The future of wind energy

Expansion targets in Germany

The future of wind energy directly affects Germany's future. The use of renewable energies will play a key role in achieving the country's climate targets and phasing out coal. We outline the Federal Republic's goals for wind power and the prospects that arise from them.

Wind power, especially on land, is currently the leading energy source in Germany, comprising 23.1% of electricity generation in 2021 (Fraunhofer ISE 2022). Wind power plants must be further expanded if electricity production is to become completely climate-neutral in accordance with climate targets. Learn here about Germany's expansion targets and how they are to be – and can be – achieved.

Achieving climate targets – with wind energy

To mitigate climate change and combat the consequences of the greenhouse effect, Germany – along with numerous other nations – has established ambitious targets. The German Climate Protection Act, which was made more stringent in 2021, mandates that our country attain full climate neutrality by 2045. Thus, by 2030, greenhouse gas emissions are to be cut by 65% compared to 1990 levels.

The energy industry is still responsible for the largest share, and accounted for about 30% of greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 (Federal Environment Agency 2022). But there are also positive developments: the share of renewable energies in electricity generation has risen fairly steadily in recent years, and reached 45.7% in 2021. To achieve the targets of the German Climate Protection Law, this figure must continue to rise in line with the energy turnaround.

Infografik zur Struktur der deutschen Stromerzeugung BDEW; ZSW; AGEB; Statistisches Bundesamt; ID 171368
Share of renewable energies in gross electricity generation in Germany in 2020 and 2021
Wind energy offers great potential. As Germany's most important energy source, it already has a leading position and generated more than half (52.8%) of the electricity from renewable energies in 2020. This meant an estimated 100 million tonnes of CO2 were saved (BMWI 2021). This is due in no small part to the efficient operation of wind turbines and their short payback period for generating the energy needed for production and installation. As a key part of its climate targets, Germany has therefore established specific expansion targets for the addition of wind turbines.

Expansion targets: Offshore wind energy

Wind energy at sea was an important factor in the initial phase of wind power utilisation in particular, as the wind blows more steadily and strongly at sea. As the consortium leader, EWE commissioned the first German offshore wind farm, alpha ventus, in 2010, and played a key role in driving the expansion of offshore wind energy in the years that followed. By 2020, 10.9% of electricity from renewable energies in Germany was generated by offshore wind farms. These comprised a total output of 7.7 gigawatts (GW), which produced 27,306 gigawatt-hours (GWh) of electricity in 2020.

In order to increase these figures, the government set new expansion targets in an amendment to the Offshore Wind Energy Act (WindSeeG) in late 2020. By 2030, offshore wind power plants will have a total capacity of 20 gigawatts, and as much as 40 gigawatts by 2040.

This is to be achieved through an expansion of tender volumes and a simultaneous expansion of the power grid. High-capacity connection lines are needed to bring the electricity from the offshore wind farms to shore. This, in addition to the higher costs and expenditures for the construction of offshore plants, is another reason why the use of onshore wind is now even more important.


Expansion targets: Onshore wind energy

The high degree of efficiency of offshore wind energy makes it a mainstay of the energy transition

Onshore wind energy currently generates four times as much electricity in Germany as offshore facilities: in 2020 it accounted for 41.9%. Although wind onshore is less strong and constant, the construction of the plants and the feeding of the generated electricity into the grid are much cheaper and easier.

At the end of 2020, onshore wind energy plants in Germany had an impressive capacity of around 54.42 gigawatts, which generated 104,796 gigawatt hours of electricity that year. EWE is involved in 2,300 megawatts of capacity nationwide, with numerous onshore wind farms and citizen participation projects.

More power plants are needed if we are to achieve the climate targets, accomplish the energy transition, and reliably increase the current share of wind energy in electricity generation of 23% in 2021. It's worth bearing in mind that renewable energies like wind energy do not consistently bring the same returns year on year. At 23%, 2021 was a rather below-average year, whereas in 2020 the share of wind energy was above average at 27%.

In the Renewable Energy Act (EEG), the German government set specific expansion targets for 2021: 71 gigawatts of onshore wind energy are to be installed by 2030. With existing capacity of 54 gigawatts and the expected dismantling of outdated wind turbines, this would correspond to an annual increase of 4 to 7 gigawatts.


Headwinds: What is delaying the expansion of wind energy?

Distance and height regulations

Use of airspace and protection of species

Licensing procedures and lawsuits

Headwinds: What is delaying the expansion of wind energy?

The attractiveness of wind energy and the ambitious political goals for rapid expansion are not reflected in the speed at which new capacity is being added. In 2019, a new onshore low was reached with the addition of around 0.86 gigawatts, which was also only slightly exceeded in 2020 with 1.227 gigawatts – far from the necessary annual expansion of between 4 and 7 gigawatts. If this slow rate of expansion continues, the goal of climate neutrality can no longer be achieved in the next 20 years. But what is slowing down the pace of expansion? This headwind is based on a variety of factors, including species protection and lawsuits by citizen initiatives.

To achieve the expansion targets, use of a total land area of 0.8% is planned in Germany. However, due to the current regulations, only 0.52% of the land area is available for this use, according to the Federal Agency for the Environment. To make sure that the necessary expansion can still be achieved in the years to come, administrative burdens for the approval of wind power projects must be reduced and existing regulations must be rethought so that sufficient usable land is made available.

Individual factors are examined in more detail below:

Distance and height regulations

Regulations on the distance of wind turbines and their rotor blades from other objects and from communities can differ from region to region. For example, wind energy plants must not be closer than 15 km to omnidirectional radio range beacons. Bypassing this rule requires an individual decision from the Federal Supervisory Authority for Air Traffic Control.

Further restrictive regulations apply in Bavaria and other places. There, the so-called 10-H rule stipulates that a wind turbine must be at least ten times its height from the nearest village. Since May 2022, the regulation has been relaxed for some exceptions. For example, in designated wind energy areas, the minimum distance to residential areas is now only 1,000 metres. The same applies to forests, along motorways and in industrial areas, for example. This relaxation of the rule enables a significant increase in usable land and ensures an increase in the number of wind turbines.

In Thuringia, the Thuringian Forest Law (Thüringer Waldgesetz) prohibited the use of wind energy in forests. However, the Federal Constitutional Court declared the law void in November 2022.

Use of airspace and protection of species

A number of regions have a restriction against rotor blades extending into neighbouring areas. Due to helicopter air traffic, wind turbines usually cannot be installed near military training areas or close to civilian airports. There are also rules relating to nature and species conservation that can prohibit the construction of wind turbines in breeding zones.

Permits and lawsuits

Projects for new wind turbines planned on available land are frequently subject to a lengthy, multi-stage approval process at federal, state and municipal level. On average, it can take more than four years to obtain approval.

Additionally, these planned projects frequently encounter legal challenges related to distance rules and species protection. These challenges often result in delays that can last several months or years – or in the worst cases, to a complete ban.

Tailwind: How can Germany still achieve its expansion targets?

Despite numerous obstacles, the outlook for wind power remains positive. The expansion targets set by policymakers show a willingness to make significant progress in the expansion of wind energy in this decade. The wind industry is sending out positive signals. With an addition of around 1.93 gigawatts in 2021, there has been an upward trend since the low point two years earlier. The initial round of tenders for new wind turbines in 2022 was also fully allocated, as even more applications were submitted than could be approved. This indicates that facility operators and politicians want to provide a tailwind for wind power.

In late 2021, the Oeko-Institut announced that it would submit a detailed proposal to politicians for a new Onshore Wind Energy Act, which would expedite the approval process and eliminate a number of hurdles.

With the creation of Alterric, EWE established one of the largest green power producers in Europe – a clear signal for the German energy revolution.

Repowering and increased citizen participation provide additional opportunities to advance the expansion of wind energy. "Repowering" refers to the replacement of outdated wind turbines with more powerful new plants. This could lead to the replacement of a significant number of turbines in the next few years and result in increased power output.

To guard against lawsuits and adverse rulings in the planning of new wind power plants, there must be strong buy-in from communities and local residents. If these stakeholders are integrated into the process from the start, they can express their concerns and wishes, and even participate in the implementation and operation of the power plants. This increases acceptance and is a win for all parties involved.

Since 2017, for example, EWE has involved residents in the communities of Hatten and Köhlen in two large regional wind farms. Together with the Alois Wobben Foundation, EWE is also active in Alterric GmbH, which promotes the expansion of renewable energies in close collaboration with local communities, landowners and citizens.

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