friedburg. "The economy minister tried to side-step a possible collision on renewable policy with the Länder governments by declaring its intention to take legal measures to ensure renewable tariffs became its responsibility," says Winkelmeier. After heavy lobbying by a new federal association for renewables, the Bundesverband Erneuerbare Energie, the deal fell apart: the Austrian environment ministry refused to sign the agreement, the Länder voted it down, and the economy ministry simply capitulated.

The scrapped agreement would have replaced legislation, which expired in 1996, under which utilities, for a period of three years, are obliged to buy renewable energy at double the rates for electricity from conventional sources -- resulting in a renewable energy feed-in tariff (REFIT) averaging ATS 1.26/kWh. After three years, the tariff reverts to a basic avoided cost rate of about ATS 0.63/kWh, which would have dropped to ATS 0.53/kWh under the scrapped deal. Winkelmeier says that at good sites, such as Nordburgenland, Marchfeld and Weinviertel, 600 kW turbines need ATS 1.3/kWh to operate economically.

The political outlook is hazy, but rays of sunshine are faintly visible. Vienna has hinted at making ATS 12 million available for wind from its share of the "climate-billion" electricity tax, a tariff raising nearly ATS 1 billion a year. Upper Austria, meantime, is close to a government decree on renewables: officials there seem to favour extending the ATS 1.26/kWh REFIT to 15 years. "Decisions from other Länder are still up in the air," says Winkelmeier.

On the strength of this possible good news, some 15 to 20 turbines are slated to be installed this year, he continues. "Ten look certain -- five Enercon and five Vestas are due to be installed in lower Austria." A Micon 1800 looks firm for upper Austria and elsewhere a Bonus 300 kW and Lagerwey 750 kW seem very likely, he adds.

What is more, in the belief that political will in Austria is such that the three year REFIT will be extended in some form, over 90 wind turbines, some 84 MW, are planned, mainly in lower Austria. Whether they get built or not will depend on the outcome of the political manoeuvring now under way.

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