„The energy transition has stalled“

Picture above: Jens Heidorn inspecting the windpark in Hamburg-Neuengamme. Credit: C. Schrader

Hamburg, September 10, 2019

Although Hamburg with its 1,8 million people is the metropolis of Germany’s north it has a rather rural part in the southeast. The region of the “Vier- and Marschlande” is made up of farms, fields and pastures, and many windmills spin above crops and cows. One of the wind farms is operated by Jens Heidorn and his partner at the company Net-OHG, who have been in business for 28 years. It is situated in the immediate vicinity of the Neuengamme concentration camp memorial site. A conversation below the windmills about how a long-time operator sees the current crisis of his industry, about lawyers switching sides and other birds of prey.

Interview by Chris Schrader/KlimaSocial; Link to extended German version

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CS: There is a German folk song that says: Hiking is the miller’s delight. What is the corresponding activity for wind millers like you today? A leisure time pursuit for when your turbines are churning out profits?

JH: Sorry to correct the folk-lore, but back then the operator of a windmill couldn’t go hiking, he was constantly busy: He had to be wide awake all the time, even at night, and turn the mill into the wind with a long handle. At least before there was the Dutch mill with the wing on top which automatically turns the cap into the wind. As for me, I always have to pay attention to how the political wind is blowing. 

Is it that shifty and erratic?

Well, it comes from a very unfavorable direction at the moment. The expansion of wind energy is faltering; there was a crisis summit on September 5 that did little to change that. Now there is supposed to be a plan in a couple of weeks as to how things should proceed.

What is the problem?

We are currently in the middle of a radical change in the entire payment system. Since the year 2000 every operator could count on a fixed price for his electricity under the Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG, German name is Erneuerbare-Energien-Gesetz), depending on when he had put a plant into operation. Now, one has to take part in auctions and offer a price as small as possible at which one then supplies energy. The plants must be in operation no later than two years after the bid has been accepted.

So: Does that work?

No. We had three rounds of competitive bidding this year, and altogether less than half of the capacity that was supposed to be awarded did get awarded. In the last round, there was the biggest slump: out of 650 megawatts of wind energy capacity were put out to tender, but only 208 megawatts were bid for, not even a third. At the same time, thousands of jobs are being lost in the wind energy sector.

In your opinion, what must happen for wind energy to emerge from the crisis?

As an operator, I’m saying that it’s super important that at least small projects continue to have the opportunity to participate in a fixed-price system. As representatives of the wind energy associations, we have always said that, but Sigmar Gabriel, the minister responsible at the time the reform was drawn up, vehemently rejected it, and so we have the result we can see now. There is an urgent need for correction. 

But this demand was not even on the list of the ten items put forward by the wind energy and environmental groups before the wind summit. Those dealt with additional plots, distance rules and nature conservation.

If small operators and small projects have a chance again, then local citizens can also be given the opportunity to invest in the plants. Then fewer of them will sue against the permits. The way it is now, only the big project developers and energy companies are pushing forward projects and they actually have no interest at all in dealing with local people and allowing them to become stakeholders. It is precisely this switch in the system that has led to a further decline in acceptance. And so the energy transition has stalled.

If two years after a project tender is accepted the unit has to in operation, then the plants from the 2017 rounds should now be connected to the grid. But the number of new wind turbines has fallen from just under 1800 in 2017 to 86 in the first half of 2019. So what else is wrong?

In the first tender rounds 2017 there were errors in the system. After the contract was awarded, so-called citizen energy companies were given four years instead of two to actually implement the projects. And the prices were extremely low. In reality, however, there were big developers behind the successful bids speculating on technology not yet on the market. Not a single one of these projects has been realized to date. It is likely that only a fraction of them will be built at all. 

This means that not only the 2019 tenders but also the 2017 tenders will contribute less, much less than planned to the expected expansion.

And in the meantime, price competition is no longer working out, either: the contracts are almost always awarded at the top prices allowed in the auction. Last time it was 6.2 cents per kilowatt-hour. All bidders in the auctions are well aware that the tenders are undersigned dramatically. Many project planners are currently keeping away from auctions. There are only a few very large ones who participate at all. 

They can pay good lawyers, can’t they? You just mentioned this, apparently after the contract has been awarded there is regular legal action.

By now, almost every second permit is challenged in court. The residents close to the project site have about a year to come forward. And since as an operator you only get two years to finish the project after the contract has been awarded, you run a great risk: Do you start building when the permit is issued? In the worst case, you have spent a lot of money on foundations and road construction and at that moment the complaint lands on your desk. This can lead to the court temporarily suspending construction and causing the whole project to crash. That’s why many developers say to themselves: I’ll be damned if I participate in any auctions with my new projects now.

Did it happen to you and your company, too?

We continued to build our plants despite the ongoing proceedings, always with the sword of Damocles hanging over us that the court might decide otherwise after all. But we were in a special situation and therefore could not wait out the decision. 

A windpark in the southeastern part of Hamburg. On top there are dramatic dark clouds shifting in front of a blue sky, on the bottom there is a field of canola in full yellow bloom. Inbetween four wind turbines are turning. Picture credit: Jens Heidorn/Net-OHG

The windpark in the southeastern part of Hamburg at the time of full canola bloom.
Picture credit: Jens Heidorn/Net-OHG

How did it end? 

In all cases in favor of the licensing authority that was sued. The operator himself is not the charged party at all. But he can ask to be involved by the court and should definitely use that chance. Just to make it clear that he has done his homework. 

And who challenged your projects?

Various local residents, some of whom were supported by citizens‘ initiatives. But it was always the same law firm that has specializes more or less in such lawsuits. It is a company that in the past used to represent the wind energy operators and then suddenly changed sides. A clever move maybe: They were looking for a new field of business and already knew the subject very well. 

Not a pleasant situation. 

Well, you certainly expressed that very kindly. Often it is also not over after the final verdict. People who have had no success with their complaints at court look very closely at whether the requirements of the permit are actually implemented.  

As is their right. Does the conflict between conservation of nature and energy use, i.e. ultimately climate protection, play a major role? Or is it being exaggerated from your point of view?

There are now many limiting and restrictive requirements. A limit on the shadows thrown, for example. Or complaints about the blinking lights at night. That is about protecting people and their interests where there has to be good compromise with those of us and society at large. And yes, there are conflicts between nature conservation and energy use, no question about it. It’s often exaggerated in the press, but it’s to be expected. If you set up such a large facility it certainly has an impact on the fauna and flora and that needs to be investigated. That is what the approval procedures are for. But the priorities are not always right.

What do you mean by that?

The problem, in my view, is that the protection of birds is less concerned with the species than with individual animals. There only has to be a single red kite that settles somewhere and then within a radius of one kilometer there is no more chance to expand wind energy – because of one individual, although it has been proven that the red kite population has increased significantly in recent years despite the growing number of wind turbines.

That the populations are increasing or stabilizing is a point of contention, though. The nature conservation associations deny that, at least for northern Germany. 

Well, that is their interpretation of what the German authority on conservation, the Bundesamt für Naturschutz, reported to the European commission. It talks about stable populations after a rise in numbers until 1990 and a decline until 1996 – none of those trends shows any relation to the expansion of wind energy. Anyway, my impression is that in recent years conservation laws have often been exploited. 

To achieve which purpose? 

There are cases, even here in Hamburg, where people erect aeries on sites where wind turbines are planned. They hope that a specimen of the red kite, the stork or the white-tailed sea-eagle will settle there in order to prevent further expansion. Section 44 of the Federal Nature Conservation Act stipulates a ban on killing. Even if a single individual could be affected that constitutes, from the point of view of some nature conservation organizations, a significantly increased risk of killing. This is the wording of the law, but whether this is already the case if a single individual is threatened somewhere, I seriously doubt. 

Do you have the feeling that many people harbor a fundamental discomfort with wind turbines and then look for arguments? Because they are a disturbing element in the landscape?

Fortunately, it is a vanishing minority that actually sees it that way. A whole series of studies shows that. Indeed, there is a very high level of acceptance for modern wind turbines and also for further expansion. For centuries our landscape has been shaped by people. Modern wind turbines have now become part of this cultured landscape. 

Well, aren’t you a little purpose-optimistic about that?

Even the opponents confirm it. Here in Hamburg, citizens‘ initiatives were founded to protest against repowering, i.e. the exchange of older wind turbines against new, higher ones. The stated reason was that the old wind turbines, which had a maximum overall height of one hundred meters, still fit into the cultural landscape of the region, the Bergedorfer Vier- and Marschlande. But the new ones with 150 meters up to the wingtip allegedly would disrupt every measure of balance in the landscape. But when they were erected, everyone noticed that there is no problem: The large modern facilities rotate much more slowly than the old ones and thus appear less visually dominant in the landscape. At the same time, the old plants, which each produced about one million kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, had been replaced by new ones, which each generate between five and seven million kilowatt-hours. 

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