Merkel's Blackout German Energy Plan Plagued by Lack of Progress



Part 2: Grids: Connection Problems

For centuries, people have been drawn to places with cheap energy. First, they searched for firewood and peat. Later, they built their mill wheels along rivers and streams. When they discovered large coal reserves in the regions along the Ruhr and Saar Rivers, they built the first industrial plants there.

It is a bold step for the federal government to be making the energy supply of the future dependent on offshore wind farms in the North and Baltic Seas. In the coming years, hundreds of wind turbines will be rammed into the sea floor far off the coast. When everything is finished, the offshore wind farms are expected to satisfy one-sixth of Germany's electricity needs.

Unfortunately, the electricity is not needed as urgently along the thinly populated coast, but rather in the distant southern states of Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria. The two states have large populations and industry, as well as a number of nuclear power plants scheduled to be shut down soon. For this reason, the federal government's decision to expedite the expansion of offshore wind power means that new power lines will have to be built, at a cost of €20 billion to €37 billion -- the most expensive infrastructure project since German reunification.

A master plan already exists. It can be found on a wooden shelf in room H 5015 at the Federal Network Agency in Bonn, and it consists of six ring binders and a large number of accompanying folders. All of the power masts and corridors that are to be expanded or newly built in the next 10 years are marked on foldout maps.

The problem is that the southern states are not particularly excited about receiving electricity from the wind farms in northern Germany. Bavarian Governor Seehofer talks about self-sufficiency and investing billions in the regional energy supply, including solar, hydroelectric and biofuel plants. Even Russian energy conglomerate Gazprom is being considered as a possible partner in the development of what Seehofer calls a "Bavaria plant."

Owing to such remarks, RWE and the other large electric utilities now believe that the first north-south lines may not even be needed anymore when they go into service in a decade. They argue that Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg will not be importing nearly as much electricity as the federal government's expansion plans envision. Indeed, one of Germany's biggest infrastructure projects could become one of its biggest "bad investments," says Lorenz Jarras, an energy expert at the RheinMain University of Applied Sciences. In other words, the carefully devised master plan could prove to be overpriced and inefficient.

Even the Federal Network Agency has its doubts. In one report, the agency concludes that smaller, decentralized plants will generate far more energy than large power plants in the future.

In an expert opinion, the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) suggests that more thought should be given to the connection of offshore wind farms to the onshore power grid. The report recommends more effective coordination between government planners in the north and the south. Instead, says Jarras, "anything that generates electricity is being connected without regard for the economic costs."

In fact, Germans are even expected to pay for connecting offshore wind farms that aren't producing any electricity. To make investing in these projects more attractive, the federal government has issued new liability rules. If there are delays in connecting a wind farm to the grid -- for example, owing to a lack of cables for use in deep waters -- electricity consumers will now be footing the bill instead of the companies. The costs of such delays are already estimated at about €1 billion. Sources in the government say that weather-related issues are expected to cause more problems this winter.

Wind : Resisting Change

Richard Lübsen, 69, a farmer from Wangerland in northern Germany's Friesland region, has long believed in the power of nature. In 1993, Lübsen had a wind turbine erected next to his farm. The 500-kilowatt, 54-meter (177-foot) turbine attracted a lot of attention, and on the day it went into operation, Lübsen served sausages and sauerkraut to curious onlookers.

The investment has paid off for Lübsen. The money he made by selling electricity at highly subsidized rates helped him survive a mad cow disease crisis. "It's a good feeling to look out the window in the morning and see the rotor turning and hear it humming," he says. Not surprisingly, many of his neighbors have followed suit and installed their own turbines.

But now the pioneers of the energy revolution are standing in the way of progress. Wangerland Mayor Harald Hinrichs would like to build a new wind farm with significantly more powerful turbines. The proposed project would produce at least two-and-a-half times as much electricity as the turbines in place today.

But the condition is that the old turbines have to be dismantled first, a process known in the industry as "repowering." The goal is to install the most efficient wind turbines available in the best locations for wind power, which makes sense. The costs are comparatively low, and the adverse effects on the landscape would not be excessive, even though the new wind turbines would be taller.

But a few owners of old turbines in Wangerland are refusing to cooperate because the old turbines are profitable and have already been paid for. This makes Lübsen and his neighbors skeptical, even though they would receive a bonus for installing a new turbine. "It's very difficult to reconcile the interests of the owners of the old turbines, the landowners, the local residents and us," says Mayor Hinrichs, referring to the local government. The mood is toxic in the village, with some residents only communicating with each other through their attorneys.

Marcel Raschke, a lawyer with Repowering InfoBörse, a Hanover-based information exchange on upgrading wind turbines based, can name many other examples. He provides advice on behalf of the German Association of Towns and Municipalities and the federal government, a challenging task. "Unfortunately, repowering is much more costly and tedious than building new facilities on undeveloped land," he says.

The planning process isn't made any easier by the fact that Environment Minister Altmaier is responsible for the wind turbines while the turbine sites themselves are the responsibility of Ramsauer, the minister of transport, building and urban development. As a result, the most cost-effective and efficient way to produce green energy is making no headway. According to a survey by the consulting firm Deutsche Windguard, some 13,750 old wind turbines in Germany are candidates for repowering. In the first six months of this year, all of 15 were replaced with 10 new ones.

Efficiency: Ignored and Delayed

When EU Commissioner Oettinger gets upset, he tends to speak so quickly that he swallows syllables. On a morning a few weeks ago, he was eliminating entire words when the attendees at a convention heard him sputtering things like "nothing but people getting on their soapboxes," "constant opposition" and "rarely seen anything like it."

Oettinger is upset about how much energy is wasted in Germany, especially in buildings. Under an EU directive, member states are supposed to renovate 3 percent of their public buildings a year. But Germany isn't playing along, as states and municipalities are balking at the expenses. They are important players, as they own thousands of buildings and residential units.

The sad truth is that Germany spends billions on wind turbines and solar panels, only to see a significant portion of the energy lost through poorly insulated windows.

The roughly 18 million residential buildings in Germany represent a substantial potential for energy conservation. About 70 percent of these structures were built before 1979, that is, before Germany's first ordinance on thermal insulation came into effect. Most of these buildings lack insulation in outside walls, floors and ceilings. If they were retrofitted, their energy consumption could be reduced by two thirds, estimates the Munich-based Research Institute for Thermal Insulation (FIW).

This is precisely how much Deutsche Bank has been saving since it renovated both towers of its headquarters building in Frankfurt. The renovation cost about €200 million, and now the façade is triple-paned, a solar heating system generates hot water for heating purposes, and a computer controls the lighting.

The latest amendment to the German Energy Savings Regulation (EnEV) of 2007 shows how little attention politicians pay to efficiency. The amendment merely includes a minor tightening of requirements for new construction. A draft bill that would allow house and apartment owners to deduct the costs of renovating old buildings from their taxes has been held up for the last year in the Mediation Committee, which acts as an intermediary between the Bundestag, the lower chamber of Germany's parliament, and the Bundesrat, the upper chamber representing the interests of the states. Fearing the loss of tax revenues, the states have blocked the bill.

Energy Commissioner Oettinger argues that the lost revenue would be more than offset by the additional revenues for state governments generated by the work involved in renovating old buildings. For Oettinger, a member of the center-right CDU, the quarrel over the issue between the Bundestag and the Bundesrat is "almost embarrassing."

Discuss this issue with other readers!
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Inglenda2 10/11/2012
1. Blackout or Blackmail?
It is strange to observe in the production of electricity, how the free energies of water, wind and sun, becomes more expensive than complicated gas, coal and atomic processes, when placed in the hands of politicians. Once again we must fear, that this is another new tax, brought in by the backdoor, in co-operation with lobbyists, to comply with the unwarranted coercion by the power industry.
florianbamberg 11/17/2012
2. Nuclear Imports
Another questionable point of the German Energiewende is the fact that we now import nuclear energy - so we basically exported the risk. Just blogged on that, always happy about debate and feedback:
powermeerkat 11/20/2012
3. Thank you, Angela! - KGB gen. Putin
Merkel, trying to increase her popularity has not only made Germany even more vulnerable to Putin's and is GAZPZROM's blackmail but also made it into a even greater C02 producer. Can any German posters explain it away?
florianbamberg 12/15/2012
4. The Offshore Problem
Part of the trouble is getting the offshore power ramped up. I analyzed that aspect of the problem in my blog, looking forward to some debates:
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