Amendments to the strict Building Statute Book favouring wind power are promised by the new German government. Under the existing laws a turbine in non-built-up areas is subject to the same planning law restrictions as commercial or industrial plants. A recent court ruling insisted that a narrow definition of the law also be applied to single wind turbines. Prior to the ruling, local governments were able to develop their own guidelines, leaving the way open for appeal.

The installation of single turbines over 100 kW in non-built up areas has become well-nigh impossible in Germany. A recent court case aimed at clarifying whether wind turbines have the same privileged status in green field sites as "conventional " power stations backfired badly. In a judgement handed down by the Berlin Federal Administrative Court an extremely restrictive definition of German building law has been applied to wind turbines. As a result, potential developers of single turbines are now in a worse position than when the interpretation of the law was hazy and thus more flexible.

But help seems to be at hand. Federal Social Democrat Members of Parliament (MPs) in Bonn have vowed with an overwhelming majority to begin a new initiative to amend the building law in favour of wind turbines. Not to be outdone, MPs from the Christian Democrat led coalition government, now returned to office following Germany's general election on October 16, intend doing the same. The aim is to have some action before the end of the year.

Working groups from the governments of Schleswig Holstein and Lower Saxony, where most of Germany's good wind sites are found, as well as the country's wind energy association, DGW, will present suggestions for the wording of the amendment. The DGW says it will make a point of approaching local and regional governments which have a declared aversion to wind energy to find out exactly where the bottom line runs. In this way they hope to rally acceptance for wind energy and make good the damage done over past months, bringing potential single turbine operators back into the wind energy arena.

The issue of whether wind turbines have special privilege in planning law or not came to a head when a farmer claimed to the Federal Administrative Court that a 280 kW turbine he was planning on the island of Föhr should have the same special status as all other "conventional" power stations. The turbine would have fed 80% of its output to the grid and the remainder would have served the farm. The court ruled that according to the Building Statute Book, "A wind turbine from which one-fifth of the electricity serves an agricultural operation and four-fifths the public network cannot be privileged." According to the letter of the law, a project planned for a green field site can only be privileged when most of its production is used by an agricultural holding. This effectively limits the size of wind turbines on such sites to just 50-80 kW, depending on the level of power consumption.

The court also swept away the argument that wind turbines should have the same privilege as other power plant. Although accepting that a wind turbine is a power plant, the court referred to a 1977 judgement which ruled that electricity generating plant are subject to the same planning law restrictions as commercial or industrial plant -- they can only win privileged status when geographical or geological conditions make another site impossible, for example in the case of a gravel or sand quarry. However good the winds at a particular site, ruled the court, another site would have a similar resource. Eventually the Föhr wind turbine proposal was shelved when local authorities ruled that it would "impair the landscape."

Albert von Mutius, a legal expert from Kiel University, says the court's verdict should not have been given more significance than it deserved. But there is no doubt that life has become much more difficult for potential single turbine operators. Joachim Behnke for the German Wind Association says: " It has become practically impossible for people to install single turbines. Such potential operators usually cannot afford the services of professional advisory offices. For these people, the hurdles are now too high. The market for small turbine manufacturers producing machines of 200 kW to 300 kW is seriously threatened."

Before the Berlin court ruling, district governments had long since developed their own guidelines for wind turbines in green field sites. The procedure was also relatively simple -- a local government could simply say yes or no to a project, largely depending on its affinities to wind energy. When the decision was negative, the operator could appeal. But now that wind turbine privilege has been narrowly defined there is minimal room for appeal. Single turbines with rated capacities higher than around 80 kW can only be installed after a building plan or area usage plan has been drawn up and passed by local government. In some cases, one application for one turbine could necessitate such a plan. The procedure requires both time and money and the costs are likely to be passed on to the applicant.

Solution barred

The status quo could have been regained by an amendment to the Building Statute Book clearly stating that renewable energy plants have privileged status in green fields sites. But even this avenue of escape was blocked by a peculiar twist of Murphy's law. Earlier in the year the wind lobby was on the point of pushing through just such an amendment when it was suddenly quashed in the Upper House by the Social Democrat majority. The irony was that while the Social Democratic heads of most of Germany's states were kicking the amendment out in the Upper House, the Social Democrat party at federal level, fighting to overturn the Conservative coalition government in a general election, was pledging its support to wind power.

This parliamentary fiasco was the dismal climax of a laudable initiative begun by the Federal Renewable Energy Association last winter. It had successfully drummed up enough support in parliament to push through an amendment expressly allowing the use of wind turbines in non built up areas. This passed uneventfully through parliament at the end of June, with support from all parties. But opposition unexpectedly flared, ignited in North Friesland. From there it quickly spread through other district governments, fed by the fear that the amendment would lead to a "wild growth in wind turbines."

Supported by a news starved summer media and Schleswig Holstein's Social Democrat energy minister Claus Möller, the opposition succeeded in persuading the parliamentary Upper House to reject the amendment, referring it instead to the parliamentary mediation committee. Renewables associations and politicians sympathetic to wind energy tried to persuade the committee to listen to compromise proposals, but to no avail. The amendment was finally and unanimously rejected. The committee recommended that the issue be studied again when a full review of the Building Statute Book is due -- this could be as late as 1998. It is now up to Members of Parliament to undo the knot they tied in pre-election political bungling apparently brought on by panic.