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Turbulent politics: How wind energy became a divisive issue in Germany

Wind power is a key pillar in Germany's ambitious renewables transition plan, but the sector has struck strong resistance, forcing the Chancellor Angela Merkel's government to open talks on the crisis.

Turbulent politics: How wind energy became a divisive issue in Germany
Wind turbines in Nauen, Brandenburg. Photo: DPA

After years of breakneck growth in capacity and uptake that has seen wind power delivering a fifth of Germany's total energy production, vocal “not-in-my-backyard” opposition by residents and a lack of government support have seen investments shrink in the sector.

More than 600 citizen initiatives have sprung up against the giant installations, with a district called Saale-Orla even offering €2,000 to anyone taking action to get expert opinions opposing wind farms.

The far-right AfD party, branding itself as the climate-sceptic outfit, had seized on the topic during state elections in Brandenburg, saying it stands by residents steamrollered by wind energy corporations.

Against the backdrop of bitter division, expansion in Germany's wind power production capacity plunged in 2018 to half that in 2017 as companies struggled to obtain permission to build.

And only a few dozen new turbines were installed since the beginning of this year, down 82 percent from a year ago, said Germany's Wind Energy Association (BWE).

And repeatedly every quarter, official tenders for electricity production have returned undersubscribed — a “worrying” trend, said the Federal Network Agency.

“With regard to the expansion of onshore wind power, Germany has moved from the fast to the breakdown lane,” said Achim Derck, president of the German Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (DIHK).

For BWE president Hermann Albers, the implication is clear – “this development calls into question the success of Germany's energy transition.”

READ ALSO: Brandenburg elections: In east German rust belt, economic fears boost far-right

Ending subsidies

Market players said the tipping point came in 2016 when Germany amended its Renewable Energy Act.

After almost two decades of providing subsidies to prop up the nascent sector, Chancellor Angela Merkel's government decided that the industry was now sufficiently mature and began withdrawing support.

With obtaining building permits often taking years thanks to stubborn local opposition, projects took even longer to recoup costs, also shifting the calculation by firms whether to invest.

A sign saying 'no' to wind power in the Bavarian Forest region. Photo: DPA

In the months following the 2016 amendment, the wind power sector shed 26,000 jobs in Germany, more than in the dwindling coal industry, according to figures provided by the Bundestag, Germany's lower parliament.

“We have sounded the alarm, but why the German government has chosen to go down this path remains a mystery to this day,” said BWE head Albers, who feels that Berlin had put too much “emphasis on costs” in the transition to green energy.

'Tip of the iceberg'

But the crisis in the sector has now shot back up to the top of the political agenda as youths took on the climate emergency with their vocal Fridays for Future protests, fuelling support for the Green party.

In order to meet the government's target of sourcing 65 percent of Germany's energy from renewables by 2030, the proportion of wind power will have to grow from around 20 percent currently to replace coal, which still makes up close to a quarter of the mix.

READ ALSO: 'We are heading up': Why the Green party is gaining support in eastern Germany

Ahead of a broader government announcement on September 20th on its climate strategy, Economy Minister Peter Altmaier (CDU) will host crisis talks on Thursday in Berlin with key players in the wind energy sector.

With 5,000 first generation wind turbines also up for renovation, the stakes are high.

For some however, the political attention has come too late.

“We've been asking for help for months. I don't think the government understands that it is destroying an economic ecosystem that is a source of cutting-edge engineering and innovation, that has taken time to create and has made Germany famous,” Yves Rannou, head of the German wind turbine manufacturer Senvion, told AFP.

The company said last week that it is closing down, as its German revenues, which once represented 60 percent of its revenues, have shrunk to just 20 percent.

“We are only the tip of the iceberg, the first to get down on our knees, but not the last,” Rannou warned.

By Daphne Rosseau

Member comments

  1. Lots of questions and problems raised, but few answers. Here’s some:

    1) What do those people who forced Merkel to shut down German nuclear power now say? They have a big responsibility to provide answers.
    2) When is Germany’s massive dependence on burning coal going to be eliminated?
    3) What precisely IS the objection to wind power? The article doesn’t explain. Is it the appearance of the turbines? If so, then objectors should be asked “Do you actually want to be able to turn your kettle on in the morning? If so then either offer alternatives or shut up. One of the advantages of wind turbines is that they are relatively quickly dismantled if/when another form of clean energy comes along, as it surely will. They are actually the most transient of objects. Just imagine having to dismantle a nuclear power station!

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ENERGY

EXPLAINED: How much will Germany’s gas levy cost you?

On Monday, gas operators in Germany announced an additional charge of 2.419 cents per kilowatt hour which will come into force in October. Here’s what you need to know.

EXPLAINED: How much will Germany’s gas levy cost you?

What’s going on?

Households in Germany will face significantly higher gas prices this autumn and winter.

The gas transmission system operator, Trading Hub Europe, announced on Monday that German gas suppliers will be allowed to add 2.419 cents per kilowatt hour to the price of gas from October onwards, to help them cope with hugely increased procurement costs. 

The surcharge is aimed at sharing out the soaring costs borne by energy importers after Russia drastically decreased gas supplies to Germany after the invasion of Ukraine.

Gas importers have so far taken on the additional costs themselves, but a new rule agreed by the government allows them to pass on ballooning costs via the levy to households from October 1st.

How much more are you likely to pay for gas?

For an average family house of 160 square metres, which uses 23,000 kilowatt hours per year, this surcharge would amount to around an extra €556.

Those who live in an apartment of 85 square metres, which uses an average of 12,000 kilowatt hours per year, will be likely to pay an extra €290 annually.

Those living in an apartment of 50 square metres are likely to pay an extra €121 to €169 per year.

The levy will primarily affect property owners with gas heating, as well as tenants living in households that have floor heating and their own gas contracts.

What is not yet clear, however, is how households in Germany supplied with Fernwärme (district heating) will be affected by the levy. 

A gas bill in front of a meter, which reads: “your gas bill in detail”. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Bernd Weißbrod

In many places, this type of energy supply comes from gas-fired power plants and operators of such power plants are supposed to pay the surcharge.

So far operators have no legal means of passing on these costs to their customers, but the German government wants to look into this issue, so this is likely to change. 

Will VAT be charged on the levy?

The German government wants to waive the value-added tax on gas, but it needs permission from the EU to do so. Finance Minister Christian Lindner (FDP) wrote to the Commission on Friday asking for an exception to EU law to be granted so that Germany does not have to charge VAT on the state gas levy.

READ ALSO: Germany pledges inflation relief tax package worth €10 billion

In a letter to Finance Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni, the FDP politician wrote: “VAT on state-imposed levies drives up prices and meets with increasing resistance from the population, especially in the current, exceptional situation.”

It is not yet clear how the Commission is likely to respond to this request.

Haven’t gas prices already increased?

Yes. Numerous gas suppliers have already increased their prices more than once throughout the course of the year.

Most recently, suppliers such as Rheinenergie, Wuppertaler Stadtwerke and Energieversorgung Oberhausen announced significant rate increases. “There is a major wave of price increases,” says energy expert Udo Sieverding from the consumer centre of North Rhine-Westphalia.

In the case of Rheinenergie, for example, an average household, with 15,000 to 20,000 kilowatt hours of annual consumption, is already paying just under €2,000 in additional annual costs after the latest round of price hikes, even before the levy.

Will there be government help for consumers?

Economics Minister Robert Habeck (Greens) announced that the third relief package from the German government will be in place by the start of the levy on October 1st. The traffic light coalition has also agreed on a reform of the housing allowance and is planning a permanent heating allowance for low-income households.

In addition, the new ‘citizen’s allowance’ – a replacement of the current unemployment benefits system – is due to come into effect next year, and promises higher standard rates for the unemployed. 

READ ALSO: Bürgergeld: What to know about Germany’s unemployment benefits shake-up

At the beginning of September, Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) will meet with social partners and other experts as part of a concerted action to discuss relief measures. The main focus will be on supporting lower-income groups that are hit hardest by high energy costs.

The SPD and welfare associations are proposing, for example, monthly direct payments to recipients of basic security and housing allowances and a price cap for a basic quantity of gas is also being discussed.

Economics Minister Robert Habeck explained: “Especially for those who don’t have much, it’s a heavy burden that is impossible or difficult to bear.” 

On Monday, Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) tried to reassure people via Twitter that the government would help balance out the extra costs. 

In the tweet, he said, “we won’t leave anyone alone with the higher costs”. At the same time, Scholz admitted: “It’s getting more expensive – there’s no beating around the bush. Energy prices continue to rise.” So far, he said, government aid of more than €30 billion has already been agreed upon. 

READ ALSO: Germany’s Scholz pledges more relief for lowest earners

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